In praise of fossil fuels—Part 1: establishing context

Comprehensive understanding of the environmental and resource implications for humanity’s economic activity involves thinking in terms of the full life cycles of our goods and services. Thanks in large part to the work of William McDonough and Michael Braungart, awareness of  “cradle to cradle” design thinking has spread beyond the worlds of industrial ecology and ecological economics to establish a toehold in popular sustainability-oriented discourse. Over the past decade or so, it has started to dawn on an increasing number of us that the things we consume on a daily basis are connected to a globe-spanning network of socio-ecological consequences the extent of which is belied by the apparently modest materiality of our “stuff”. It’s in the context of this awakening systemic insight that the concept of embodied energy has—at least amongst those of us with an interest in the relationships between the spheres of technology, society and environment—come to be meaningful. Here in Australia, particular effort has been directed towards making information about the embodied energy of housing construction materials widely available—and moreover, to making this understandable for people involved in making the decisions that this might inform.

Living in Melbourne, a city with an urban sprawl amongst the world’s most extensive, the significance of this is readily appreciated: the built environments of modern industrial-world metropolises represent an inordinate quantity of past energy use. Still, even in appreciation of this, it’s easy to lose our way in abstraction. As the term embodied energy itself implies, the end-product of energy-oriented life-cycle assessment processes renders our human creations in terms that are disconnected by several degrees from the practical business of actually creating them. For any readers joining Beyond this Brief Anomaly’s inquiry for the first time at this point, this may well sound a little odd—a product of ignorance and confusion, or worse even, obscurantism. Typically, embodied energy calculations are introduced as a way of tying economic abstractions back to their physical foundations—specifying the embodied energy of clay bricks as 2.5 MJ per kilogram tells us something fundamental about the production process entailed in making those bricks available for use, and allows for direct comparison with alternative materials in terms of the respective demands that they make on resource use and manufacturing effort. So in comparing such analysis with the purely financial approach upon which building design and construction management has conventionally been based, it is indeed quite apparent that embodied energy gets us much closer to the practicalities of making stuff; charges of obscurantism on my part might seem to be quite well justified.

For those who’ve been following the inquiry for longer though, you will perhaps recognise how this ties in with the discussion a couple of posts back about the role of energy-based analysis in biophysical accounts of economic activity. As I’ve gone to some lengths to point out in our inquiry to date, while energetic analysis is purported to address the excesses of financial abstraction, it in fact involves characterising the concrete physical underpinnings of the situations to which we apply it in some of the most abstract conceptual terms available to us. Moreover, in a world where abstract theorising and conceptualising is often disdained (typically, with ignorance of the performative hypocrisy inherent in the expression of such disdain itself) we only get away with this by creating for the abstract conceptual construct—via the metaphors we employ to make it understandable to us—the illusory appearance of a concrete, susbstance-like thing that exists inherently in the physical sources that we harness to provide us with heat, work and light. That is, in order to make energy-based analysis more readily digestible as a physical account of our economic affairs, we first make energy itself more palatable by presenting it as ontologically equivalent to the material resources with which we are immediately familiar through sensory contact.

A consequence of this is that when we look out over the sweeping sprawl of a modern city—as I did earlier this week from the top floor of the new 5 Star Green Building Council of Australia-certified Advanced Technology Centre at Swinburne University in Melbourne—even though the tools for interpreting such a scene in energetic terms are increasingly available to us, we appear to be equipped far less adequately for appreciating the relationship between our urban forms and the particular energy sources that have supported and enabled their evolution. Thinking of such dependencies in abstract energy terms tends to encourage a disconnect between the physical structure of our built environment and the networks of industrial processes by which they were produced. The reality of our situation is that the world we’ve created has arisen in the context of very specific energy sources, not just “energy in the abstract”. As I’ve stressed on several occasions now, the world in which we now find ourselves immersed has developed in the context of fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas. In order to make sense of the modern human world in energetic terms, we need to take into account the unique properties and characteristics of these fossil fuels, not just their nominal heating values.

In fact, we can go further than this: it wouldn’t be at all unreasonable to observe that our societies and the worlds they’ve brought forth are in important respects shaped in the image of fossil fuels. We are who and as we are in the context of fossil fuels—our very identities, individual and collective, are tied in important ways to these remarkable energy sources. The ways of life we regard as normal or take for granted, and the expectations that we hold about what is technically possible, socially desirable and culturally feasible, are themselves inextricably intertwined with our fossil fuel use.

It seems to be a characteristic misconception of ours that we exist independently of the worlds we inhabit. Certainly, contemporary affluent lifestyles do little at first glance to disabuse us of this. The ease with which I can relocate myself from one part of the globe and one cultural setting to another may play an important role here: by being here today and in Beijing tomorrow, the illusion of a context-independent personal existence is amplified and reinforced. It seems obvious to us that it’s the same self who experiences as sharply distinct the environments across which our underlying sense of ongoingness arises. But what we miss when we uproot ourselves in such ways is the extent and significance of the continuities involved—the discontinuities seem to overwhelm our capacity to notice just how much remains stable. I may be communicating in English one day and Mandarin the next (for the sake of illustration at least—my own grasp of Mandarin is limited to a few rudimentary phrases), but in both situations I’m drawing on sub-conceptual structures tied to a human embodiment common to people across all such settings. My needs for air to breath, food and water to nourish and hydrate me, shelter and social recognition, all these continue to be met in remarkably similar ways, despite differences that on closer inspection turn out to be remarkably superficial. My very capacity to adapt to these superficial differences is itself a pointer to just how mistaken I might be in my illusory sense of independence.

We can extend this view, of common underlying biological, social and psychological structures that enable our shared existence with each other, to include the natural and human infrastructural environments with which we co-exist. For example, the way each of us exists right now is intimately intertwined with the means of production and subsistence characteristic of our societies—the primary and secondary economies discussed a couple of posts back—and this includes the particular ways that we provide work, heat and lighting. By this I’m not trying to imply that humanity’s continued existence is dependent on the specific energy supply context that prevails right at this time. Clearly, this context is itself not fixed—it’s subject to continuous change in its own right. And within certain rather flexible constraints, we’ve clearly demonstrated that in general we humans are remarkably adaptable, in both a biological and a socio-cultural sense. Rather, what I’m aiming to point out here is that the particular natures, forms or shapes of our existence at any time are tied closely to prevailing energy contexts, and that we should not expect our present forms of existence—or the forms for which we might have a preference—to transcend the particular arrangements by which we access the energy we use.

It is just such an assumption that tends to hold sway in much thinking about future energy use. There’s a strong tendency, especially amongst those who act as the custodians for official views on energy futures, to take present socio-cultural arrangements and their related institutions and infrastructures as given, focusing their attention instead on technical questions of how the levels of energy use associated with these arrangements can be satisfied using non-conventional energy sources. Scant attention tends to be given to discrepancies between the particular characteristics of present conventional and proposed future primary sources. There seems to be little appreciation that when, provided with a suitable vantage point, we see a large, modern metropolis laid out before us, we’re in fact looking at a specific expression of fossil-fueled human endeavour.

This is a situation supported equally by both economists and environmentalist—the priests and the heretics, if you will, in relation to popular understanding (and misunderstanding) of the role played by fossil fuels in the modern industrial world. The economist priests play their part by perpetuating the belief that our present mix of primary energy sources is largely a function of price alone. In their narrative, we source our energy from fossil fuels because they are currently cheap compared with alternative options—which, from within the logic overseen by the priests themselves, is true enough. More recently, a new orthodoxy has emerged in which this state of affairs is perpetuated by market distortions involving externalities that have not been priced in appropriately—if the price of fossil fuels accurately reflects the climate impacts of their use and cheaper sources are available, we will access our energy from those alternatives. The central assumption handed down here though is that it is reasonable to consider economic production in terms of an abstract quantity of energy, divorced from the physical sources of that energy. There’s little need to pay heed to the special qualities of fossil fuels, because after all, it is the “energy they contain” that we’re interested in. (Some on the margins of the priesthood will go further: “it’s not energy in which we’re interested, but the services provided by that energy.”)

The environmentalist heretics play their role by denouncing fossil fuels altogether, while for the most part acting to maintain the social legitimacy of their heresy by assuming that, like the priests, it’s entirely reasonable to divorce a given level of energy use in the abstract from the particular sources of that energy. The great irony in all of this is that, while the priests are agnostic about the virtues of fossil fuels (it’s the price in which they’re interested), the heretics have disavowed real heresy by shying away from the underlying problem of consumption and its growth. By treating as independent the quantity of energy use in our economy, and the fossil fuels from which this energy is sourced, mainstream environmentalists are able to secure an ongoing seat at the policy table. Fossil fuels can be denounced, while the benefits with which they provide us remain free of taint. Severing the connection is a matter of providing a suitably plausible alternative narrative in which those benefits are provided exclusively by renewable—or at least “cleaner”—energy sources.

In other words, our default approach to thinking about energy transitions tends to be based on what I’d characterise as a parachutist metaphor. The inspiration for depicting the thinking behind such views on energy transition in this way comes from the story—that I first encountered in the book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins—about the British Royal Air Force’s Operation Cat Drop. Operation Cat Drop involved dropping 14,000 live cats into Borneo by parachute—as a response to unanticipated third-order co-effects associated with the World Health Organisation’s anti-malaria program. Operation Cat Drop bears little in the way of direct resemblance to the type of energy transition proposals that I have in mind in the discussion above. The key to appreciating the connection, and hence to seeing what the parachutist metaphor reveals, is in the way that parachute-based responses to messy situations avoid the messiness in the first place. They’re based on an assumption that the background context to the situation they purport to deal with will be left untouched by the response. If I think that I can parachute a technical solution into the existing context, there’s little need for me to pay attention to that context itself, and little motivation for coming to terms with how my proposed solution will itself affect that context. Astute readers will recognise that this discounting of context—whether through ignorance, naivety or on any other basis—tends to be how the situation for which the response is intended as a solution arises in the first place. In the case of energy transitions, parachutist solutions tend to treat our present social arrangements, economics systems, the ways of life they enable and the human self-identities that arise for us within this overall constellation of circumstances as both given and preferable to other alternatives, and directly transferable to a different energetic “operating system”.

The ultimate result of all this is that the fossil fuels making up over eighty percent of our gargantuan—in macro-historical terms—global primary energy supply are either marginalised or demonised, even while the energy use associated with and enabled by them is treated as an unalloyed good. It’s the view at Beyond this Brief Anomaly that such a misguided stance with respect to our relationship with fossil fuels is at the very least detrimental to our economic wellbeing, and at worst a recipe for great suffering as we wind our way towards what is looking increasingly like it could be the unfolding down slope of the industrial age. So with this in mind, the task to which I’ll turn in the next post is to pay homage to the remarkable properties of fossil fuels, with a view to establishing a greater appreciation for why it is that they are so special and so precious as energy sources, and why it is that their role in enabling industrial society should not be readily discounted.

Further down the track, this will open the way to considering alternative metaphors that might help us better appreciate the prospects for humanity as the abundance of fossil fuels declines, and to cultivate creative responses to such a situation. The metaphors I have in mind are drawn from the biological and mind sciences—in fact, from the intersection of these domains in the work of the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Franscisco Varela, and others whose work is grounded in the lineage that they established.Central to this way of thinking is the metaphor of structural coupling between each of us and our social and bio-physical environments, and evolutionary drift as a way of viewing the history of congruent changes in both us and our environments as we’ve brought forth our present situations.[1] But taking this line of inquiry further is a task for another time.


[1] Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco (1988), The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Robert Paolucci, trans., Shambhala Publications, Boston.

One thought on “In praise of fossil fuels—Part 1: establishing context

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

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