Thinking about thinking about energy

The landscape of human history is scattered with the remains of societies that, at the peak of their prosperity, presumably seemed to their members no less resistant to decline than industrial society appears to most of us today. If this presumption is reasonable—if a general tendency to base expectations about the future of one’s society on present appearances is indeed a recurring theme in human experience across cultures and time—then we also know that present appearances may prove to be a rather unreliable guide to the future prospects for contemporary ways of life. Thanks to the work of historians and archaeologists, today we have access to detailed records of the life cycles of numerous past societies, and to diverse views on the processes by which they grew in size, influence and complexity before peaking and declining. While each societal story obviously differs significantly in its detail from others, and while different perspectives in relation to any one story emphasise particular factors, energetic considerations represent a recurring, foundational theme in both describing and making sense of the rise and fall of human societies. While they don’t determine a society’s prospects, principal energy sources and the technologies by which they’re harnessed are fundamentally important enabling and constraining factors in shaping a society’s past history and future prospects. Energetic considerations set the available budget for what a society can do, and bound the policy options for how it does what it does.

Industrial society is fossil-fueled. Around eighty percent of global total primary energy supply comes from coal, oil and natural gas. Just under six percent is from nuclear fission of uranium-based fuels. While there’s abundant uncertainty relating to resource sizes and economic reserves for each of these, there’s very little debate regarding their ultimately non-renewable status: the principal primary energy sources with which industrial society has arisen and that it continues to rely on can be treated as finite. Pick a long enough time horizon—and as Tom Murphy at Do the Math demonstrates, we don’t need to look out too far if anything like historical growth in energy use is assumed—and all futures for industrial society based on continued reliance on fossil fuels and uranium run up against their absolute physical limits. Long before such theoretical limits are reached, we’ll be contending with economic limits in the form of diminishing returns on effort, and ecological limits associated with Earth’s capacity to deal with the consequences of all of that fossil-fueled activity. Whichever way you care to look at it, we can safely say that long term futures for human societies will depend not on accumulated energy wealth from the past, but on present energy income. In this respect at the very least, the future for renewable energy looks rather bright indeed!

Beyond this, the forms that such future worlds might take are subject to great uncertainty. We could be forgiven though for thinking otherwise, given the conclusions reached in much high-profile work related to this question. For instance, both the Stern, and in Australia, Garnaut Reviews of the economics of climate change response, and the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, treat the transition from fossil-fueled to renewably-powered economies not only as financially affordable, but as energetically and technologically straightforward. Many proponents for renewably-generated electricity have provided little reason to question this view. For example, Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution, World Wildlife Fund’s Energy Report and Beyond Zero Emission’s Zero Carbon Australia Plan conclude that presently available wind, solar photovoltaic and solar thermal electricity generation technologies can lead a transition from an economy in which they play a proportionally very small role in overall energy supply, to one in which they dominate energy supply, with minimal impact on the overall scale and character of the overall economic landscape. The post-transition world they envisage is in many respects recognisable as the world that those of us fortunate enough to live in affluent industrial societies are presently familiar with. Crucially important here is the view that these renewable energy technologies will provide energy surpluses equivalent to those available from fossil fuels both in magnitude and rate of return, and that on this basis energy supply will account for a roughly equivalent proportion of overall economic activity as it does at present.

On the other hand, there are many who hold the view that a renewably-powered world will not support societies that we would presently recognise as industrial, and will certainly not support growth-based consumer economies. Examples of this can be found in the work of Vaclav Smil, John Michael Greer, James Kunstler, Nicole Foss and in Australia, Ted Trainer. Recent conclusions from Tom Murphy, whose work I mentioned above, also support a similar line of reasoning. While some commentators stick to a more focused analytical approach, others tackle the question from what might be characterised as a systems-oriented approach, by considering energetic and technological questions within a series of broader contexts.

Yet we continue to find ourselves in a situation where reasonable people struggle to find common ground. For instance, continuing reductions in financial cost and reported energy pay-back periods for photovoltaic panels are frequently cited in discounting concerns about renewables replacing fossil fuels, as indicated for instance by these comments at The Oil Drum.

Where do I locate myself in the midst of all this? On the basis of the introduction above, it may come as little surprise that I tend to empathise most strongly with the view that future renewably-powered societies will be rather radically different from those that currently dominate global arrangements. Even so, I try to remain critically sceptical about the way things presently appear. I’m genuinely curious about the prospects for renewable energy providing the net energy surplus required to support and enable wide availability of renewable energy technologies themselves. I often find myself looking rather favourably on the kind of future where, for instance, the proponents of large-scale solar thermal electricity generation are vindicated.  I would like my children to enjoy ways of life that support the kind of opportunities that have been available to me, and so I do find the techno-optimistic message enticing. At this point in time, I don’t assume though that this is necessarily the way things will run. If arrangements of the nature I’ve grown up with are to be sustained in some form though, it seems prudent to pursue the sort of local-scale personal actions that might enable this, rather than placing exclusive faith in the march of techno-economic progress. As discussed earlier, there’s really no question about whether the economies of future human societies will be based on renewable energy. This would hardly be surprising, were we to take the vast majority of human history as our model of normalcy, rather than the anomaly of the past 200-odd years. Rather, the more pertinent questions might be along the following lines:

  • What forms will the renewable energy technologies of future societies take?
  • What sort of energy surpluses will they allow?
  • What will this imply for the forms of social organisation and economic means that can be supported?
  • What aspects of our present industrial societies might be conserved in such future societies?

Does it really matter if people disagree on questions of this nature? In one sense it doesn’t—certainly it seems preferable to me that individuals arrive at their own view of what seems to be the case, based on what they see for themselves. The alternative is for people to be coerced or herded into a particular understanding of things based on what someone else sees. We inhabit a world though where communications are not commonly framed to encourage or facilitate such direct seeing—we’re continuously subject to attempts to convince us of one thing or another on the basis of others’ authority. This can make navigation of any area of knowledge very challenging, particularly for those sitting outside the specialist discourses involved. The abstract and, for may, esoteric nature of energy-related discourse marks it as particularly vulnerable to distortion, either inadvertently, through ignorance, or as a result of direct manipulation. Developing a more sophisticated level of energy literacy may go some small way to allowing people to arrive at their own view of the way things seem to be, and of what might constitute good action in response.

This brings me then to the point of this blog, and the inquiry that I’m planning to undertake here over the next weeks and month. Reasonable, well-intentioned and thoughtful people disagree strongly with respect to questions of energetics and societal futures that many might assume should yield to straightforward analytic reasoning. Surely this is just a matter of getting the numbers right, of establishing the appropriate facts? Well actually, no. If we start with that assumption, we miss the crucially important shaping role that our own individual yet culturally-situated ways of knowing and sense-making play in deciding what should count as relevant facts in the first place, let alone what the best numbers might be for establishing them. So a central point of departure here will be an attempt to explore questions of energetics and society in ways that are both (please excuse the technical jargon) epistemologically reflexive; and ontologically sceptical. In more common terms: by paying attention to and caring about how the worldviews we hold shape the questions we ask about situations of interest, and hence what we might learn about them; and by keeping in mind that the way things appear to be is not how they ultimately are. The value of this latter approach is that it discourages foreclosing on matters involving irreducible uncertainty—hence avoiding conclusions that could leave us dangerously exposed in the event that circumstances unfold in ways not earlier envisaged.

A key contention will launch the inquiry: while the language of energy is very widely used in industrial culture, what energy is “all about” is rarely reflected upon and is often poorly understood. So my main focus early on will be to do a little ground work in relation to this, taking an approach that is likely to be quite different to those encountered elsewhere, that may well be provocative, but that I hope will also provide a fruitful basis for developing some valuable insights further on. This will also provide a good context for looking at what it means to approach questions of energetics and society in a systemic way.

Underlying all of this is my view that rigorous energy discourse should not be the exclusive domain of technical specialists. What we’re dealing with when we consider situations of interest to us in energetic terms is rather abstract, but can perhaps be made more widely accessible if the language of energetics is re-connected with concrete, day-to-day experience. This doesn’t mean that developing greater fluency with what energy is all about is necessarily easy—but it probably can be more widely accessible to people with a general rather than a specialist interest. It should be possible for energy specialists and interested lay-people to meet on common ground—without an automatic tendency to dismiss the views of those not formally trained in the natural sciences or engineering.

This is not simply an investigation into energy for its own sake. The point of conducting this in depth inquiry into energetics is to contribute to the foundations for high quality social foresight. Ultimately, if this is worthwhile it should help lead us to better ways of acting together in the face of the challenges before us.

Prior to kicking off with the main game, given the role that desk-based studies play in disagreements of the nature described earlier, it would be worth looking at these in a little more detail. I’ll focus on this in the next post by considering their nature both from engineering and foresight perspectives, how they fit within the engineering process and how we might treat their role within broader processes of economic transition.

4 thoughts on “Thinking about thinking about energy

  1. Very interesting thoughts, Josh. I will continue to read your blog. I appreciated your simplification of jargon, which made it easier for an ancient and simple reader to follow your arguments and approach. Is energy the predominant factor in our future? Where do environment, materials and population expansion come?

    • Glad to hear that you found it worthwhile. I think your question is a terrific one–in a sense it’s the central question that the blog sets out to deal with. The Beyond this Brief Anomaly approach to this is that each of those other areas can be considered in energy terms. Or to put it another way, we can take an energy-based perspective on questions of environment, materials, population expansion etc. There are energetic aspects and implications of any situation that we’re interested in. This isn’t to say that energy concerns are the only or the most important considerations in every instance, but given that energetics is fundamental to anything that we want to do, it’s going to come into play in some way. Given the extent to which “what we do” and “the ways we do it” on a global and humanity-wide scale are dependent on finite energy sources, complex energy infrastructure, and biospheric assimilation of the associated byproducts of our energy use, in most situations the energy context is going to be important. Just to be clear, this isn’t about reducing more complex situations to energy terms alone–it’s about better appreciating the energy context.

  2. Pingback: Post Carbon Institute’s ‘This is Our Energy Reality’: visualising this Brief Anomaly | Beyond this Brief Anomaly

  3. Pingback: The economic view of systemic efficiency: energy return on energy investment | Beyond this Brief Anomaly

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