Recently I was asked to comment on new claims of breakthroughs in research for nuclear fusion1 (that powers the stars, including our own sun, and was demonstrated on Earth in the hydrogen bomb). My ability to comment on these claims is from a big picture, systems perspective. I can also answer in terms of whether this undermines my half century long belief in “energy descent”2, and ongoing articulation of permaculture design principles, strategies and practices to be adaptive in such futures. My process in crafting a response reflects the permaculture design principle Design from Patterns to Details by starting with context before diving into the details and then zooming back out to context before a second dive in as I refine my rudimentary understanding of those details. I write this on the eve of the southern hemisphere summer solstice here at Melliodora, paying homage to our own (father) Sun.3
It is half a century since Howard Odum’s Environment, Power and Society4 and Donella Meadows et al’s Limits to Growth5 provided the global future context for the conception of permaculture; a design system that provides for human needs, working with, rather than against, nature. In 2002 I dedicated Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability to Howard Odum’s memory. In his last book, A Prosperous Way Down,6 published the same year as Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Odum called the future of humanity as one of energy descent. In my 2008 Future Scenarios,7 I outlined four possible energy descent futures that could emerge over the succeeding 10 to 40 years.8 Over the years since, interest and investment in energy options and prospects for humanity have accelerated, driven by rising energy costs, ongoing depletion of fossil fuel resources, geopolitical tensions and conflict as well as the gradually hardening public policies and corporate strategies for responding to climate change. While the last of these issues is widely understood as the key driver and justification for the rapid transition to no- and low-carbon energy sources, my interpretation was always that the declining net energy returns and reliability of international trade in fossil fuels are the more powerful drivers. In simple terms, Peak Oil has trumped Climate Change in forcing change even if the vast majority of commentators and institutions assume the reverse.
History: Ancient and Unfolding
Back in 1950, the Australian government’s chief advisor on nuclear power, Sir Ernest Titterton, asserted that by 1980 nuclear power would be free (apart from a service fee for delivery). I’m not sure if his confidence was based on the then rosy prospects for fission power or whether he was assuming that the much greater potential energy source in fusion would be harnessed for civilian use. I wonder if he was the original source of the joke that fusion power is always 30 years away. Books about the future written for eager youth in Titterton’s day were also promising holidays to Mars, a project still in the future but now funded by the private blow off capital from the biggest and longest running financial bubble in history.
The oil crises of ‘73 and ‘79 led to an almost feverish explosion in R&D of novel, alternative and old sources of energy, but when relatively cheap energy began flowing in the 1980s from newly developed fields in the North Sea and the Alaskan North Slope, funds for energy research were turned off. The new neo-liberal ideology of the Thatcherite/Reganite revolution included the belief that free markets would find the solutions to any future long term energy constraints.
In the 1990s, global climate commitments led to a trickle of research funding for energy but it was not until the turn of century that energy R&D became a big deal for governments, corporations and the media. This was due to rising oil prices, resource nationalism in several energy exporters including Venezuela and Russia, and regime change “successes” in several more, failures in new oil exploration and of course the drumbeat of accelerating climate change evidence and policies. It therefore broke through the previously semi-conscious public awareness and led to interest in our existential sources of sustenance including water, food and energy.
Over the last decade, the spectacular but short-lived shale oil boom allowed the USA to exceed its historic peak of (conventional) oil in 1970 but left swathes of rural America with a toxic legacy. Driven by dismantled environmental regulation, gullible investors and close to zero interest rate money, it allowed the USA to have one last flourish as Saudi America enforcing its “rules based order” on the world.9 But the peak of what is called “Total Liquids”10 finally appears to be in the rear view mirror, and the multiple symptoms of my Brown Tech energy descent scenario seem to be consolidating with Covid and Ukraine as perhaps the most powerful evidence that the globalised market economy is being replaced by command economies at national scale in an emerging new multipolar world order.11
Fusion: technology saviour or white elephant?
Given this general context, I have never bothered to spend the brainpower or time needed to grasp the esoteric intricacies, or even read the periodic propaganda that passes for science journalism, about the ever-alluring potential of fusion power to avoid some form of energy descent future. Such an admission may expose my cognitive bias in energy matters but it seems to me the window for scientific breakthroughs to avoid energy descent passed decades ago. Energy transitions to richer and denser but more complex sources of energy over the last 250 years have taken 50 to 100 years before the new source is a major contributor to world energy.12 The huge R&D and subsidies for nuclear power led to it providing a small supplement to fossil fuels by the 1970s before the societal hang-over from accidents and waste management stalled the development but not research funding.13 Any real scientific breakthrough in something as mindbogglingly complex as fusion power would take 30 years of unlimited R&D funding before it could begin to make a real impact on global energy supply (assuming the rest of the techno-financial-geopolitical-psychosocial juggernaut needed to sustain such a process stays afloat). I see the current hope and hype for fusion as a reflection of the waning faith that the current accelerating transition to renewables can sustain industrial civilisation’s addiction to ever increasing and reliable 24/7/365 energy supply (currently about 5% of total global energy supply and just ahead of nuclear fission power).14
Huge funding by the EU for advancing the potential and current yields from renewable energy including solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, wave and tidal power only just equals the research funding for the tokamak technology for magnetic field control of the fusion reaction, which cannot be held in any physical container because the heat of a sustained fusion reaction (like in the sun) would turn any physical container into plasma.15 The tokamak technology was first developed by the Soviets in the 1960s and was until recently considered the front runner in the race to make fusion power produce more energy in the lab that it consumes (for a microsecond). However, the recent hoo-ha around fusion is about a competing technology using high-powered laser energy to contain the plasma that occurs naturally in the sun due to its immense gravity.
Last year, research burning through buckets of cash, resources, brainpower and energy managed to match the results of the tokamak technology. According to a relatively sober report in The Conversation16 1.3 megajoules of fusion energy resulted from 1.9 megajoules of laser energy fired at a tiny fuel cell of hydrogen (for a few nanoseconds) by 192 high powered lasers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. Perhaps one small step for mankind but no doubt a giant leap in future funding for laser powered fusion.
A recent announcement from LLNL17 claims they have achieved the holy grail of “scientific breakeven” after generating 3.15 megajoules of fusion energy from 2.05 megajoules of laser energy, a Q factor of 1.5. Another Conversation piece in response to the announcement notes “Q factors of 10, 100 or even 1000 might be needed to achieve commercially viable electric power generation from fusion” but doesn’t bother to mention the 322 megajoules of grid electricity needed to power the 192 lasers. On the face of it, this suggests a Q factor of 100 would be needed just to cover the energy powering the lasers (unless they are also going to simultaneously improve the efficiency of their lasers by 150-fold). This doesn’t even start to factor in the embodied energy in the infrastructure.
So much for my first effort to grapple with the details. Rather than wanting to ridicule the achievement of the scientists and engineers, I am scathing about the lazy science journalism that simply amplifies the public announcements by these institutions ensuring the ongoing flow of resources extracted from nature on behalf of the gullible taxpayer who, in any case, has no say in the matter.
How to measure energy?
Apart from pricking the balloon of achieving net energy (for a microsecond), this tiny foray into the prospects of fusion power highlights the inconvenient truth that different types of energy measured in joules are not the same thing. If it takes 300 megajoules of electricity to create 2 of laser energy18 this suggests laser energy is inherently much more powerful in ways not measured by joules, calories or any other measure of humble heat energy used by scientists to reduce all forms of energy to their lowest common denominator.
It is only through metrics such as eMergy (embodied energy accounting) developed by Howard Odum and colleagues in the 1970s and since (with minimal funding) that is possible to measure and meaningfully evaluate the differences of effective energy density and utility that have shaped nature down the eons and human societies over the millennia including our own flourish of fossil fuelled exuberance over the last 250 years.19
Odum’s eMergy accounting methodology derives from whole systems, top-down perspectives that challenge the reductionist bottom-up perspectives of most scientists working in most fields including ecology. But that is all a rabbit hole of another kind,20 so I will return to trying to understand the prospects for fusion by consulting those deep in the details.
The perspective of a retired specialist
The devil might be in the details for any of the incredible complexity of proposed and developing technologies, but when only a small group of highly networked peers have any capacity to assess those details and those experts all tend to be governed by groupthink, especially when their livelihood and status depend on perishingly few institutional and corporate funders, then it is very difficult for generalists to sort the grain from the chaff.
Being buried in any one part of any of the mindbogglingly complexity that characterises most scientific research often means one can’t see the forest for the trees and it is understandable that most scientists are emotionally deeply invested in their life’s work; they have to be to have any chance of success or recognition. Occasionally those beavering away in their specialised part of the puzzle lift their heads and grasp the larger picture. Mostly this happens due to some existential crisis within a field21 but it can also occur to individuals as they gain perspective on their life’s work in retirement. Daniel Jassby’s overview of the limitations of fusion (including sustainable fuel supply, radioactive waste and nuclear weapons proliferation) may reflect this type of turn from contributor to sceptic.22 Jassby helped my understanding of the details and the context beyond what I had managed by reading a few articles by the publicists and science journalists. His review of the latest news23 definitely confirms the scientific milestone that will ensure the flow of funds whilst at the same time may leave the competing magnetic confinement technology as one very expensive piece of junk, although I imagine it will continue to draw some ongoing funds if only to cover the embarrassment of the failure of such a great example of international cooperation.
Difficulties in discussion of energy futures
In considering humanity’s future energy options, this problem of complexity and overspecialisation is just one of the systemic problems obstructing any rational evidence-based discussion or conclusions that could guide benign policies on behalf of the public and their descendants.
Some of the others include:
- Growing and reliable sources of energy over centuries have led to a steep decline in innate human energy literacy of our ancestors, which has not been replaced through the formal education of the population.
- The failure of most scientists to acknowledge the urgent need for valid ways to measure differences in energy density and utility and therefore useful net energy analysis to inform policymakers and the public.
- Powerful controllers and backers of different energy sources have control over key information, finance and other virtual resources that cloud the physics and logistics of energy supply.
- Economics, the dominant discipline of our civilisation, largely remains structurally blind to energy realities, with no agreed way to usefully measure energy gains and losses without reference to an enclosing economic framework which itself has no basis in the material world.
- The financial system of capitalism with interest-bearing money and debt is structurally dependent on growth so cannot countenance even a steady state without causing financial collapse.
- The history of fossil fuelled capitalism includes small and large financial resets, but the scale of debt is now so large and convoluted that the financial reset, which is historically inevitable, is likely to dwarf the 2008 GFC or the 1930s Great Depression.
- In a culture that believes in the power of money, it is more or less inevitable that these structural economic failures are hiding and confusing understanding of the more fundamental limits to growth.
- After 250 years of effectively free and growing energy, our culture is addicted to rising net energy, so the psycho-social impediments to facing the realities of constraint and decline may be worse than we observe in the worst cases of drug addiction. The incentive to believe there must be another hit to keep us going and growing is overwhelming.
- No global or national institution, and very few NGOs, publicly recognise futures of energy descent or collapse as likely and almost all planning for the future assumes some version of techno-explosive futures.
- In all the major and most of the regional wars of the 20th Century, conflict over energy resources played a major, even defining part in the causes and outcomes of those conflicts. But most commentators and historians documenting these events underplay or completely misunderstand the role of energy.
- As in the past, interpretation of all current and recent conflicts focuses on “right” and “wrong” ideologies and “good” and “evil” actors as explanations for, and justification of, actions in those conflicts.
- The energy transition currently underway is a major factor reshaping world power relationships which could, at least for a limited time, trump economics as the key explanation for hard times (ie contracting energy supply and reliability).
As the pathways into Energy Descent for humanity multiply, the options for the Techno-explosion future beyond the fireworks of our fossil fuelled civilisation of the last 250 years are contracting. Despite herculean resources, brainpower and institutional focus, fusion power is, in my opinion, as unlikely to put humanity back on the path of the Techno-explosive future as it was in the 1970s when I first began to understand that energy (rather than money) makes the world go round.
This belief and work is in stark contrast to virtually all the government, corporate and NGO formal research, policy and planning about human futures, which assumes growth in human use of energy, in some form, is inevitable, even if the more sober assessment of renewables is tending to shift back from reflecting Techno-explosion futures to Techno-stability ones.
Odum’s 1981 explanation of the energetics, schematics of a speculative laser technology power station and his energy circuit language used in eMergy evaluations.
Even this levelling off into a steady state scenario for the world would require a gargantuan increase in the energy harvesting and delivery side of the economy through renewables (all assuming the rare earth, copper, lithium and other essential mineral resources for this exist and can be mined). This growth in the proportion of the economy devoted to energy does, in itself, result in a poorer society, as there is less energy and resources left over for everything else (other than energy harvesting). Energy accounting, especially eMergy, suggest existing and prospective renewables have lower net energy returns than fossil fuels. The well-established declines in net energy from fossil fuels in recent decades are making humanity more dependent on deep ocean oil, shale oil from fracking and tar sands, along with increasing quantities of natural gas piped across continents, under the sea and transported in liquified form across oceans. A significant proportion of the remaining net energy from fossil fuels is fuelling the transition to renewables and increasing militarism and conflict as well as whatever anaemic growth in consumption can be maintained by accelerating debt and low interest rates. Ironically, economists focused on GDP are structurally blind to this because growing energy and military sectors can compensate for declines in retail, education, health and welfare sectors, just as an increase in crime and legal litigation has contributed to GDP.
Renewable energy advocates also assume massive increases in energy efficiency are still possible, making the economy less energy-intensive, hopefully balancing out the growth in investment pouring into the energy sector.
Free Energy Thought Experiment
As a thought experiment, let us assume that some breakthrough in energy research provides the elixir of effectively free energy with net energy return ratios similar to early oil fields of around 100:1.24 It doesn’t matter whether it results from massive increases in efficiency in PV cells, fusion or some other novel technology, let’s assume that material requirements and direct hazards are not limiting. Let’s also assume it still requires some substantial degree of societal and organisational complexity but doesn’t require the wholesale scrapping of all of our existing energy use, delivery, manufacturing and other possible sunk costs that happen in big energy transitions.
The high net energy yield can be used to simultaneously
- fund its own growth and expansion plus whatever new infrastructure and organisational complexity it requires,
- effectively pay back/retire the massive accumulated financial debt without leading to collapse of the global financial system,
- deal with the burden of environmental degradation, inequity and conflict, sufficient at least to prevent mass migrations and other stresses that threaten to damage or destroy the global economy, which remains necessary for the new energy transition to continually unfold.
Imagine what would most likely happen in this apparently positive scenario?
Could the abundance of energy lead to:
- reduced global tensions and competition between nation states?
- massive reductions in relative wealth inequalities between and within nations?
- a shift to a post-materialist society with improved health and other indices including life satisfaction?
- restoration of nature and our relationship to her?
Alternatively, could free energy supercharge:
- increased competition and conflict?
- increased inequality, discontent and alienation from nature?
- development of AI leading to barely-imagined potential to control life including better humans or, alternatively, supplant humans completely?
- transformation of nature through genetic engineering, new species evolution, recovery of extinct species and global climate management?
- heat death of the Earth just through thermodynamic dissipation from orders of magnitude increases in energy use on Earth?
- the colonisation and terra forming of other planets for human occupation and the abandonment of Earth?
In response to this thought experiment many people would say elements of both might happen but would also agree that it is highly unlikely that any rational and ethical processes would inform the mastery of such power. The proponents of the likelihood and transformative benefits of the technological singularity25 where advances accelerate a merger of humans and machines have a strong influence on policy makers, entrepreneurs and the public more generally.
Systems ecology, ecological history, indigenous and traditional cultures of place, along with the wisdom traditions, all informed the origins and evolution of permaculture and show general patterns that might guide our response to this thought experiment.
I can do no better than quote from Odum way back in 1981 when I was in a second phase of studying his ideas.26 In discussing the prospects for energy from fusion, after explaining the mechanics he noted:
If a large amount of energy is to be obtained from this process or some other process not yet in sight, an even more serious question will arise: whether human beings can sufficiently regulate the biosphere, in the presence of these rich energies, so that our life support system is not displaced. Such large-scale new energy would operate huge activities that could disrupt lands and seas and displace humanity from the planet. There would be no stopping growth if energy were not limited. The maximum-power principle27 suggests that no system can stop growing and survive if its competitors have access to untapped energies, for they would overgrow it in competition. Fusion could be disastrous to humanity either if it were so rich that it gave too much energy, or if took all our capital28 and gave us no net energy.
Indigenous and traditional cultures of place show humans can organise themselves to show restraint but generally when some novel form of super abundance crops up, a frenzy of growth, reproduction and consumption ensures, which in turn leads to a fall. Following a fall, human culture rebuilds mechanisms for humility and restraint within nature’s limits. The development of the Edo culture in Japan29 over several centuries that allowed Japan to support 60 million people without significant outside resources or fossil fuels followed a period of over exploitation and destruction of the support base.
The Prosperous Way Down
How likely is it that the threads of thought and action attempting to reclaim cultures of restraint, restoration of nature and finding humanity’s place in that order, both at the local and the global level, over the last 100 years or so, would spread, let alone become dominant during any new pulse of free energy, so close on the heels of the frenzy of consumption of millions of years’ worth of stored sunlight (in fossil fuels)?
The biblical reference, to the necessity to walk through the valley of death before discovering the earthly or other paradise seems a pattern we follow at the personal level where deeply addictive and destructive behaviour patterns rarely come to an end without a crisis and a fall of some sort. Or as comedian Robert Newman says,30 the Roman and Mayan empires didn’t end simply because Romans and Mayans got bored with their grand civilisations. Referencing Joseph Tainter, he points out “They collapsed because their means of energy capture were subject to the law of diminishing returns.”
Obviously permaculture and kindred concepts of reconnection and restraint suggest a tough but hopeful energy descent pathway for humanity is still possible31 rather than the bifurcation between Tech-Explosion driven by unstoppable free energy or Collapse leading to human extinction. But I have never been under any illusions that in the unlikely event of some magic energy elixir, that permaculture would end up in the dustbin of history where it would be said: “those primitive Homo sapiens and their mad romantic attachment to their, and the Earth’s, organic nature”.
Over the years, outlining my framework for energy futures on Permaculture Design Courses, I’ve noticed how my evidence on the low chances of the default future including holidays to Mars sometimes gets a sceptical response with questions about the trend line of advances in PV efficiency, thorium reactors or fusion power. But when I shift to considering what sort of world would likely result from a new source of free energy, a reset in perception often occurs. That a completely alien world might self-assemble without effective human agency to control or limit its transformation of nature and ourselves can be a shock to contemplate for most people, especially those with some sensitivity to both nature and culture. The idea that at current rates of development, within a human generation or two, no one alive today could stand to live in such a world devoid of anything natural or human, is not so difficult to imagine, helped along as we are by lots of dystopian science fiction. We are reminded that we should be careful what we wish for.
Of course if anyone manages to create “Biosphere Three”32 a closed loop system running off a fusion power plant supporting plants, animals and humans for even one year, without any solar or other energy input, AND pay for all the embodied energy (measured by eMergy accounting) in the whole setup, do wake me from my dreams of a prosperous way down through energy descent futures, to let me know the news. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing for and teaching those interested, all balanced by tending the Melliodora garden and fixing things in the workshop, planting trees and building leaky weirs “down the gully” and supporting plans to demonstrate the retrofit of light trucks to hybrid wood gas/electric power through Fryers Forest Research and Development,33 all the while enjoying the gentle warmth and light delivered to us over 93 million miles from father sun’s thermonuclear fusion furnace.
- Fusion of light elements (Hydrogen) as opposed to “fission” of heavy elements (eg Uranium) in existing, planned and proposed nuclear power plants
- The ongoing if erratic decline in the net energy available to support humanity over succeeding centuries, that in turn requires a reduction in technological complexity and relocalisation of economic and governance systems
- In many indigenous cosmologies the earth is of course our mother while the sun is seen as our father.
- Howard Odum 1971
- Meadows et al 1972
- Odum and Odum 2002
- Explore the website futurescenarios.org or read the more recent summary ‘Futures framework for RetroSuburbia’ at retrosuburbia.com. For a video summary of the energetics governing nature and humanity, including futures, see The Great Simplification with Nate Hagens.
- Techno-explosion, Techno-stability, Energy Descent and Collapse
- See for instance Cobb 2019 ‘’The Russians are coming (and they’re bringing oil)’ and Heinberg 2022 ‘Oil, war and the fate of industrial societies’
- Conventional oil (depending on how it is defined) peaked between 2005 and 2010, that is the cheap product that fuelled the globalised economy, whereas Total Liquids continued to grow until Covid, but by all accounts is unlikely to recover.
- See From Pandemic to War through a Geo-ecological Lens
- Vaclav Smil Energy Transitions: History, Requirement, Prospects 2010
- Funding for nuclear (fission and fusion) has consumed half of US Dept of Energy funding of energy research from 1948 to 2018, see ‘Renewable Energy R&D Funding History: A Comparison with Funding for Nuclear Energy, Fossil Energy, Energy Efficiency, and Electric Systems R&D’ available as a download from sgp.fas.org. Margraf’s ‘A Brief History of U.S. Funding of Fusion Energy’ shows the inflation adjusted US funding of fusion research since 1954
- These figures from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2022 at Our World in Data ignore the small but important contribution of traditional biomass which sustains the poorest, and some of us that choose to continue to use traditional biomass outside of the industrial economy; all more or less renewable and carbon neutral. From other data, it appears modern renewables (solar, wind etc but not including the already mature technology of hydropower) just managed to exceed traditional biomass about a decade ago.
- The high energy state of matter beyond gas in which electrons are completely stripped off the atomic nuclei
- De Temmerman 2021 ‘’Nuclear fusion breakthrough: what do new results mean for the future of ‘infinite’ energy?’ The Conversation
- Bishop 2022 ‘National Ignition Facility achieves fusion ignition’ lnll.gov
- While improvements in laser power efficiency should be expected, a 150-fold improvement is improbable so like most conversions from one energy type to another there is always a thermodynamically inherent efficiency loss that smarter people or more science don’t overcome.
- For an overview see Mary Odum’s ‘Emergy: you spelled energy wrong!’ at resilience.org.
- For further discussion, and an account of the influence of Odum on permaculture, see my keynote address to The International Society for the System Sciences
- As maybe unfolding in vaccine R&D and more generally medical science in the aftermath of Covid and its discontents
- Jassby 2017 ‘Fusion reactors: Not what they’re cracked up to be’ at thebulletin.org
- Jassby 2022 ‘On the Laser-Fusion Milestone’ at inference-review.com
- Using eMergy accounting 20:1 is more typical while average US oil in 2000 was around 6:1
- First articulated by von Neumann but more currently associated with figures like computer entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil. In choosing the term Techno-explosion to describe futures of continuing energy growth, I was acknowledging that rapid growth in net energy would lead to the technological singularity at the same time that I was pointing out that without “free energy” the singularity would fizzle out.
- Odum and Odum Energy Basis for Man and Nature 1981
- principle of systems ecology shows the species and ecosystems that harvest and process the most energy tend to prevail and outcompete species and ecosystems that use less energy. Ecological history suggests humans follow this pattern observed in nature. From both fields it is possible to see how in nature and human affairs, a great many strategies, including altruism, appear to reflect rather than contradict the maximum power principle across all hierarchical levels rather than a winner-take-all Hobbsian view of life.
- By capital Odum means resources, infrastructure and human capacity rather than money, which is only a marker for real capital.
- Azby Brown Just Enough: lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, 2010
- At the 35 min mark in his classic stand-up performance ‘A Short History of Oil’. To critique Newman, I think there is evidence that towards the end, Romans bailed out of being “citizens” to become “barbarians” to avoid the onerous taxes and other burdens of supporting the empire.
- Beautifully portrayed in permaculture practitioner and author Linda Woodrow’s cli-fi novel 470
- Biosphere 2 was a privately funded scientific research project built in Arizona in the late 1980s to test closed ecosystems including human support systems that could operate for periods hermetically sealed from the outside world (“Biosphere 1”). Built and grown within a series of glazed geodesic structures it was largely powered by direct solar gain but did require supplementary external energy. Today it remains a research and public education facility run by the University of Arizona.
- Fryers Forest Research and Development and Obtainium Engineer at Fryers Forest Research and Development
Teaser photo credit: The Sun’s transition region taken by Hinode‘s Solar Optical Telescope. By Hinode JAXA/NASA – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/solar-b/solar_017.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1820917