Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hard energy -- Realities and opportunities for our energy future

Take some time to read some brilliance and clarity about energy and sustainability.

Some friends have been sending around this:
Toward a Sustainable Future
By Leopold Center Distinguished Fellow Fred Kirschenmann
Fall 2006 Vol. 18 No. 3
Managing with less energy

A low-energy policy allows for a wide choice of lifestyles and cultures. If, on the other hand, a society opts for high energy consumption, its social relations must be dictated by technocracy and will be equally degrading whether labeled capitalist or socialist. — Ivan Illich

Energy is on everyone’s mind and most of our attention is focused on developing alternative energy supplies to replace fossil fuels. This evolution in our thinking is driven by several factors: the recognition that the era of “easy oil” is over; our uneasiness about the political instability in the Middle East where most of the remaining oil reserves exist; and, of course, short-term investment opportunities in alternative energy development.

But three critical elements often are overlooked. First, all sources of alternative energy are much less energy efficient than our previous sources of oil and natural gas. Second, future energy use must produce far less greenhouse gases if we want to avoid major climate changes. And third, energy conservation and a more energy-conscious lifestyle must be part of our future. These are important factors that need to be integrated into energy policy if we want a sustainable future.

Energy efficiency ratios are seldom given full consideration in how we calculate our energy future. In media reports, alternative energy issues usually are framed in terms of switching to “renewable” energy and “weaning ourselves from Mideast oil.” The implication is that we simply need to change from oil and natural gas to ethanol, or use nuclear, solar or wind energy and life can go on pretty much as usual. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Days of cheap energy are gone
Peak Oil author Richard Heinberg, and Marty Bender who worked in this area at the Land Institute, point out that the days of “cheap energy” are over. In the 1940s when oil and natural gas reached peak discovery levels in the United States, we were getting 100 kilocalories of energy for every kilocalorie expended to extract the oil and natural gas. By the 1970s when we hit peak oil production, the efficiency ratio had dropped to 23 to 1. Today the efficiency ratio is somewhere between 8 and 11 to 1.

This drop in energy efficiency is largely responsible for short-term investments in alternative supplies. To mine the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, energy can be extracted at a ratio of 8 to 1, which makes economic sense compared to other energy sources. However, an industrial economy driven by cheap energy – and this would include modern agriculture – will likely undergo significant changes in the future.

It cannot be ‘business-as-usual’
A second consideration that must be an essential part of any energy policy is the need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases. The economic and environmental cost of continuing this “business-as-usual” approach will soon be felt throughout the world. As the polar ice caps melt, sea levels will rise, putting major land masses (now occupied by humans) under water. More unstable climates and more severe weather events will make it increasingly difficult to maintain highly specialized monoculture cropping systems. The loss of biodiversity stemming from these severe weather alterations will reduce the resilience of local ecosystems, making it more difficult, if not impossible, for these systems to be self-regulating and self-renewing.

These emerging energy costs – both economic and ecological – will require that we fundamentally rethink our human economies and the consumptive lifestyles we seem to have taken for granted.

Perhaps one of the greatest fears that makes us reluctant to consider the kind of low-energy lifestyle essential to a sustainable future is that we have been indoctrinated to believe that consuming less energy inevitably means a lower quality of life. Several decades ago theologian and philosopher Ivan Illich suggested that a low-energy lifestyle, in fact, would result in a richer lifestyle because of the need for more human and social capital.

Illich argued that societies that opted for a low-energy lifestyle encouraged more diversity and culture, stimulating the development of more supportive communities, which would increase the quality of life. On the other hand, societies that opted for a high-energy lifestyle would inevitably lose individual freedoms due to the concentration of power in a technocracy that produced the needed energy. He argued that tools developed for “conviviality” would consequently produce a higher quality of life than tools developed for high energy consumption.

Today as we already witness the erosion of our rights and democratic freedoms, and see struggles intensify over rising energy costs, we might want to take a fresh look at Illich’s proposal.

Fred Kirschenmann

More from Ivan Illich is here, and podcasts from a colleague of Illich, Sajay Samuel, are here and here. (Links care of J-friend D. Bavington).

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