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Energy consumption and progress

I've written lately that economists are the high priests of Progress. I don't subscribe to the doctrine of Progress, which is a faith-based view of our future. Apparently, for most people all of the time, the alternative is simply unthinkable. The truth is that we had wars 4,000 years ago, and we have wars now. The large majority of human beings were poor and disenfranchised 4,000 years ago, and the large majority still are today.

Human Nature didn't change one iota during all that time. Human folly then is the same as human folly now. We are what we—we're a species, what you see is what you get. There has been no "improvement" in our Nature, which is what they used to call it in the 19th century.

But you might respond: what about all the technological wonders we have today? At least for many people, and for a much greater slice of the ever-growing population pie, standards of living are vastly improved. What of that? You can't just dismiss Progress!

No, I can't ignore all that, and I don't. I would point out that all that technological improvement has led to much greater killing efficiency than we had in the 8th century or the 18th century. America's use of unmanned predator drones has made killing people—regardless of their "guilt" or "innocence" in our eyes—so much easier in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Henry Ford's assembly line, which made mass production possible, applied seamlessly to killing Jews & other undesirables during the Holocaust. And now we've got nuclear weapons, which give us a very nice burst of radiation and a beautiful mushroom cloud when they explode

In my discussion of the Law Of Civilization And Decay, I left out the sine qua non of apparent human Progress—the availability of vast quantities of energy provided by fossil fuels. For all human societies, growth in energy consumption is a necessary condition for economic growth. I am not going to defend that statement here, but if you want the details, see my long & technical online paper Economic Growth And Climate Change—No Way Out?

As if to remind us that energy makes the human world go round, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the Department Of Energy (DOE) recently released their Annual Energy Review (AER). It's the government, so you get lots of acronyms. Ponder the following chart—

Primary Energy Consumption in the United States by source, 1775-2009, measured in quadrillion BTUs (British Thermal Units) 1 quadrillion = 1,000,000,000,000,000.

And now ponder this one—

Estimated 2009 consumption = 94,578 quadrillion BTUs, down from the 2007 peak of 101,527 quadrillion

Note the EIA's annotation: The United States was self-sufficient in energy until the late 1950s... In fact, the graph indicates that domestic fossil fuels energy production has been largely flat since 1970, which is the year U.S. oil production peaked. In 1970, America produced 59,186 quadrillion BTUs of fossil fuels energy. In 2009, the estimated total is 56,850 quadrillion. Total American energy production, including nuclear and renewables, has risen only slightly since 1990.

In other words, the United States has appropriated (purchased, accompanied by force majeure) more and more of the world's primary energy for its own use since 1970, and especially since the early 1980s, which is when I date the beginning of the end of the Empire. This fact alone would raise alarm bells in the minds of historians, who are used to thinking on longer time scales than economists and politicians (to name two shortsighted groups).

To make matters worse, the world's oil production is now at or near it's peak, and we have entered the Age of Resource Competition in which China and other developing nations will claim their fair share of the fossil fuel pie. (I am dismissing energy from renewables, whose contribution has been and will continue to be small relative to energy obtained from oil, coal & natural gas.) 

On energy grounds alone I could claim the Empire is in Decline and have a substantial argument. But when you combine the energy situation with all the other types of decay we find in the United States, the argument becomes, in my mind, airtight. 

The question sometimes arises as to whether the United States, which possesses far more Weapons of Mass Destruction than any other nation on Earth, will unleash its military might to appropriate more energy (especially oil) as the need arises. A wounded tiger is a very dangerous animal indeed. I would think the answer to this question is obvious: of course we will! Does a bear shit in the woods? More and more, the raison d'etre of our military has been to safeguard energy supply chains.

Thus, waging wars to guarantee our energy supplies appears to be a very likely scenario as time goes on.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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