A German edition of Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future, translated by Simon Göß, is due for release on 3 September, published by Oekom.
Simon included many updates to reflect data emerging since publication of the original English edition in 2018, and also added notes to link the book’s global focus more explicitly with the German context.
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Charles Hall, and Ugo Bardi have each also very generously provided forewords to the German edition. We’re tremendously grateful to these pioneering thought leaders for their support of our work. They have been important influence on our thinking, and hence on the ideas explored in the book.
Sam and I are also very grateful to Simon for approaching us to initiate this project, and for the commitment and enthusiasm he brought to carrying it out, very much reflected in the quality of the outcome. This included attracting the interest of the highly regarded publisher, Oekom. The project was also greatly assisted by the hard work of the Sharon France of Looking Glass Press, who carried out the typesetting.
English versions of each of the forewords follow.
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker:
Correct: our civilization can be called the carbon civilization. After all, the carbon molecule is the core component of the organic compounds from which life on this planet originated. But joking aside. Carbon civilization is the part of human history in which all modern technology was invented, being constantly fed due to its increasing energy consumption. We must now learn to be happy with having significantly less energy available to us.
This is a huge challenge. Especially if the world population continues to grow. Planet Earth, as we all know, is not continuing to grow! Planetary boundaries are relentless. This includes the chemical composition of the atmosphere that allows a reasonably stable climate.
Science and most states have recognised the current climate change and the climate change that is still to come upon us as man-made. And yet we are still emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The voluntary commitments of states to reduce emissions are far from sufficient to stabilise the climate. Admittedly, a switch to low-carbon energy production is taking place and some new technologies are becoming more energy-efficient than the old ones. But too slowly. Simply, because the peoples of the world are too lazy to say goodbye to their old habits and technologies.
Also, we calm ourselves with the promotion of renewable energies and still pump billions of euros of subsidies into the burning of coal, oil and gas. And these fossil fuels still account for 80 % of primary energy consumption. Energy is supposed to be cheap, otherwise the poor would starve or freeze to death, that is what the justification for this nonsense sounds like.
There is a false logic behind it! Cheap energy is an invitation to waste! Where petrol costs almost nothing, you just leave the engine running when you go and get a quick cup of coffee. And engineers and investors find energy efficiency rather uninteresting. When will it ever pay off?
This book exposes the false logic. Bravo. Because we need to rethink deeply if we still want to prevent future generations from groaning under forest fires, failed harvests, weather caprices and rising sea levels. Incidentally, it is the poor who suffer most from the additional climate change.
The world must prepare itself for the decline of cheap energy. This is no harm, but it means new social connections. Appreciation for what is already there, mutual help, maintenance and repair instead of mass consumption and waste production. This can be fun and it shows a higher development of civilization, not a decline. And a wonderful challenge for the engineers. Because the technology of mass consumption is pretty boring. And using all the brains of digitalization, including electronic piracy and data theft, that can’t be it for ambitious engineers!
The book “The Carbon Civilization and the Energy Descent Future” invites you to develop a sophisticated civilization that can be handed over to future generations with pleasure and without guilt!
Humanity has been on this Earth for something like a third of a million years. During that time we were hunter gatherers, changing Nature little. For some 10,000 years we, or some of us, have been agricultural. For about 200 years, a mere 7 generations, we, or some of us, have been industrial, meaning for the first time not operating on the present energy flow of the planet but rather on stored reserves. This is a tiny slice of human history, but most of us take it for granted that it is the way life was, is and will be. But the industrial revolution is dependent upon a mostly depletable suite of carbonaceous fuels that will not always be with us, especially in the quantities and qualities we take for granted now. Depletion of finite resources is a topic not receiving the attention it deserves. In particular, the effect by which depletion of conventional high grade energy sources will have on global economies is not well understood or worse not even contemplated by most analysts or policy-makers. The term EROI (energy return on energy investment) is absent from a large part of energy-related policy making, but as we deplete our best fuels the energy (and environmental and economic) cost of getting the next units is increasing. While the eyes of the world are on health and economic issues at the moment it is likely that such energy issues will emerge as critical once the world economy returns to something like normal, if that is possible.
This lack of understanding and appreciation of the importance of energy to all human enterprise has a lot to do with how economics as a science is being framed and taught. Not surprisingly, if in economics as social science abstractions such as consumer choice, money and finance rule the game even though these require a biophysical foundation that is not considered at all. Quite simply without energy to do the work of economic production money would be worth less.
This quite limited approach to economics is beginning to be felt in current times, where we have to resort to lower grade resources for energy and other materials, and its impacts will impact the world’s economies increasingly as time passes. The book “Carbon Civilization and the Energy Descent Future” walks a tightrope between accessibility to the average reader and scientific detail and integrity. In my opinion it succeeds admirably in laying out the issues and if not the precise solutions certainly the issues that must be considered if we are to attempt to navigate the difficult currents ahead. In particular it examines the proposed technological fixes to our energy predicament, such as renewable energies, with a clear eye as to the extreme difficulties that will need to be overcome if we are to succeed.
Thus “Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future” sheds light on an immensely important topic for the generations to come. The book connects the dots for a lay readership on how our economic system is based on energy and how an energy and climate-restricted world has to fundamentally readjust its values and narratives.
The decline of civilizations has been source of endless fascination for scholars and the public alike. The thread of all the studies and the debates on the subject is not just why civilizations declined and fell, but how it could be that the people who lived the decline couldn’t think of effective actions to stop it. The historian Arnold Toynbee (1889 1975) wrote that “civilization die from suicide, not by murder,” adding another dimension to the problem: not only rulers and intellectuals are ineffective in stopping decline, but may well accelerate it. It is the curse of solutions that worsen the problem.
In the case of the current Western civilization, also called “globalization,” we are facing the perspective of a decline, even though we may not be seeing it in the form of the robust trend that takes sometimes the name of the “Seneca Cliff,” when the fall is faster than the growth. But, clearly, the problem is perceived and a remarkable intellectual effort has been spent to understand it and to devise ways to avoid the fall – a search that has been ongoing since the times of the first quantitative study on the subject, “The Limits to Growth,” published in 1972, which identified some of the basic elements leading our civilization to invert the previous growing trends: we are stuck between growing pollution and declining availability of natural resources. In addition, a growing population is placing more strain on the whole system.
The recent book “Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future” by Samuel Alexander and Joshua Floyd, is part of this line of thought. For many of us, it is stark clear that the bug at the foundations of our civilization is nothing but the decline of the resources that built it, fossil fuels. And it is only by understanding how a complex civilization needs energy to survive that we can understand how the current situation is a cusp, a “brief anomaly” as the authors term it, in the long history of humankind. When the fossil fuels will be gone – necessarily because they exist in finite amounts – civilization as we know it will be gone. And we already see signs that we are moving in that direction.
Facing the unavoidable demise of fossil fuels, we can take two approaches. The first is to replace fossils with other sources, nuclear or renewables, that can provide the same flow of energy, the second is to contract and reorganize society so that we won’t need so much energy and we won’t pollute so much the ecosystem anymore. The debate is ongoing and the authors of “Carbon Civilization” present a well thought out case that simply substituting fossil with renewables will not work, at least it will not work fast enough to effectively contrast decline. Which a position that most of those who deal with these matters tend to agree on, apart from being more or less optimistic about the future. And it would be possible to program and manage a smooth transition that would avoid the worst.
In the end, a book like this one shows that, perhaps unlike the civilizations that preceded us to the dustbin of history, we know what’s the problem is and we also know the solutions. But this view is known only among a small number of specialists in energy and system science. It doesn’t ever surface in the public debate, still dominated by obsolete concept such as “economic growth,” sometimes referred to as the ugly mongrel called “green growth.” Are we necessarily facing the same destiny of previous civilizations, that is decline and fall? Perhaps. On the other hand, books like “Carbon Civilization” at least can show how to avoid the main mistakes we could still make, such as running toward purely technical solutions while still maintaining the worship of economic growth.