Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Message Decoded, Part 2: The View from the Peak

This week's reflection is part of an extended commentary on a short story I posted a few weeks back. Read on or catch up, if you're curious- it's your choice.

You meet a lot of wonderful people on the train. As I rolled through the big woods of Northern Ontario a couple of weeks ago on my way out west, I had a long conversation with a young man who was doing some very interesting work documenting the stories of First Nations people living downstream from the tar sands in northern Alberta. I asked him at one point if he could summarize any themes from those stories into a message for the rest of the world, and he replied that he couldn't. His awareness of his status as a bridge between two cultures prevented him from attempting to speak for the people whose voices he was trying to amplify. My respect for him grew.

I asked him instead about the tar sands themselves, and our conversation turned toward the future of energy. I suggested that the quickest way to reduce the harmful effects of tar sands developments would be to reduce the demand for tar sands products; i.e., use less energy. His response surprised me. He pointed out that the trajectory of human history has been to use steadily more energy over time, and stated matter-of-factly that no society would ever voluntarily reduce its energy use, damn the consequences. What about an involuntary reduction in energy use, I asked? He grinned, shook his head emphatically, and began telling me about recent developments in the nuclear energy scene involving thorium. At this point I grinned, shook my head emphatically, and decided that being friends with this guy was probably more worthwhile than arguing with him about the fate of civilization. I changed the subject.

I figure it's about time I laid my cards on the table. I adhere to the heresy that we live on a finite planet, composed of a finite amount of physical matter and a finite amount of energy. The laws of conservation of matter and energy are founding principles of the science that built the modern world, so I'm suspicious, to say the least, when I watch youtube videos about the 'limitless' potential of things like thorium breeder reactors. The nature of nature is that it establishes and works within limits, and nothing humans have ever made or thought or done has transcended nature's laws as presently understood.

Likewise with energy. Last week I tried to show just how colossal the scale of human achievement has been in regards to energy over the last three hundred years. Achievement, or perhaps dumb luck. Yes, it took a certain amount of genius to invent and perfect the steam and combustion engines, which have driven industrial civilization to its present scale and intensity, but that was mainly a consequence of stumbling upon a free gift from nature in the form of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas.

Did I say free? I meant, apparently free. Fossil fuels represent millions of years of solar energy stored in the cells of prehistoric plants, then compressed into super-concentrated forms under millions of years of tectonic pressure, and finally converted into greenhouse gases during the course of a Sunday afternoon drive. This is the wonder of our times, ladies and gentlemen, a time that will never come again as long as our species lasts. Because a finite earth, no matter how massive, could only have laid down a certain amount of fossilized algae in its four billion years, and we've burned through a sizable portion of it in a few hundred.

That's the premise of a body of thought known as 'peak oil', one which is presently expanding as more and more evidence accumulates to confirm its forecasts, and which has the potential to completely transform our understanding of who we are and what our purpose in the world is. This mental transformation is rather akin to having one's entire world turned upside down and then shaken roughly, which is why I've not approached it directly in my writings thus far. It takes some time to appreciate the scope of human endeavour, and it takes more than time to appreciate the scope of human folly: it requires humility, and perhaps a sense of humour.

Allow me to slide sideways into the realm of analogy in order to illustrate what I'm talking about. If you want to bake a cake, you need certain amounts of flour, sugar, milk, butter, eggs, baking powder, salt, and whatever else your specific recipe calls for. If you don't have enough sugar, it doesn't matter how much of every other ingredient you happen to have on hand; your end result will be bread. Likewise with baking powder, of which you need much less, but without which you'll end up with something like marzipan. Or maybe sugar pita. (I've never tried it myself. Any kitchen chemists out there with more research experience than me?)

Orthodox macroeconomic theory says that when one resource (or ingredient, in this case) becomes scarce, its price will rise and induce innovators to find a substitute resource (or ingredient). Baking soda can thus be substituted for baking powder at a pinch, or whole milk and white vinegar for buttermilk. In the larger picture, aluminum can be substituted for copper once widespread use of copper to make telephone and electrical wiring has rendered copper scarce and valuable enough to be a target for professional metal thieves.

But there's one ingredient you can't easily substitute if you want to have your cake and eat it too, and that's energy. Without power of some kind to heat the oven, all you've got is a bowl of sweet, sticky slop that's likely laced with salmonella. Have you ever tried to bake a cake using the sun's energy? How about a wind turbine? Or a homescale nuclear reactor? Each of these technologies has passionate advocates, and each has its own reasons for being nowhere near as convenient as burning coal or gas to heat steam and generate electric current, which is then channeled into our homes through thousands of miles of aluminum and copper wire.

The reason I grinned and shook my head when my friend mentioned nuclear power is that most people, when they first become aware of peak oil, initially respond by rationalizing about which alternative energy sources will take the place of fossil fuels in our inevitably shinier future. But not even nuclear power holds out promise of providing as much energy for as little investment as our current diet of fossil fuels, even leaving aside the very serious matters of uranium depletion and radioactive waste. Additionally, (and curiously), the logical implication of substituting less convenient resources when the cheap ones become scarce is that a truly efficient economy will tend toward reaching the limits of all resources simultaneously. In theory, at least.

The fact is, every society that follows ours will have to make do with less energy than we have. The hard lesson of peak oil is that a shinier future is not inevitable. In fact, at the moment we're doing our best to evade a future that could be modestly better than the frenzied, destructive world we inhabit now.

What does that modestly better future look like, in my humble opinion? To return to the realm of analogy, the easiest way to resolve the cake crisis is not to bake the cake. We don't actually need the extra calories and enriched sugars it would give us; raw vegetables would satisfy our hunger and provide far better nourishment, without the headache of having to procure fuel and then heat the kitchen to intolerable levels as we burn that fuel. The number one thing we can do to make the world a better place, and to prepare for the world bearing down on us, is to use less energy.

Not that my ideal future involves universal raw veganism- far from it. But I do think that the people of Laura and Jonathan Erb's world, two hundred years hence, will be much more interested in very small-scale, practical applications of energy technologies, like refrigeration, than they will in planes, trains, and automobiles. They simply won't have the massive energy budget available to them that we do. They might even look back on our time, if they happen to pause in the midst of their work to reflect on the scope of human endeavour, as an Age of Destruction, when the fuel that could have been used to heat their homes in winter and preserve their food in summer was burned away by a generation that couldn't imagine them in the slightest.


  1. Hi Dylan,
    Though I knew what you were talking about before, I am glad that you put your cards on the table now.
    I also had my own strange journey into this reality several years back. And although I did not fall into despair it has changed my life completely. At the time I thought about doing a blog about it, but I never got the guts to expose myself.
    Thank you for your courage and creativity.

  2. Natalia, I'm glad to hear that my writing is striking a chord. Putting things into words is incredibly helpful for me; all the better if it turns out others have thought these thoughts as well.

  3. Just a thought about an alternative solution...some people suggest that we should just focus on population control. The problems would be minimized if there were 50% less people in the world. Of course you would need a totalitarian state to enforce that.... But some people make the voluntary decision to not have children to reduce the stress on the environment.

  4. Carol, I'm assuming you mean population control as modern China and India have attempted to go about it, not as Hitler or Pol Pot have attempted to go about it...! There are various totalitarian solutions out there for our predicament, and I don't like any of them.

    The problem with 'just' focusing on population control is that even a worldwide voluntary shift in that direction would take 50 or 60 years to affect demographics. Reducing our energy use, on the other hand, begins the second we get up from the computer and turn down the thermostat. I'll admit it- I like approaches that are fast and simple and don't involve widespread social control.