So much talk these days centers around whether we have will have enough energy to power the world economy. The pessimists respond, “Not this world economy at this level of activity.” The optimists, on the other hand, say not to worry. We have plenty of fossil fuels for the time being and new, clever technologies will harvest all the energy we need for the future. What is almost never discussed is whether we, in fact, have too much energy and whether that abundance has been our undoing.
Let’s take four areas in which the growth of energy supplies has led to severe environmental distress. The most obvious and widely agreed on effect of burning our main energy source, fossil fuels, is global warming. Very little needs to be said about how the abundance of fossil fuel energy has led to the warming of the Earth.
Other problems include the deleterious effects of industrial agriculture, water depletion, and loss of biodiversity. What links all of these problems is population growth. And, that population growth has been made possible in part by vast increases in the productivity of agriculture–which, in turn, have been made possible by the development of petroleum-based insecticides and herbicides and natural gas-based nitrogen fertilizers. Of course, the advent of cheap liquid fuels also made it easy and cheap to mechanize farm operations including the transport of farm goods to market. The so-called “Green Revolution” was, in fact, a “Green and Black Revolution” when the role of fossil fuels is considered. And, that revolution has led to directly to rampant soil erosion, a precipitous decline in soil fertility, and the poisoning of our water and food with insecticides and herbicides.
The needs of agriculture and the growing populations they fostered led inevitably to water depletion. Naturally, that depletion was aided and abetted by cheap energy used to pump and purify water for agricultural, industrial and household use. In addition, great dams could never have been built without liquid fuels derived from petroleum used to run heavy machinery. Beyond this, huge amounts of electricity are needed to power water pumps and purification equipment. In California, for example, at least 6.5% of the total electricity consumed is used just to pump and purify water. It is doubtful that the great water projects of that state would have been built were it not for cheap electricity.
Biodiversity is shrinking every hour. Diesel-powered logging machinery can clear in a day what might have taken weeks or months using traditional logging methods. Monoculture farming, an anathema to biodiversity, is now favored partly because it fits so well with the use of the farm machinery–machinery which cheap, abundant energy has made inexpensive to build and to run. Urban sprawl, made possible by cheap gasoline for automobiles and cheap energy for the production of construction materials used to build that sprawl, is also no friend to biodiversity. Ironically, urban sprawl often colonizes valuable farmland or forest, both of which are required to feed and house the millions in suburbia.
It may seem as if we have been immensely irresponsible with the bounty of energy that fossil fuels have given us. But in reality we have done what any organism does with a surfeit of energy. We have used that energy to propagate ourselves and to take over increasing areas of the biosphere from other organisms in order to enhance our survivability. We have done what is logical and instinctual for any organism on Earth. That we would eventually get ourselves in a terrible predicament by doing so is only a relatively recent thought.
And, that brings us back to the idea that we may have too much energy. Think for a moment about what kind of world we might have if fossil fuels had never been discovered. No doubt many technical advances might never have occurred. The necessary energy and leisure for research (for tinkering actually) would not have been available. On the other hand, many technical advances have occurred in the past without fossil fuels. Sophisticated pre-petroleum civilizations have thrived producing great buildings, great art and great culture. Many have also produced a world of plenty for their inhabitants.
Even so, while it is true that the use of carbon-free energy sources might have prevented global warming, large supplies of any kind of energy would almost surely have contributed to the other problems detailed above. For example, with regard to industrial agriculture the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizers requires the extraction of hydrogen from some source to combine with abundant nitrogen from the air. Currently, natural gas remains the cheapest source for this hydrogen. But with enough cheap non-fossil fuel energy, we could have made the electricity needed to obtain virtually endless amounts of hydrogen using electrolysis to break water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Much of the transportation system could have been run on electricity produced without fossil fuels. And where liquid fuels were required–for example, to run logging or farm machinery–hydrogen could have been used as fuel.
The point is not to champion possible alternatives to oil, but to show that had such alternatives been our main sources of energy and had they been as cheap as oil to obtain and use, we would likely still be facing many of the environmental challenges we do today.
All that is so much speculation. However, in the future we may get a chance to find out whether we can build such a civilization albeit with the advantage or–depending on how you look at it–the disadvantage of all the knowledge we’ve gained during the fossil fuel age.
But there is one lesson which that age has not taught us, and we sorely need to learn it. Our biggest challenge is not related to getting enough energy. Our biggest challenge is to understand our relationship with energy and to recast it so that we may live more harmoniously with the world around us.