Show Notes

Over the 19th and 20th centuries physical power, social power, and economies grew explosively. The main cause was humanity’s exploitation of fossil fuels. Sources of oil, coal, and natural gas – a vast underground storehouse of ancient sunlight – provided an almost magical and seemingly unlimited supply of energy to grow more food, provision more people, build more cities, and create more technologies. But this age of “more” also brought global warfare, consumerism, and overproduction. Improve your energy literacy with stories about pushing motor vehicles, enduring blackouts, and growing $10 tomatoes, and take a tour of history that visits ancient China, industrializing Britain, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the Green Revolution. Resources mentioned in this episode include a juxtaposition of old and new city photographs, and Jason Bradford’s report The Future Is Rural. The song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” was written by lyricist Yip Harburg and composer Jay Gorney.

Transcript

Melody Travers
Welcome to Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. In this series, we explore the hidden driver behind the crises that are upending societies and disrupting the life support systems of the planet. That hidden driver is power, our pursuit of it, our overuse of it, and our abuse of it. I’m your host, Melody Travers.

Rob Dietz
And I’m Rob Dietz, your copilot and program director at Post Carbon Institute. Join us as we explore power and why giving it up just might save us.

Melody Travers
So last episode, we talked about the evolution of social power and the various pumps that lead to greater stratification and inequality among people. And this week, we are focusing on how the discovery of fossil fuels literally changed the face of the earth.

Rob Dietz
Well, in terms of changing the face of the earth… You remember last week, Melody, I just stumbled upon these juxtapositions of city photos. It was: okay, here’s Dubai in the year 2000. Here’s Dubai today. And the change that you could see in these cities in a very short period of time, of course all fueled by oil and coal and natural gas, was just amazing.

Melody Travers
Yeah, those totally blew my mind. I sent them to my family. The Dubai one that you brought up — it was like a flat, sandy site. And then the present picture was like these skyscrapers that looked like crystals coming out of the desert. It’s very trippy. It doesn’t even look real in the photograph, honestly.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, a little sci-fi-ish in a way. And it’s incredible how a city can mushroom in a short amount of time. There were a bunch of others in there. And we’ll try to get it in the show notes. But there was Seoul and there was Rio de Janeiro. And yeah, a whole bunch of places — really, really fascinating, and shows you just the power that’s packed into fossil fuels. And I think this is an area where, you know, we tend to be kind of ignorant, like, we just don’t understand how powerful they are. And the point was driven home to me one time from trying to do a simple exercise. So the story is that my girlfriend’s car wouldn’t start, and it was parked over at my place. And like, okay, we’ve got to get this thing to the mechanic. I’m way too cheap to pay for a tow truck. So let’s just push it there. And it was less than a mile, so not very far, and completely flat. So I’m like, this is doable. I can I can get this done.

Melody Travers
Seems pretty far but okay…

Rob Dietz
Well, turns out, I cannot get this done. I had to get two of my friends who are both CrossFit athletes to help me, and the three of us push the car this distance, less than a mile. And we had to get it up the final little curb cut into the mechanic’s parking lot. And that slight incline was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do physically, like we were at our max pushing this car. And when you compare that to what it would have taken if the car had started, it would have burned five tablespoons of gas, you know, these tiny little amounts of this liquid had as much power as three adult men trying their best. And the amount of time too… You know, think how fast the car would have driven there versus how slow we were pushing it!

Melody Travers
Yeah, my scooter ran out of gas one time because the gas gauge was broken, and it puttered out and the closest gas station was actually uphill, and I tried to push that thing. And it’s only a couple 100 pounds, also on wheels, and you know I was sweating, exhausted, and I also had some very nice strangers come and help me and, you know, filled it up. And one gallon of gas would get me through 10 days of commuting to and from work every day.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, yeah. Anybody that wants to know how much power is in fossil fuel, just try pushing your fossil fueled vehicle around.

Melody Travers
Yeah, those are really good, like kind of small scale, but on a larger scale: I’ve experienced a couple of different citywide blackouts. In 2012. I was living in New York City during Hurricane Sandy. And I had that eerie experience of walking downtown in lower Manhattan where everything was dark and quiet. There were no people there were no lights. There was no sound it was — I don’t know — it was like out of some weird “Day after Tomorrow” type post-apocalyptic movie. And it was just, it was crazy to see how a bustling place can just stop dead in its tracks.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, it’s it’s one thing when your vehicle runs out of juice, it’s another thing when your whole society runs out of juice. So what did you do when that happened?

Melody Travers
Well, my roommates at the time — I thought that they were being really dramatic. They’re like, “We’re going to our friend’s house. She has a backup generator.” We were in an old tenement building, you know, the fifth floor, but walk up. So they’re like, “We’re getting out of here.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.” I packed an overnight bag, bought a sixpack of beer, and went up to my friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side, and ended up staying there for a week.

Rob Dietz
So your ticket of entry to a place that had electricity, I’m guessing, was one sixpack of beer, huh?

Melody Travers
Yeah, one sixpack of beer. Not even enough to last one beer for one person per day that I was staying there.

Rob Dietz
I hope that was at least some really good microbrew stuff. You weren’t taking Bud Light or something?

Melody Travers
No way. Yeah, it was probably crap beer, to be honest. But yeah, you know, there were no grocery stores. There was no… I mean, luckily, he was kind of stocked at the time, but I was the first person to show up. But after a while, you know, my roommates with their friends that had a backup generator — that went down. And so it ended up being about 10 people staying at his house, and we ate through all of those cans of beans that live in the back of the cabinet for years.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, I think that we, as a society, are pretty blind to that infrastructure, and how it’s all powered by these magical fossil fuels. And it makes us kind of vulnerable. One of the ideas that really crystallized that, for me, came out of a report that Jason Bradford wrote. And of course, our listeners should be familiar with Jason. He was on a previous episode explaining how, what? How life got started on Earth, maybe, right? So Jason was working on a report on the food system called “The Future is Rural.” And one of the facts in there that he reports is how we’ve kind of gotten inverted. So for each calorie of food that you eat off of your plate, it actually takes 10 calories to get it there.

Melody Travers
What?

Rob Dietz
So we’ve got this inversion that would not happen in nature. You know, if you are a cheetah on the Serengeti plains, and you have to chase down gazelles for dinner, if you’re spending more energy to do that than the gazelle is providing, you’re gonna die pretty soon. It just can’t happen. The only reason we can do that as humans is this magical bounty of fossil fuel that we’ve got. So if you think about how our food system works — you know, the industrialized food system — you’ve got all these activities up and down. You have the farm tractor, you’ve got the embedded energy for fertilizers and other inputs, you have processing and packaging of food, you’ve got warehouses and grocery stores, and then in your own household, you’ve got shopping and refrigerating and cooking. And you have to transport things all throughout this this entire system. So it’s all dependent on fossil fuels, and it’s largely invisible, you know? You’re just eating the food off your plate that you got at the store.

Melody Travers
My partner and I got — we were kind of into gardening, but we got really into gardening during the pandemic, like everybody else, and started really focusing on fruits and vegetables and stuff. And part of that was that produce and food was looking kind of scarce at a certain point, right? And we grew tomatoes and peppers and okra and eggplant and all sorts of stuff. And I would say most of the work was at the beginning, prepping the beds and everything, and after that it was, you know, mild weeding, and we’d spend 10 minutes every day. So not that much work, but the amount of money that we put into our garden with just the soil and soil amendments and organic fertilizers and the seeds and all the plants that we tried that died… And we just always joke about how we’re like, “This is the best $10 tomato I’ve ever eaten!”

Rob Dietz
Yeah, I I’m sure that that was a delicious $10 tomato and worth every cent. But you bring up a good point, which is the difference between looking at things through a monetary lens versus an energy lens. So, on the monetary front, maybe you weren’t all that efficient at tomato production. You know, you’re not gonna be in the market very long if you have to sell each tomato for $10. I’m assuming we’re talking about a good, big tomato and not like a little cherry tomato.

Melody Travers
Yeah, this year we had some really nice big heirlooms, but the first year of growing, it was cherry tomatoes.

Rob Dietz
But think about it from an energy perspective, I think you’re actually triumphant in that, you know, you didn’t have all this shipping, all these different high intensity, high energy inputs, in order to produce the food and get it to your plate. You know, you’re more in balance there. So, you know, it gets to the idea of, of localization versus globalization — some really kind of big-picture philosophical “how do I arrange society” kinds of questions?

Melody Travers
I think that’s something that we struggle with, you know, supporting a local CSA versus going to the grocery store and buying something that is honestly… It is cheaper. It is, you know, from an economic point of view, superior, but from that energy point of view, it supports a system that doesn’t really make sense. So there’s this fundamental mismatch that we’re dealing with. And that’s something that I really want to talk with Richard about: why these things don’t match up and what we can do about it.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, he’s the one to talk to about that, and maybe about how to grow tomatoes more cheaply too!

Melody Travers
I could use advice on that as well. Well, thanks a lot Rob.

Rob Dietz
Yeah thanks, Melody, catch up with you more next time.

Melody Travers
Hi, Richard!

Richard Heinberg
Hey Melody!

Melody Travers
How you doing today?

Richard Heinberg
I’m doing well. And you?

Melody Travers
I’m good

Richard Heinberg
Good.

Melody Travers
Last episode, we talked about the processes by which humans attained social power over their environment and one another. So we left off our last conversation with this observation that social power has surged exponentially in the last couple of 100 years. And it seems like part of that has been from just sheer population growth, which was facilitated by some advances in our food systems. And I was just talking with Rob about growing a tomato in my backyard. And this kind of odd mismatch of a store-bought tomato being cheaper than mine that I grew in my garden. Even though from an energy perspective, it costs a lot more to produce and transport one to my house. So I was wondering if we could start off our conversation with why the store-bought tomato is cheaper?

Richard Heinberg
Well, an economist, of course, would say it’s the scale of production. So you know, if you’re growing 20,000 tomato plants, the amount of labor that you have to put into producing each tomato is way, way less than if you’re just growing one tomato plant. But that explanation really hides a lot of what’s going on, because, you know, really, this is all down to fossil fuels, because they supply energy that’s a lot cheaper than labor energy. So regardless of whether you have, you know, farmhands who are producing the tomatoes that are getting ridiculously low wages, you know, even in that case, the input of fossil fuel energy in running the tractors and transporting the food and processing it, and all the rest — that’s such cheap energy, that the labor that you put into producing your home tomato, if you were paying yourself 20 bucks an hour, those would be really, really expensive tomatoes. But a lot less fossil fuel energy goes into producing those homegrown tomatoes.

Melody Travers
This all came up because we’re talking about fossil fuels and the magical crazy transformations that have happened to the landscape from it. And so I wanted to start with what fossil fuels are and where they came from.

Richard Heinberg
Okay, good. Well, basically, the story starts tens of millions of years ago, and a lot of people think, you know, oil comes from dead dinosaurs. And it’s, it’s just not true. First of all, there were…

Melody Travers
Wait, it’s not?

Richard Heinberg
No, no, no, no dinosaurs in there. It’s the tiny microorganisms. But this is tens of millions of years worth of ancient sunlight captured by plants, transformed by nature, into these substances that are just amazing in terms of how much energy is stored there. And then we’re using that energy over the course of just a couple of 100 years. So from millions of years of sunlight to just a couple of 100 years, in which we’re extracting, and using this energy. So the result is, in human terms, just an amazing proliferation of all kinds of physical power, it’s then become social power.

Melody Travers
Wow, to think about, like, a battery charging for millions of years, and then just being like, “Woo-hoo!”

Richard Heinberg
That’s a great way to think about it.

Melody Travers
I just found this awesome battery.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah…

Melody Travers
It just goes and goes!

Richard Heinberg
Absolutely. So you know, grains were concentrated stores of energy. And that’s what got the first complex human societies going, the early state societies, kingdoms, and so on, right? And fossil fuels are kind of the same thing. You know, they’re concentrated stores of energy, only way more so. So a single barrel of oil contains chemically stored energy, that’s equivalent to something like 25,000 hours of human muscle powered labor. So, you know, if you’re paying again, say, $20 an hour for labor, then a barrel of oil ought to cost half a million dollars.

Melody Travers
Oh, my gosh!

Richard Heinberg
But instead, you know, it costs $100. So that’s just a way of thinking of how cheap fossil fuel energy actually is. And of course, that explains why we use it to do absolutely anything we can. You know, over the last 100 years, we’ve mechanized all kinds of activities, just because it’s so much cheaper to do those things with machines running on fossil fuels than it is with human labor.

Melody Travers
I’m still trying to wrap my head around what 25,000 hours of human muscle would be. And I’m reminded of, I think it was Bruce Lee who said, “You do one kick 10,000 times to master it.” Or, you know, that 10,000-hour rule to master something, and 25,000 hours would be two and a half times mastering something. So that’s just a… it’s just wild to, like, even try to conceptualize. Or Rob was talking about pushing a car and, you know, how much draining muscle it took to push this thing that, you know, just takes a couple tablespoons of oil, it’s really amazing to think about.

Richard Heinberg
And another way to think about it is how much energy we have to invest in getting energy. And this is a concept that some scientists call energy return on investment or energy return on energy investment — EROEI it’s sometimes acronymed with. So it takes energy to get energy as I just said, and with getting your energy from growing food crops, you know, using traction animals — oxen and human labor — your energy profit may be something like three to one. So you invest one unit of energy in plowing and harvesting and taking care of the animals, and you get three units of energy back. Okay, and that’s enough surplus to operate an ancient state society on. Well, once we started using fossil fuels, suddenly the energy return on investment for drilling an oil well or digging a coal mine or something could be 50 to one or 100 to one. And so it didn’t take so many people to be involved in basic energy production activities. And that freed up an enormous amount of people to do all the other kinds of things that we’re interested in doing — whether it’s being accountants or or soldiers or…

Melody Travers
Podcasters!

Richard Heinberg
Podcasters, yeah right!

Melody Travers
So when was coal first discovered? Because I think that was the first fossil fuel. And how did it transform those regions?

Richard Heinberg
Well, people have probably been aware of coal for a very long time, we have records at least going back to Roman times, probably long before.

Melody Travers
Wow.

Richard Heinberg
But there wasn’t much systematic effort to exploit coal for energy. People even made jewelry out of it. But it did have this peculiar tendency to catch fire.

Melody Travers
What a gorgeous necklace. Just like in flames. Yikes.

Richard Heinberg
In China, just over 1000 years ago, people first started using coal as a fuel to heat their homes and heat baths, and they also used it to make iron and steel. So you know, people had already been making iron using charcoal made out of wood. But coal just made hotter fires. And it was more plentiful because people were cutting down all their trees to smelt iron with. So during this time, again, about 1000 years ago, in China technological innovation was really taking off. The Chinese were inventing movable printing type, the blast furnace, mechanical water clocks, paddle wheel ships, a magnetic compass. They even built these huge ocean going ships or junks, with watertight bulkheads, that carried up to 600 tons. And they had a big crew, maybe 1000 people. They were really an industrializing society, and we don’t talk about this in our history books very much. But they do talk about it in China. They’re very proud of it. But this process of industrial expansion, continued until about the 1200s. And then it just stopped.

Melody Travers
Wow, I really had no idea. Especially you said movable type printing, which obviously we associate with Gutenberg, which I think was 500 years after what you’re talking about. That’s totally incredible. But what? So what happened? Like, why didn’t the industrial revolution happen in China?

Richard Heinberg
Well, so what happened was China was ruled by a hereditary aristocracy, just as Europe was at the time. And the aristocrats looked at industrialization as a threat to their political power, they saw all these people who had the blast furnaces, fueled by coal, getting rich, and they thought, “Well, you know, these people are going to take over.” So they had enough social power still, at that time, that they could just shut this thing down. And that’s what they did. So it tells us that sometimes historical processes like the exploitation of new energy resources, even though they seem inevitable, they’re also subject to, you know, historical quirks, and they’re also subject to social power. So, you know, things can change.

Melody Travers
That’s so interesting, because we’ve been talking about this relationship between social power being dependent on physical power. But this is an example where the social power actually trumped the physical power for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, it’s a rare example, I have to say, but it shows that it’s possible.

Melody Travers
So what were the conditions? When I think of the Industrial Revolution and coal, I really think about Britain. So what were the conditions there that led to the Industrial Revolution?

Richard Heinberg
Okay, well, in Britain, there was already a new center of social power emerging, which consisted of traders and early industrialists. And these industrialists were mostly relying on water power to operate their machinery. And they were getting a lot of wealth from colonial possessions. I mean, you could invest in a shipping company and get rich.

Melody Travers
Like crypto!

Richard Heinberg
So these people had already managed to rival the old hereditary aristocracy in terms of wealth and social influence. That battle had already happened, you know, and had already been won. So even if the royalty and aristocrats in Britain had viewed fossil fuels as a threat, these new power centers didn’t, because they realized they could get even richer. And so the industrial expansion went ahead in Britain, even though it had been stopped in China. And this really rested on three pillars: of course, the increasing use of coal as fuel and Britain had coal. It also depended on technological innovation, just as it had in China, and also encouragement for capital investment, like private property rights. If it hadn’t been possible for people to own coal mines and profit from operating them, then, you know, the Industrial Revolution probably wouldn’t have happened. So China had all three of these things. But in that case, it didn’t work out. In Britain, again, we see the same things. There’s coal, there’s technological innovation, there’s private property, and it moves ahead. And here we are. As a result, world history was changed.

Melody Travers
Yeah, John Locke was kind of the father of private property, basically establishing the social part that was lacking in China, that third pillar to prop all of this up.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, I mean, Britain is where capitalism starts. So capitalism and industrialism are really kind of joined at the hip. You couldn’t have had industrialization on any large scale, if there hadn’t been at least the rudiments of capitalism there. And coal. And so in Britain there just happened to be a lot of easily accessible coal. It was even, you know, washing up on seashores. And people could go out and collect it from the shore, or there were big deposits also that were very close to the surface. So you didn’t have to dig very deep. But as time went on, people in Britain started to use more and more coal for heat. And then for industrial purposes. Of course, the fact that they’d cut down almost all their forests was a big incentive to use all this coal. And as the mines were dug deeper and deeper, this created a problem because they got to the water table, and they couldn’t go any deeper, because the mines would flood. So what do you do then? Well, technology to the rescue. Somebody invents a steam engine, a guy named Thomas Newcomen, invented a very inefficient steam pump to pump out the water. And it was later improved by James Watt. And of course, we know the watt as the unit of measure of power.

Melody Travers
Oh, right. Yeah.

Richard Heinberg
So all these things are historically tied together. And from that point on, coal sort of creates its own feedback loop. So demand for coal drives technological developments, that in turn, drive more demand for coal, because you know, what are the steam engines running on? Well, they’re running on coal. So you’re using coal to pump out the water from the coal mines, so you can get more coal. And you’re always finding more uses for the coal. Somebody connects a steam engine with a wagon on rails, and suddenly you’ve got railroads. And steam shipping and steam-powered factories and all the rest. So once this feedback loop gets going, Britain becomes a global economic powerhouse, and a center for science and industry. And then later on, that center sort of migrates over across the Atlantic Ocean to the US, but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, there was another thing that you mentioned in your book, that one of the really positive consequences of the adoption of coal was this positive social impact for women’s rights and the end of slavery. And I was just wondering how much of these we can attribute to fossil fuels? And do you think that this kind of social progress would have emerged without it?

Richard Heinberg
Well, of course, it’s impossible to say for sure, but it sure seems like industrialization created conditions where it was easier for people to demand more opportunity for political participation. Certainly with agriculture  becoming mechanized, people were moving to the cities and looking for jobs. And of course, industrialists were creating jobs with all the factories they were building. So while agricultural life encouraged a strongly gendered division of labor with men working in the fields and women tending to domestic chores, urban jobs could mostly be done just as well by either women or men. So of course, women were more likely to begin to demand equal pay and equal political rights. At the same time, you see unionization emerging with coal power. Wage labor started in coal mines on a large scale. I mean, people had paid each other for work before then, but on an organized large scale, it really starts with coal mines. And those were the places where the first labor unions formed. Coal miners were different from farmers in that they were easier to organize. They were all working at these dreary underground jobs. And if they got too upset with their working conditions, they could slow the whole process down, disrupt it. The word sabotage was created at that time to describe what some of these folks did in order to fight back at the mine owners. And this was very effective, you know? They were able to shut down coal mines, which shut down railroads, and… Or they shut down the railroads, which were the ways of distributing the coal, right? So this was a way of gaining political and social power that really worked. And it changed the political conditions in Britain and in other industrialized countries.

Melody Travers
The way that you’re describing that wage labor, and then labor unions developing in tandem makes it seem like the social dynamics were seeking balance, trying to maintain homeostasis, like an organism, you know? Like, if it swung too far in one direction, it pulled to the other side. And the other thing that I was thinking about is that difference between the public sphere and the private sphere, where women were at home doing domestic chores, like you said, but work was always something that was seen as public. And the public sphere is where politics happened. And so allowing women to get out of the private sphere seemed to allow those conditions as well.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, that’s a really good observation. Yeah, Timothy Mitchell wrote a whole book about this. It’s titled “Carbon Democracy.” And he points out that the period between the 1870s and World War I was the age of union-propelled democratization. And at the same time, it was also the age of steamboat colonialism. So this almost seems like a contradiction. Coal was leading to more domestic political engagement, but internationally to more exploitation of land and labor, maybe on the other side of the planet. But it’s not such a contradiction when you look at it in terms of energy flows, because energy was flowing to industrial countries. And if you happen to live in one of those countries, the economic pie was growing. So it was natural for people to expect and demand a larger slice, which is what was going on. But of course, the people who were living in the countries that were being exploited, didn’t get such a good deal.

Melody Travers
So that imbalance just became sort of international and further away, and maybe even more like out of sight, out of mind. So it seemed like all this great stuff was happening in the industrialized world, but at the peril of people across the world.

Richard Heinberg
Right. And this happens, even more so but in different ways, as we shift from coal to oil.

Melody Travers
Yeah. So how how did the advent of oil further accelerate this feedback loop that you were talking about?

Richard Heinberg
Well, with oil, we get the beginnings really of the modern world, the modern idea of the global economy. People didn’t think of the economy as a thing, or consumerism, you know, before oil. Oil was even more energy dense than coal. And it could be transported more easily through pipelines and oil tankers. It was traded internationally more than coal was. So it created a different kind of economy. It was so easy to make stuff using oil, that it created the problem in the early 20th century of overproduction. And that led to the Great Depression. Factories can produce far more stuff than people could actually buy. So eventually, the factories were idled and people lost their jobs. So this was a huge problem. And there was this new new job description called economist. And so the economists looked at this and they said, “Oh, there’s a big problem. What do we do about this?” And their solution was to organize the economy around encouraging consumption. If you’ve got too much production, well, you balance that out with more consumption, right? And so advertising really takes off starting in the 1930s. And especially after World War II with the 1950s. And instead of being called people or citizens, now we’re called consumers, because that’s our role in the economy — our role is to consume as much stuff as possible. So we’re making jobs for somebody else. And also, of course, profits for the people who own the factories. Another new idea that comes with the oil age is the idea of development. A seed develops into a plant, an infant develops into a child, which develops into a teenager, which develops into an adult, you know? Development is a natural biological concept. But economists applied this term “development” to the process of industrialization and getting rich from industrialization. And the implication was that it’s perfectly natural for any economy to develop from being basically agricultural or pre-agricultural, to ultimately being an industrial economy running on fossil fuels. This is just a natural development just like growing from infancy to adulthood, right? Well, it’s not of course. It’s entirely a historical accident. It’s something that happened because of fossil fuels and technology and private property. But, you know, for economists this is development, and it sounds so good. So it’s a way of saying to these other countries that are being exploited, “Well, look, okay, it looks bad. Now, we’re transferring — we’re taking all your wealth and raw materials, and you’re supplying super cheap labor so we can get rich, but it’s okay. Because you’re developing, right? You’re gonna be like us someday, right?”

Melody Travers
Yeah, that’s so tricky, too. Because not only is it natural, it would be unnatural to want to stay an infant or a little seed. There’s an imperative, an ethical imperative, kind of slipped into that idea of development, where your country doesn’t want to be stunted. You know, the right thing, the correct thing to do is to develop, right? Yeah, that’s so slippery.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, so this plays into economic growth, because economic growth is part and parcel with development. And nobody expected the economy to constantly grow prior to the 20th century, the fossil fueled 20th century. First of all, nobody called it the economy, but business transactions, the process of producing food, all of that stuff — it went on, but nobody totaled it up using measures like GDP. And nobody expected that GDP would grow from one year to the next. This all came really after the 1930s. And so economists looked at the economy, the fossil fueled economy, and it was growing. And they said, “Oh, well, this is what it’s supposed to do. This is all part of development. And it’s perfectly natural for economies to grow. It’s the right thing. It’s always producing more jobs, and more profits and so on. We like it, so this is what we should always have is more economic growth.”

Melody Travers
And more jobs and more profit are also important because at the same time, the population keeps growing too. And that feeds into this growth paradigm. Absolutely. So at the start of the 20th century, the world population was around what, like 2 billion? And then everybody started freaking out because they thought, “Okay, our population has been growing so much. How are we going to feed everybody?” And then this amazing, miraculous thing happened, where I think it was a German scientist invented nitrogen fertilizers.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, right.

Melody Travers
And that drove things really exponentially.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, it was a couple of German scientists: Fritz Haber, and Carl Bosch. And natural gas was sort of a new thing at the time. It was produced along with oil, and at first, nobody knew what to do with it, but then they started collecting it, and they realized they could make explosives out of it. And in World War I, that’s what they started doing, was making ammonia based explosives, starting with natural gas, but that ammonia could also be used as fertilizer. And here was a solution to a huge problem because, you know, at the time, as you say, world food production was really hitting limits, and the biggest limit was in the fertility of soils. And nobody knew what to do about it. They had been using huge deposits of bird droppings. Guano were found on some Pacific Islands, and you know, ships would dock at these islands and load up on bird poop and then take it to Europe and America and put it on the land to fertilize the land. But that was a stopgap solution, because of course, that was depleting fast. So finding this nitrogen fertilizer that you could manufacture — wow, suddenly, the sky was the limit. It was possible to re-fertilize soils on an annual basis and produce a lot more food. And that was really the basis for what would later become the Green Revolution, where, you know, crop yields were growing year after year. And as we were also putting more land into production, it was possible to feed a population that was growing at an astronomical rate. But it’s all down to fossil fuels. It’s those nitrogen fertilizers that we produce, mostly using natural gas.

Melody Travers
I want to get back to oil because I know oil is propping that side up. But there’s also been a lot of shifts in the social power dynamics. Now it’s not between tribes or even countries, it’s gone to this global level. So I was just wondering if you could talk me through how after World War II, there was this big upset of two world powers emerging. And so I want to hear a little bit more about how oil has impacted that.

Richard Heinberg
So you know, after World War II, you have the US and the Soviet Union, two big oil-producing countries that are contesting for global power. Most of the world is in ruins. And actually, the Soviet Union suffered tremendously during World War II in terms of loss of population, loss of productivity, and so on. So it’s trying to rebuild quickly. But the US, you know, World War II is not fought on US soil, right, with very tiny exceptions. So the US emerges as kind of a global superpower at the time and establishes the United Nations, but also the World Bank and the IMF, which kind of dominate the world financial system. And so we have the Cold War, which moves us from direct confrontation, which is what we had during World War I, World War II, which were fought with oil and fought over oil, to a different kind of conflict. Because now you know, the end of World War II, we have the development of nuclear weapons. And so the US and the USSR do not want to get into direct confrontation, because that’s just too dangerous. So from here on, we have proxy wars, like the US in Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And then the Soviet Union collapses partly as a result of the US talking its ally, Saudi Arabia, into lowering world oil prices in the mid-1980s to such an extent as to, more or less, bankrupt the Soviet Union.

Melody Travers
Wow.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, it’s a story that not many people know, but it’s told in in several books. And so when the USSR goes bankrupt and collapses, then the US really is the world’s sole superpower. But you know, it botches the whole thing with optional wars and Afghanistan and Iraq. All this time, oil is kind of in the background of things. Maintaining control of oil flows, all oil sales globally, are denominated in US dollars. So in a way, the whole global economy is sort of backed up by oil, and the US is in charge of the whole thing.

Melody Travers
So we’ve gotten our conversation up to the present. You talked about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. So we’re into the 21st century now, and I know there was this big discussion about the concept of Peak Oil, you know, when we would we be producing the most oil ever, and then it would kind of plateau and decline. And I’ve just heard different things about when that’s going to happen, if it’s going to happen. Is it happening right now? Did it happen a couple of years ago? Can you give me a little background on that?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, the whole Peak Oil discussion is based on the understanding that oil is a depleting nonrenewable resource. And it’s depleting in real time, you know. We’re using more and more of it every year. So how long can we keep doing that, right? And we extract oil, based on the low-hanging-fruit principle. We go after the stuff that’s highest quality, easiest-to-get first, and leave the nasty, hard-to-get stuff for later. And we’ve been doing that for decades and decades. And we’re down to some of the nasty, hard-to-get stuff. I mean, if you look at the last couple of decades, where oil production has grown, it’s mostly, well, Canadian tar sands, which is the nastiest, dirtiest stuff there is. And also in the US what’s often called shale oil or tight oil that’s produced by hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling. This is oil that’s really hard to get out of the ground, because it’s located in rocks that have very low permeability. There’s oil there, but it just doesn’t want to move. You drill a vertical well into the oil-bearing rock, and the oil says, “Oh, fine, hello.” It doesn’t want to… It just wants to stay there.

Melody Travers
So it’s just a doesn’t want to move,

Richard Heinberg
Doesn’t want to move! So you have to encourage it, first of all, by drilling horizontally into that rock layer, and then using explosives to punch holes in the pipe, and then it will move into the borehole, but it moves kind of all at once. And so these wells deplete very, very rapidly, and you have to continually drill more and more wells. So this is this is what we’re down to. It’s kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel, if you will. It’s not like we’re about to run out of oil — there’s still a lot of oil in the Earth’s crust, but at a certain point, it will no longer be possible to continue increasing the rate at which we extract it. And that’s what the whole Peak Oil discussion is about. And the evidence is we’re getting, if we’re not there yet, we’re very close to it. If you look at world oil production statistics, around November 2018 was the month of single highest oil production month in world history. So we’re a few years past that now. And it’s conceivable that we could see some increased production from the Permian Basin in Texas, which is — you know, that’s tight oil, hydrofracturing. But everyplace else is producing pretty much flat out. Russia, which was a big oil producer, is seeing its oil production decline. Saudi Arabia and the other Middle Eastern countries are relying on tired old oil wells that have been producing since the 1940s and 50s. So there’s not much more to get from there, I mean, in terms of rate of production. So yeah, we’re kind of there, I think.

Melody Travers
Oh, okay. That’s so interesting that you’re talking about fracking that way, because I’m just seeing headlines like, “Fracking, the new thing that’s gonna save us,” and I mean, it did significantly boost the American economy, right?

Richard Heinberg
Oh yeah. It was a miracle. I mean, the US went from producing like 5 million barrels a day to producing 12 million barrels a day, 13 million barrels a day, as a result of fracking. It was the most rapid increase in oil production that any country has ever seen.

Melody Travers
Wow.

Richard Heinberg
So yeah, it was a miracle. But you know, what goes up must come down. And in this case, it went up really fast, and it may come down really fast.

Melody Travers
So with fracking, to go back to that concept of the energy return on energy invested, there seems to be a lot more there. But here’s the problem that it’s just a lot harder to get. And so you’re just not getting the same types of returns.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, I mean, and this shows up in the bottom line. Most of the companies that specialize in fracking — and we’re not talking for the most part about giant oil companies like Exxon, Chevron, Shell and those guys — we’re talking about small to medium-sized oil companies, maybe 50, 60 of them. Most of them lost money hand over fist over the last decade producing tight oil. Right now with higher oil prices, they are making a good return. But we’ll see how long that lasts. You mentioned energy return on energy invested. And that’s really key here, because it takes so much more effort to produce this stuff, that the energy return on investment of society as a whole is declining as we move to these harder-to-get fossil fuel resources, whether it’s digging deeper for coal, as we’re doing — China is having to dig much deeper for coal now than it was just a decade ago. Whether it’s natural gas, whether it’s oil. As that’s happening, the energy return on energy invested for society as a whole is declining. And that means it’s more and more challenging to maintain the same level of social complexity that we have developed as a result of having such cheap energy.

Melody Travers
Yeah, you said in in the book that humanity has been building an ever expanding castle on an eroding sandbar. I thought that was beautifully said. And I wanted to know a little bit more about what you meant by that.

Richard Heinberg
Right. Well, of course, as we said, these are finite depleting resources. This isn’t just an earth-shattering realization that nobody’s ever had before! People have have been thinking about this for some decades. So what’s the plan B, what’s our backup energy source? And in the 1950s, that backup energy source was assumed to be nuclear power. So that’s when countries started developing and building nuclear power plants. Nuclear power turned out to be a lot more expensive than anybody was figuring on. And nobody knew what to do with the nuclear waste. And that’s still the case today. So nuclear power was built out to a certain extent, but then pretty much stagnated. And it’s extremely unlikely that we will turn to nuclear power now, as fossil fuels become more and more expensive. So now the alternative plan is solar and wind.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I was gonna bring that up. Because with things like the Green New Deal and climate discussions, it’s always a new Holy Grail, as it were. And I was also reminded of Marshall McLuhan calling electricity an extension of the nervous system. But I brought up with Rob earlier that I’ve been in some massive blackouts. And there’s some vulnerabilities that are built into the electrical grid and the system. And so as we’re talking about all these different energy sources, and we’ve got this whole complex society built on this, and we’ve seen these moments, right? My example was Hurricane Sandy. So it was a, you know, a natural disaster. So what are some of those vulnerabilities? And how do we try to overcome some of those? And can we, even, with what you were talking about with wind and solar?

Richard Heinberg
Well, electricity is an extremely useful energy carrier. So some of our most important societal processes are totally dependent on electricity now: communication, information storage. And so what happens if the grid goes down? Everything stops working, right? Even the gasoline pumps stop working because they work on electricity. So even though we only use 20% of our energy in the form of electricity — the other 80% we use in the form of solid, liquid and gaseous fuels — that 20% is really, really key. And it’s absolutely essential for hospitals and in offices and your home office, and keeping the stores running and all the rest. It’s absolutely essential that we keep the grid operating. So that’s why even with the limitations of solar and wind power, I think it’s really important that we build as much of this stuff as we can, while we can, because right now, it takes a lot of fossil fuels to build solar panels and wind turbines and, you know, source the materials for them, do the manufacturing processes and deploy them all around the world and so on. You know, we aren’t going to have fossil fuels forever. And, you know, forever is a very long time, but it may be a very short time, that we still have fossil fuels available in the quantity and the cheapness that we currently enjoy. So we’ve got to use this time to build out alternative energy sources as much as possible, while reducing our need for energy as much as we can. We can’t just assume that renewable electricity is going to enable the Industrial Revolution and economic growth to continue into the 22nd century. It ain’t going to happen. We’ve got to not just look for alternative energy sources, but alternative ways of organizing our economy, organizing our lives, so that we get by with less power.

Melody Travers
I guess the question now is, we’ve got this world-shaping power. So what do we do with it? And it’s a result of fossil fuels. And our human power has overtaken nature, really, at an exponential rate. And many of us are enjoying comforts and conveniences that I mean… I could go out and get some ice cream, and only 100 years ago, a king might be able to get some ice cream in the middle of summer. And they’d have to haul a block of ice down from a mountain or something. And now we can travel far and wide and fast. And we can just summon all this information, communicate with people across the world where we’ve become, I don’t know, like, aristocrats or royalty of the Earth, beckoning things.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, I can see where you’re going with this, Melody. And the question you’re zeroing in on is, “What could possibly go wrong?” And there are unintended consequences galore, from what we’ve been talking about — our fossil fueled superpowers. And that’s something we should explore next time.

Melody Travers
Ralph Waldo Emerson observed every basket of coal is power and civilization. For coal is a portable climate. It carries the heat of the tropics to the polar circle. And it is the means of transporting itself whithersoever it is wanted. Coal carries coal, by rail and by boat to make Canada as warm as Calcutta. But should Canada be as warm as Calcutta? Can and should are very different questions. The child wonders, “Can I?” The adult wonders, “Should I?” Like children we invented without reflection. We set forth burning and consuming, carving up the landscape and enclosing ourselves inside. The coal train keeps rolling because it can, and we keep it going because we fear we must. When is it time to skid to a halt? Will we engage these hard questions because we should? Or will we postpone until we must? We are creating and using more energy than ever before. What will we do with Emerson’s coal? That precious gift. A million years of concentrated sunlight. We will leave you with one of the best known songs of the Great Depression. A song that has haunted me since I was 13. It tells the story of the everyman who’s honest work towards achieving the American Dream has been foiled by economic collapse.

Once I built a railroad, made it run, made it race against time. Once I built a railroad, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime? Once I built a tower to the sun, brick and rivet and lime. Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Melody Travers
For a more in depth account of the genesis of illusion and adaptations of power, checkout Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival at your local library, or get a personal copy to scribble in the margins. A great companion piece is The Future Is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification by Jason Bradford. You can download it for free at postcarbon.org. But beware, you can’t unsee humanity knocking hard against our limits to growth on this finite planet. Are you ready to confront power? This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Melody Travers Allison, and Rob Dietz. Richard Heinberg is our resident expert. Theme music is by Robert Labaree. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” was performed by me, and you can find more of my music at melodychebrellan.com. This is a program of Post Carbon Institute. Learn more at postcarbon.org.

 

Teaser photo credit: A model of the spinning jenny in a museum in Wuppertal. Invented by James Hargreaves in 1764, the spinning jenny was one of the innovations that started the industrial revolution.