By Karl North | September 7, 2015
All life depends on constant consumption of energy. Nothing happens without it. More energy, more stuff happens: goods, services, population, raw materials depletion, pollution, damage to soil, water and other ecosystem processes that are essential to all life, including humanity. Less energy, less of all of the above. For most of several billion years of natural history, the energy supply consisted mainly of current solar gain. Life, including human life when it appeared, self-organized into ecosystems that operate well with that level of energy flow, no more, no less.
Some solar energy accumulated in storage, primarily in forests and soil organic matter. Again, all life has self-organized into ecosystems that operate well with the slow rate of energy liberation from storage in living and dead biomass in natural ecosystems, a rate that roughly equals the refresh rate. Ten thousand years ago, humans began to learn how to consume the storage energy faster than replenishment occurs. Ancient urban societies arose using this rapid rate of energy consumption, depleted it, and all collapsed as a result. It must have taken considerable hubris for us to call, in retrospect, all of these ultimate ecological failures ‘civilization’.
Although ancient ‘civilizations’ were repeatedly overpowered using up energy from storage biomass, apparently we never learned the lesson. Two hundred years ago, humans began to draw heavily on fossil energy, a source never before available to life on the planet. Because its quality and concentration is many times greater than current solar gain or even accumulated storage, this energy source has provided more power consumption and attendant production of stuff than the biosphere was ever built to withstand. The evidence of this is now visible everywhere we look. Just as a car will quickly wear out if used at higher RPM than it is designed for (the red zone on your dashboard tachometer), planetary ecosystems eventually wear out when too much power is applied.
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Here is the crux of the matter. The kind of power is irrelevant: ‘clean power’ or ‘renewable energy’ is ultimately no solution when too much is used. If it were possible to replace consumption of fossil energy with the same level of power use from another source, it would wear out the earth just as fast. And yet many environmentalists advocate just that. The earth is so overpowered by fossil energy consumption compared to levels its ecosystems were adapted to over billions of years, that any significant attempt to replace current power consumption with another source, were it successful, would only perpetuate the industrial juggernaut, and thus continue the present destruction of the planetary resource base on which the human species is dependent.
As resource analyst Tim Murray puts it, “The greatest calamity that could ever be inflicted on human and non-human species alike would be the discovery of an abundant, cheap and perpetual energy source, or unlimited availability of cheap food and universal and uninhibited access to bountiful water supplies.”[i]
What to do? If by ‘solution’ we mean wishful attempts to prolong the inevitable decline of the industrial way of life with some technology to keep the juggernaut going, there is no solution. We just need to power down, or wait for the inevitable decline to catch us unawares. Seen through the ecosystemic lens and from the long reach of natural history, we do not have a shortage of anything, we have a longage of expectations. We need to stop grasping at straws and reduce our energy use to the level for which the biosphere was designed. Of course that is hardly politically palatable. Most people refuse to accept the situation and will not brook being governed by anyone who does. Think Jimmy Carter.
So what to do? Well, individuals and groups who do accept the situation can “collapse now and avoid the rush”. Easier said than done, you say, so maybe it’s time to get started.