Energy: Recognizing How Much Isn’t There

Will America’s energy crisis be solved by more aggressive pursuit of fossil fuels or by more vigorous development of renewables?

In this campaign season, there are politicians on all sides. Chants of “drill, baby, drill” ring out, while others sing the praises of wind and solar, and some argue we must try everything.

Unfortunately, politicians don’t seem willing to face a more difficult reality: There is no solution, if by “solution” we mean producing enough energy to maintain our current levels of consumption indefinitely.

To deal with the energy crisis we must deal with a consumption crisis, but politicians are reluctant to run a campaign based on a call for “less” — the American Dream, after all, is always “more.” But whether the public and politicians like it or not, our future is about learning to live with less, starting with a lot less energy.

In the United States, we have been living with the abundance produced by an industrial economy, all made possible by the concentrated energy of fossil fuels. We tell ourselves this is the product of our hard work, but our life of plenty was made possible by the incredible energy stored in coal, oil, and natural gas. How long can that continue?

It’s true that there’s a lot of coal in the ground, but burning all that coal means an acceleration of global warming and climate disruption. Easily accessible reserves of oil and gas are quickly being exhausted, and while geologists can’t tell us for sure when the wells will run dry, we should be thinking in decades, not centuries.

High-tech schemes for extracting oil from tar sands or “fracking” — hydraulic fracturing, a process of injecting water and chemicals deep underground to force out pockets of gas — are so ecologically destructive that they should be abandoned immediately. The same for most deep-water drilling; the Gulf disaster of the past year is a reminder that no matter how sophisticated the technology, we cannot control these processes. Nuclear energy presents the same trade-offs, magnified by our inability to dispose of the deadly waste safely.

There are more reasons to be positive about renewable energy sources, and intensifying research funding for wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy is the sensible move. But the reality to face there also is one of limits: None of those technologies, alone or in combination, will ever replace the energy stored in fossil fuels. The belief that because we want that energy we will create ways to produce it is the most naïve technological fundamentalism.

The most important step in dealing with our energy crisis is to realize just how much isn’t there. Either approach — believing that we can drill our way or invent our way out of the predicament — is magical thinking. Instead of fantasies of endless abundance, we have to recognize that a radical shift in the way our lives are arranged is necessary for survival. The most obvious of these arrangements we need to change is our car-based culture, but it doesn’t stop there. If there is to be a livable future, we need to commit in the present to major changes in our entire infrastructure.

The solution to the energy crisis can be stated simply: We must move around less and consume less. That means the solution is not only about where we get our energy, but how we define ourselves.

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on October 8th, 2010 at 7:36am #

    Robert good article and so far a decision has been made it does appear to just do nothing. Here’s a ball score Rome 0 the rest of the human race 0. Top of the five thousandth’s inning a tie game and still no winner strange game.

  2. hayate said on October 8th, 2010 at 11:58am #

    Several problems about this article. Like most platitudes instructing us to “behave better”, it provides little advice on how to better behave. The author appears to be lessening the impact renewables could have, right now. It’s really not practical for many americans to “move around less”, as the author demands, due to the way the usa is now set up. I also disagree with his somewhat “peak oil” views, that we are running out of these fuels. But that disagreement is rather irrelevant because whether the carbon fuels will run out or not, we need to reduce our use of them for environmental reasons. As used now, they are too destructive.

    Note, I agree with his appraisal of the damage caused by extracting these carbon fuels and the use of nuclear energy. I also agree that many americans need to change their attitudes about energy use, but putting the onus to change on a people dominated by corporate ziofascism/fascism rather than the oligarchs dominating them is misplaced and rather useless. The people don’t have the power or the wherewithall as organised now.

    Rather than restrict movement, it would be better to reduce the energy cost of such movement and the impact of the environment. Probably half of americans use massive gas guzzling vehicles for prestige or are stuck with rotting old clunkers because they are too poor to buy a newer, more ecologically friendly auto. We also need to build/rebuild the mass transit systems in the country. A lot of vehicle use is due to a lack of a reasonable alternative in most of the usa. Half of the petrol americans use is right there.

    Another energy drain is the massive trucking industry. Much of what trucks carry used to be carried by rail. Going back to rail and getting rid of this bloated trucking is another way to help the environment, reduce energy usage and make the roads a lot safer.

    Most american homes (and buildings in general) are extremely energy inefficient. Making them efficient would save an enormous amount of energy. And while we are at it, we can stop suburban sprawl and rebuild the dilapidated cities instead. Suburban sprawl probably causes more destruction to the natural environment than most industrial pollution does. It also greatly increases energy use as people have to travel further than they should have to for basic needs.

    We can do all those things, and much more now, though it will require a revolution in how politics work in the usa and how the guv operates. Renewables are getting better and with increased R&D, they will eventually, or other ideas not yet practical, will replace most or maybe all the carbon fuel uses. It’s also possible better processing of these fuels may improve their environmental impact for the amount we still need to use in the near to middle future.

    For these things to happen, though, the guv will have to stop being a gofer of the ziofascist/fascist oligarchy and become a tool and servant of the people, instead. Unfortunately, the author also ignored this aspect of the problem in his piece, as well, and this is the worst of the problems facing us, and by far, the most difficult to correct.

  3. Don Hawkins said on October 9th, 2010 at 4:48am #

    “The Marcal river is dead,” said Tibor Dobson, spokesman of the Hungarian Disaster Management Agency – a reference to a smaller river which flows north from the disaster area towards the Danube.
    Huge quantities of gypsum and chemical fertilisers have been added to the waters of the Marcal and Raba rivers. BBC

    Oct. 9, 2010 (China Knowledge) – Zijin Mining Group Co Ltd, the largest listed gold miner in China, has been fined RMB 9.6 million for leaking acidic copper solution from one of its gold mines in Fujian Province into the Ting River in July, according to the company’s statement filed with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

    The incident has led to water pollution in the river and a direct economic loss of RMB 31.9 million.

    The company was ordered to clean up the pollution and was assessed for the fine.

    “The company decided not to make an application for an administrative reconsideration and not to initiate administrative litigation, and to comply with the punishment imposed,” Zijin said in the statement.

    Zijin recently said that a tin mine in Guangdong Province owned by its unit Xinyi Zijin Mining Co Ltd has halted production after electricity and other services were cut off at the mine in the aftermath of Typhoon Fanapi. Based on a preliminary assessment, Xinyi Zijin will see direct economic losses caused by a disaster reach RMB 19 million.

    A shares of Zijin went up 10% and closed at RMB 8 on Oct. 8, while the firm’s H shares surged 12.42% to HK$7.42. China Knowledge

    I could keep witting for an hour

  4. Don Hawkins said on October 9th, 2010 at 5:22am #

    And what this man wrote well goes far beyond that. The amount of pollution going into the atmosphere we don’t have 4 or 5 years if we wish to try survive we start now. It’s all just a big hoax not exactly there’s a hoax alright how are shares of BP or Exxon, Chevron, Massey? It’s about the share holders again not exactly it’s about a few share holders and it is sending us all down the drain in not such slow motion.

  5. Don Hawkins said on October 9th, 2010 at 5:09pm #

    Is this civilization we see now going to collapse under it’s own weight have we run out of new idea’s? Is this all the knowledge or illusion of knowledge we see in living color ever day from Bozo the clowns this is the best we can do? I mean this whole system of profit so a few can have a refrigerator that think’s this is it? Ruff draft must think on this again to make it as simple as possible but not simpler takes a few try’s.

  6. Don Hawkins said on October 10th, 2010 at 5:17am #

    Let’s see not just Lovelock and Hawking, Hansen just to name a few but the majority of the best minds we have who I might add you never see on TV you know not taken seriously must be a reason for that are all in pretty much agreement the human race is in deep trouble. Here in the States with these elections we do see so called leaders on TV with those wonderful messages of hate. It’s not hate sure look’s like it to me kind of appealing to our basic instincts with a little something called illusion of knowledge and that’s being nice for these Bozo’s. Class warfare is it well again it appears these few do enjoy fighting one another a little game they play help’s them get up in the morning and we the people as best these few can try and put us in the middle of all this divide and keep as many as possible in a prison for the mind the same prison these few are in as misery likes company I guess. Here’s a quote from Hawking.

    The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge….-

    Just on the off chance he is correct we sure are seeing much ignorance made to seem like knowledge and just maybe we have passed a point where that doesn’t matter anymore the hate the illusion is now just the norm. A few are trying to get the knowledge out the real thing with not much success money talk’s and knowledge walk’s isn’t Capitalism fun. Just on the off chance the best minds we have are correct and now what we see with our own eye’s if we look are correct so far from the other few who tell us they are the best minds it’s the courage to do nothing well hate, greed, corruption from these Bozo’s is somehow made to seem ok. Again if we wish to survive it will take an enormous effort of mind and body and should be easy too see if we wish to try. Very sure part of that enormous effort will be for us active animal’s better known as human’s to slowdown. Hay do they have a refrigerator yet that think’s? I wonder does Oprah Winfrey or Gates, Buffett, Murdoch have one. If so what’s it thinking right now time for a ham sandwich or make a call to a cell phone and say;

    Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost. Arundhati Roy

    If advanced spacefaring aliens exploit resources like humans we’d better hope they don’t find us anytime soon. Hawking

    No more like time for lunch going back to work now have a wonderful day and don’t forget to kiss my you know what. Well that refrigerator needs to go back to the factory for some retraining no no no. Still a ruff draft this needs much more thinking and see if we can bring a smile to the clowns they look so sad. Oh and think of this as kind of a war.

  7. Don Hawkins said on October 10th, 2010 at 7:08am #

    Again I will put what the best minds the real ones have told us and not one word on this from Media or so called leaders. The word from the so called leaders is do nothing listen to our messages and please send us money. Yep money talk’s and knowledge walk’s. You have to admit a few are in control of the information and when it comes out the other side it’s Bozo the clown time. It is fascinating to watch at least for a few minutes once you know.

    From the beginning of preparedness in 2011 , American leaders recognized that the stakes were too high to permit the change over from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy to grow in an unfettered, laissez-faire manner. American manufacturers, for instance, could not be trusted to stop producing consumer goods and to start producing materiel for the change over.

    To organize the slowdown of the economies Worldwide and to ensure that it produced the goods needed for the changeover , the federal government spawned an array of mobilization agencies which not only often purchased goods (or arranged their purchase) , but which in practice closely directed those goods’ manufacture and heavily influenced the operation of private companies and whole industries. On going talks with China and India were spawned with agreement’s to share all research working together was for the first time achieved.

    Solution therefore required a rising fee on oil, gas and coal – a carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies at the domestic mine or port of entry. All funds collected were distributed to the public on a per capita basis to allow lifestyle adjustments and spur clean energy innovations. As the fee increased, fossil fuels were phased out, replaced by carbon-free energy and efficiency. Farming practices Worldwide began to change and those that needed help got help. Did we all live happily ever after no but it was a start and America for the fist time began to lose weight.

    One of the best kept secret’s of all time just maybe the last.

  8. Don Hawkins said on October 10th, 2010 at 7:27am #

    Just read the last two comment’s and in order to tax carbon so far seems the powers that be don’t like that idea much but to return that tax back to the people well that would set a very bad example now wouldn’t it. So far I guess we don’t have to think about it because almost to the last person in the information game better known as the media someone some group, gang is in control of that with probably money/debt. Strange game no winners.