John House, MD – The ‘60s and ‘70s were an exciting time to be young. So much was changing; everywhere a person looked there were new technologies, new discoveries – even other planets were no longer off limits.
Like many people raised in the industrialized world during the 20th century, I was taught – directly and indirectly – that humans would experience non-stop progress; each generation would build on the successes of the last taking the human race to ever higher levels. There had been setbacks along the way, but that wasn’t something we had to worry about any more. The internal combustion engine, plumbing, electricity, modern medicine, computers, all of these advancements and more would prevent us from having to worry about the collapse of civilization ever again. At least that was the overarching message I received from my education and from society at large. Indeed, there are many who are preaching that message even today.
As amazing as the 20th century was with all the wonders it brought, the 21st century has been equally amazing in how little progress has been made. With the accelerating pace of advancements we saw in the 100 years from 1900 to 1999, it seems astonishing that so little has been accomplished in the last 16.
There are numerous reasons humanity hasn’t progressed at the same pace in recent years. Beginning in this article and continuing in ones to follow, I’m going to examine three of the biggest challenges that will dominate events in the next decade and help us understand why progress has stalled.
They are: 1) decline in net energy 2) explosion in debt as the primary engine for economic growth and 3) climate change.
Decline in Net Energy
Net energy is a simple concept: It is the amount of energy left over after expending energy to produce that energy. For example, if I want to build a fire to cook my food, I have to spend my body’s energy to gather the wood and create a spark to start the fire. The fire gives me more energy than I had to start with, so there is a net energy gain. If a rainstorm puts out my fire before I can cook my food, then there is a decline in net energy since I get very little energy from the fire but still had to spend energy to begin with.
Since the beginning of the human experience, humans have had to use manual labor to accomplish every task. From finding food, to making clothing, to building shelter, humans had only the energy gleaned from plants and animals to get the job done. There was very little excess energy left over for other activities.
With the discovery of petroleum – oil – and how to use it efficiently, humans had something that they had never had before: excess energy. With the incredible stored energy in oil, humans now could do all sorts of work without manual labor.
Fossil fuels are incredible batteries. They hold lots of stored solar energy per kilogram. For example, it would take a fit human adult laboring more than 10 years to equal the energy in one barrel of oil!
Looked at a different way, a barrel of oil has the energy equivalent of 1,700 kilowatt hours of electricity. To get that much energy from a typical 2’x4’ solar panel in an hour you would need almost 19,000 panels! That’s for just one barrel. The world uses 90,000,000 barrels a day!
Fossil fuels led to a paradigm shift in human activity. This advancement, more than anything else, has been responsible for technological achievements, increases in food production, excess leisure time, labor saving devices, and other conveniences that we think of as “the modern world.”
So to define this in terms of net energy, before fossil fuels, humans used virtually the energy they took in via food, simply to gather more energy (grow or hunt food). For all practical purposes, there was almost no excess net energy available.
With fossil fuels, suddenly there was so much excess energy available that humans could achieve almost anything!
But. (There’s always a “but.”) Those incredible solar energy batteries of fossil fuels take millions of years to charge. Once we figured out how to use them, we started burning through them at astronomical rates.
We pumped the easy-to-reach oil first and, since fossil fuels are a finite resource and aren’t replenished, when the easy stuff was gone, we started working on the hard-to-get stuff. Every increase in the difficulty of extraction results in spending more energy to get the energy from the oil. The more energy we spend, the less excess net energy there is.
From about 1825 to 1979 the amount of net excess energy per capita was growing almost exponentially. From 1979 through 2003, however, net energy per capita stopped growing. Since 2003, net energy per capita has been declining.
At first glance, this might not seem to be a big deal. But, it’s actually an incredibly huge problem. Remember, all that excess net energy is what has made every aspect of our modern world possible. What happens when there is less of that very thing?
Actually, we are starting to get just a glimpse of the answer to that question since net energy per capita has been declining for the last 12 or 13 years.
If you think about what excess net energy allows us to do – travel, buy non-essential items, have leisure time, etc., – then it follows that with a decline in net energy, we will have less travel, less leisure time, we’ll buy less non-essential stuff. In other words, we’ll have a recession, perhaps worse.
There is a clear relationship between oil and the economy. In fact, there have been multiple recessions since WWII and all but one have been preceded by a spike in the price of oil. When the price of oil goes too high, it leads to an economic downturn.
Many believe we entered a global recession after the oil price spike of mid-2014, even if we aren’t technically in a recession here in the U.S., and now the world is awash in cheap oil. We won’t be awash in oil long, however, as most of the hard-to-reach petroleum costs more to produce than the current market price. Very soon, supply will dwindle. And that’s how this time is different. In the past, we’ve been able to grow our way out of recessions by pumping more oil thereby creating more excess energy. Now, we can’t. Now we have a decline in net energy.
Since developing an oil-based economy, we’ve never had to face a decline in net energy. This has enormous implications to our way of life.
The modern economy is dependent on growth. With a decline in net energy, substantive growth is no longer possible. I mentioned earlier that there has been a decline in net energy since the early part of this century. So, how is it possible that we’ve had economic growth since then?
In a word, debt.
Combined with a dramatic increase in debt, a decline in net energy is an explosive combination that risks destroying the world as we know it today. In the next installment, I’ll explain what I mean by that.