(G Dogli Orti/Getty Images. Attic black image on pottery of Greek battle. Unlike the present day, previous civilisations had severe power limitations and even the might of Sparta could make little impression burning and clearing the agricultural hinterland of Athens during the Peloponnesian War).

Background

Section
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
Page
8.2

 

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming under forests, swamps and seas in the Carboniferous or Triassic or Cretaceous, has been tapped, in the last, mere, 150-200 years, to create a world unimaginable in scale and luxury and power.

(Artist and date unknown. Carboniferous Forest. Field Museum, Chicago. Much of the world’s coal was laid down in forests such as this 300 million years ago).

To put matters into perspective, the following graph from Western Oregon University1 compares the daily energy use of people through the ages:

(Western Oregon University. 2014. Historical Perspectives of Energy Consumption. Figure 1. Estimated Daily Consumption of Energy per Capita at Different Historical Points. Adapted from: E. Cook, “The Flow of Energy in an Industrial Society” Scientific American, 1971).

 

‘Primitive man’ refers to people living more than 1 million years ago, without fire. ‘Hunting Man’ had use of fire, and energy consumption increases accordingly, as it does for ‘Primitive Agricultural Man’ with the use of draught animals. ‘Advanced Agricultural Man’ has learnt to harness, to an extent, wind and water, and ‘Industrial Man’ has invented the steam engine and is beginning to access coal in a serious way. ‘Technological Man’ is the modern human with access to the full array of fossil fuels. Technological Man consumes 115 times the energy per person that ‘Primitive Man’ did, and there are now nearly 8 billion of us!

The combined impact of population and technological advancement on energy consumption can be seen in the following graph(ibid.):

(Western Oregon University. 2014. Historical Perspectives of Energy Consumption).

 

(energyskeptic.com. 2013. World oil production and population increase 1900 – 2005)

The graph is for the USA and as can be seen, energy consumption is so small as to be almost unmeasurable up until 1850, and then it takes off. Almost all of this increase comprises fossil fuels (84% of global energy use at present2) and is driven by population increase and demand, and technological advancement, making these fuels accessible and usable. (This is a chicken-and-egg relationship where the one drives, and makes possible, the other, as per graph of oil and population growth since 1900. Hall, et. al.8, suggest that this positive energy ratio (EROI) for modern society has been, and must remain, above 5:1 “to maintain anything like what we call civilization”).

 

( H istclo.com. 2015. Mesopotamian stele of slaves captured in war, probably for later use as farm labour or in battle. Approx. 3,000 B.C.)

 

Before this latest speck of time, the energy to shape the world came mostly from people – often slaves – and wood and draught animals. Even the amazing civilisations of Rome and Egypt ran primarily on slave power and engineering smarts.

Pre-modern people could and did shape the world (see ‘Articles’ 1.1.4), but it was much harder to do so and could be achieved only for relatively small, local, areas and regions. I was very much reminded of this when reading about the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century B.C3. The wars were mostly a protracted stalemate, with Athens having far superior sea power and Sparta far superior land power. At several junctures in the wars, Sparta laid siege to Athens and tried to starve its inhabitants by laying waste to their agricultural lands surrounding the city, but this was a dismal failure because the olive groves and vineyards were so hard to cut down and burn; so much for the might of Sparta!

(G Dogli Orti/Getty Images. Attic black image on pottery of Greek battle. Unlike the present day, previous civilisations had severe power limitations and even the might of Sparta could make little impression on the agricultural hinterland of Athens during the Peloponnesian War).

 

Today we have the power to alter the whole planet, not just because of the volume of fossil fuels we have captured, but also because these fuels are exceptionally ‘energy dense’, so much so that a barrel of oil (159 litres) provides enough power (in watts/hour) for 814 average Serbians, or Brazilians, or Dominican Republicans!4 & 6. See 8.8 this Section.. This said, our use of fossil energy is much less efficient as until now it has been easy and cheap to access. Efficiency in these terms is measured as Energy Return on Energy Invested, often abbreviated to Energy Return on Investment, or EROI8. EROI can be explained as the amount of energy expended to gain more or less energy, i.e. energy in vs. energy out5. Comparing the EROI of human societies throughout history we are much less efficient than we used to be, e.g. Hunter-Gatherer societies functioned at a positive ratio of between 10:1 to 20:1, early agriculture at perhaps 3:1, and modern, fossil-fuel agriculture at a negative ratio of around 1:106. This enormously complex, energy-intensive and energy-wasteful modern process can be represented as follows for the modern, industrial agricultural practices of the USA food system7:

(Bradford, J. 2019. The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification)

 

For every 14.2 Quads of energy expended on the system of food production in the USA, only 1.75 Quads are produced for consumption, and 39% of this food is wasted, never to be consumed! Large-scale outputs are primarily the result of the massive injection of energy, mostly fossil-fuel energy, and this is so for most modern agriculture worldwide.

It is difficult to get a grasp on the meteoric rise in energy consumption and the complexity of modern systems that have arisen in response to the availability of fossil fuels, but thankfully, we have Richard Heinberg again (see 8.1) to assist with a wide-ranging overview of society and power through the ages. Heinberg identifies power as one of the great structuring entities of the world and human societies, and explores not just the more obvious physical and engineering aspects of power, but its expression and influence on evolution, behaviour, psychology, culture, equality, Nature, and more. For a sophisticated, contextual understanding of power and how central it is to us, and not just our environmental concerns, I thoroughly recommend reading ‘Power’5, or if you prefer to receive your information via video or webinar, there are seven video chapter summaries available, and three one-hour webinar discussions; the book, videos and webinars can be purchased here: Buy – Post Carbon Institute Publications .

A good summary of ‘Power’ is provided by the Australian distributor, Booktopia:

 

Power: why giving it up might just save humanity and the planet

This is the story of power – humanity’s power over nature and the power of some people over others.

How has Homo sapiens – one species among millions – become powerful enough to threaten a mass extinction and disrupt the Earth’s climate? Why have we developed so many ways of oppressing one another? Can we change our relationship with power to avert ecological catastrophe, reduce social inequality, and stave off collapse?

These questions – and their answers – will determine our fate.

Weaving together findings from a wide range of disciplines, Power traces how four key elements developed to give humans extraordinary power: tool making ability, language, social complexity, and the ability to harness energy sources, most significantly, fossil fuels. It asks whether we have, at this point, overpowered natural and social systems, and if we have, what we can do about it.

Most crucially, the book explores how self-limitation of power is rooted in evolution and human history, though our memory of it has been buried under a century of fossil-fuel driven economic growth. Now, at this vital moment, we must rapidly relearn the lessons of power if humanity is to have a thriving future.

Essential reading for everyone who calls planet Earth home.”

It would be dishonest to present the unprecedented rise in the capture and use of power in the last 150 years as a problem, only. It has led, too, to a world of unimaginable luxury, comfort and entertainment for many. It is no exaggeration to say that many ‘average’ people today – particularly in the First World – live a better material life than any of the kings and queens of yesteryear. We have almost unfettered access to heating, cooling, clothing, furniture, food, lighting, transport, white goods, entertainment, and more. If viewed by people from the past I think they would imagine they’d stumbled upon some sort of alien race and planet, so unbelievable would be our material wealth, gadgetry, and options. This would be a cause for uninhibited joy if not for the problems this has caused for Nature, for societies in conflict (e.g. at war), for pollution (particularly re greenhouse gases and climate change), and that the resource is finite and is running out. It is to these problems, especially the latter two, that we will turn in 8.3.

(Cunard. 2015. Spa and jacuzzi aboard cruise ship. Almost everything in this image (including the ship) has been made from, made by, or moved by, fossil fuels. The tapping and control of vast quantities of energy has brought previously unimaginable luxury to sectors of the population)

 

1 Western Oregon University. 2014. Historical Perspectives of Energy Consumption. Figure 1. Estimated Daily Consumption of Energy per Capita at Different Historical Points. Adapted from: E. Cook, “The Flow of Energy in an Industrial Society” Scientific American, 1971.

2 British Petroleum. 2021. BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2021. July, 70th edn., London, UK.

3 Kagan, D. 2004. The Peloponnesian War. Penguin, USA.

4 Convert barrels of oil equivalent to kilowatt hours – energy converter (unitjuggler.com)

5 Murphy, T. 2021. Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet. eScholarship/UCA, San Diego, USA.

6 Heinberg, R. 2021. Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, Canada.

7 Bradford, J. 2019. The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification. Post Carbon Institute, Corvallis, USA.

8 Hall, A.S., et. al. 2009. What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have? 2, Jan. 23rd, Energies, MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.

Explore Other Energy Descent and Transition

8.1 Introduction

Rather than start chronologically, examining our extraordinary growth in energy use and the benefits and problems this has entailed, I will start with the present day as the current energy uncertainty and instability throw light on our immediate e...

8.2 Background

  Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming under forests, swamps and seas in the Carboniferous or Tri...

8.3 Problems

Although fossil fuels have been a boon for most of us in one way or another, they have several major problems, not least that that they are finite and highly polluting. Figure 2-1 below portrays world production for one of the fossil fuels – oi...

8.4 Responses: 1. Classical Economics and Business as Usual

Predominantly, this is the response to resource limitations and climate change around the world at the moment. After fierce resistance to the notion of climate change, and that fossil fuels were at all limited or a major cause of climate disruptio...

8.5 Responses: 2. Substitution with Renewables

Renewable energy is a huge and complex topic that we can but touch on. This said, we are lucky to have some first-rate communicators and clear thinkers to guide us through the maze, and Dave Borlase from ‘Just Have a Think’ is certainly one of the...

8.6 Responses: 3. Decreased Consumption and Deep Structural Change

As alluded to in 8.5, there is a group loosely positioned within the ‘renewables camp’, but sees it as just part of the solution to the problems of finite energy resources and pollution/climate change. This group perceives the enormity of the prob...

8.7 How Individuals can Assist, Plan, Commence Transition

As mentioned in 8.6, Jason Bradford believes that we will have to transition to a very different, more rural, society with far more localised and less energy-dependent food production. To commence this process he thinks we need to familiarise ours...

8.8 Successful Low-Energy, Renewable Energy, Projects and Groups

I have endeavoured to provide examples of responses at different scales (e.g. individual/household, town/village, nation), with different emphases (e.g. food or power), origins (e.g. collapse or transition), and technologies (e.g. the very simple ...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
1/11

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

In a supposedly secular age there has arisen a global religion and god like never before, a religion whose reach and power makes every other belief system before it seem pitiful and insignificant: ...
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
5. Reduce Population

5. Reduce Population

Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...