We must reduce our energy consumption and embrace “regrowth,” where we redesign the economy to put human and environmental well-being at its center.
Opinion: In years past, you may have heard the words “peak oil,” often with a sense of foreboding, warning us that soon the oil will run out and things won’t be the same.
But we don’t hear this term very often anymore. Is it because the “cutters” were all wrong? Because, in fact, we have plenty of oil – and even better, it will never run out?
Unfortunately—or fortunately, if you care about what we’re doing to our climate and our biosphere—the answer to all of these questions is “no.” As Isaac Asimov said in his influential 1974 speech “The Future of Mankind”:
When I was 13 years old, I started thinking…
The main assumption: the volume of the earth is limited.
Partial assumption: the total volume of coal and oil on earth is less than the total volume of the earth.
Conclusion: The volume of coal and oil is limited.
Of course he was right. It is impossible to have an unlimited resource on a finite planet.
Yes sure, but didn’t they say oil will peak in 2018 and before that, around 1970? It didn’t happen – we have more oil than ever! Well yes… and no.
And while we’re working hard to transition to renewable energy sources, that transition has to be fueled by a lot of fossil fuel energy—and is accelerating its decline.
Predictions from the couple The main business experts It shows that production of crude oil – the best quality, high-energy oil – is nearing a peak, if it hasn’t already. And what is happening now is exactly what the architect of the peak oil concept, American geologist M. King Hubbart, predicted in the 1950s. Because the oil that is still in the ground is deeper or in more inaccessible places, it takes much more energy to extract it than it did in the days of oil wells gushing. This means that the net energy efficiency is much lower than in the 1930s. And the oil that’s left in the ground now is generally less energy dense than it was 50 or even 20 years ago, which means that when we burn it for energy, we get less energy out of it. The shape of this path is shown in the diagram below.
But a growing percentage of what international agencies call “oil” isn’t really oil at all. 34% of all “oil” consumed globally in 2021 was natural gas liquids and other fuel liquids such as ethanol, usually made from corn. This compares to nearly 0% in the early 1990s, as seen in the chart below (“NGL and Other”). In the United States, a more mature oil economy, the percentage of “non-petroleum oils” is just over 40%.
Well, whatever – who cares if oil is really “oil” or how much energy it takes to get it out of the ground – as long as I can still drive my car and as long as the trucks can keep running Give, does it really matter?
Well, yes it is, because it all points to the fact (which Asimov realized when he was 13) that all resources on a finite planet are also finite, including oil, and will run out at some point. And while we’re working hard to transition to renewable energy sources, this transition will have to be fueled by a lot of fossil fuel energy—and is accelerating its decline.
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The media is full of good news about the latest amazing renewable energy project (space-based solar technology, etc.), but renewables still only make up a tiny fraction of our total global energy consumption. By 2020, solar and wind energy together accounted for only 1.6% of total energy consumed globally. This is because as rapidly as renewable energy expands, so does our overall energy consumption.
And even when this new renewable energy becomes available, it’s really only good for generating electricity. But most of what powers our economy and society is not electricity, it is liquid fuel and thermal energy. This is shown in the diagram below.
And even if we succeed in making a full transition to renewables (and electrifying all of our non-electric transportation and industrial processes with fixed-scale technologies), there’s still that nagging issue of clean energy. . Because it takes a lot more energy to create renewable energy than it did in those grueling days of oil wells.
To generate the same amount of energy for a growing population and a growing global economy, we would need an energy sector many times larger than we have today, using resources like rare earth metals that we don’t have enough of.
But that’s okay, Elon Musk has covered his mission to colonize Mars – surely there are useful materials we can mine and bring back (in corn ethanol fueled rocket ships). On the other hand, if we don’t want to believe in Musk and his reckless project, we might want to think about how to reduce the consumption of energy and other limited resources of the earth.
This basic idea is encapsulated by ‘degrowth’, which suggests we need to redesign the economy to put human and environmental well-being at its centre. Proponents of decentralization say that this can be done by redistributing existing wealth (in the last two years, the richest 1% have captured two-thirds of the new global wealth created) and by reprioritizing government spending on things that really matter. We need it, achieved. We can have a satisfying life with less resources. Our own history shows this is possible: in the 1960s, an era not remembered for deprivation or austerity, New Zealanders used only a third of the energy per person we do today.
For those who think degrowth sounds like such a radical and subversive term that it’s dangerous to even think about – think again: Air New Zealand has a degrowth academic among its advisers – Professor Tim Jackson. Maybe Air NZ executives have seen these charts and know what’s coming – that this isn’t more exponential growth made possible by an abundance of cheap and abundant fossil fuels.
The sooner we understand the reality of energy decline, the sooner we can make an orderly and simple transition to a future where we use less but have more – of the things that really matter.