Development professionals do their work under the assumption that the developing world will some day look a lot like the developed world. But there’s a good chance that they’re wrong. A practical look at the world’s energy supply, and interesting new research into the link between energy, culture and quality of life, shows that the reverse is probably true: The developed world will soon look more like the developing world. Here’s why that’s happening and what we can do to prepare for a big change right now.
Since the early 1990’s, the US government has not counted “farmers” as a category in the national census, and that is a symptom of energy consumption. Diesel fuel, chemical fertilizers and pesticides are all forms of energy that have supplanted human and animal muscle on the farm. This energy, that comes from cheap, accessible fossil fuels, has turned the agrarian serfs of the middle ages into today’s corporate, government, and academic “cubicle serfs,” in developed countries. And global development professionals are trying to shepherd the developing world along the same path.
Let’s look at energy from an accountant’s point of view. We’re not going to look at the total amount of energy possessed by planet Earth – the fossil coal, oil and gas, sunlight, wind, tides, radioactive nuclei, or the sum total of energy embodied in chemical bonds. Instead, we’re looking at net energy: the amount of useful energy left over after subtracting the energy it takes to explore for energy sources, then extract, refine, process them, and so on.
Access to high-EROI energy sources is what allows societies to develop the advanced technological systems and complex, highly differentiated social hierarchies that we see around us today.
To keep our Western lifestyles going, developed countries need a substantial net-energy surplus.
The fossil fuel sources of the 20th century had a far higher EROI than everything else., and now they are gone. Historic conventional oil and gas fields, for example, provided EROIs of the magnitude 50:1 to 100:1, or more. We have burned through the deposits that were the easiest to exploit and now EROIs for global oil and gas have declined to something like 20:1.
But that is still a much higher EROI than renewable fuels can provide. Renewable technologies have lower EROIs, at about 5:1 to 15:1, and they depend on cheap fossil fuel for large-scale deployment. As an example, wind turbines contain large amounts of neodymium to make the magnets that they use to generate electricity, and we mine that metal with Godzilla-sized diesel-powered machinery.
The implications of this analysis are troubling to say the least.
This analysis has two take-home messages for E4C readers and everyone involved in engineering for global development. First, it is unlikely that the developing world will ever "develop" as such. And second, the affluent developed world will face catabolic “de- development,” as energy sources dwindle and eventually fail to support the upper levels of the hierarchy of energy needs. Catabolism occurs when a society depletes its resources, can no longer grow and begins to dissassemble its infrastructure to consume it for energy, as John Michael Greer explains (pdf).
We should act now to prepare for the decline. The first priority should be to gain more experience developing technologies that are scaled to the resource constraints of the future. And we need to do this not simply out of moral obligation to the world’s poor, but also because, in short order, we are going to need those same technologies ourselves.
What kinds of reasonable speculations can we make about the future to draw targets for technology R&D? Here are a few, and I invite you to submit more in the comments section.
- The future will feature a lot more careers in direct solar- energy-conversion activities such as small-scale farming and forestry. (Roll up your sleeves and grab a hoe!)
- Local economies will gain importance as cheap-fossil-fuel- dependent long-distance transport chains become nonviable. (Get to know your neighbors and local businesses!)
- We dare not assume that complex, global, high-tech and energy-intensive systems such as the Internet and ubiquitous 24/7 mobile wireless connectivity are a permanent feature of human existence. (Who wouldn’t welcome less time spent hunched in front of a glowing screen?)
- Leaders in government, business, media, academia and so on will make every effort to maintain the status quo and business as usual for as long as possible, all the while insisting that nothing is wrong despite mounting evidence to the contrary. (It’s up to us – let’s get to work!)
The International Forum on Globalization’s teach-in, Techno-Utopianism and the Fate of the Earth.