With the cost of fossil fuels on the rise, the peoples of the industrialized world and their governments will soon find themselves within an inescapable squeeze of planetary proportions. Stateside, in California, the price at the pump has already soared to $4.70 per gallon. In Europe, customers pay even more money for less. In a globalized world of petrochemically dependent economies, the prospect of oil’s declining production and its escalating prices not only threatens the global economy, but it forces modern civilization to reconcile the simplest of truths—nothing can grow in perpetuity. That’s right, say it aloud—nothing can grow in perpetuity.
As if the petro-revolution of the past century in agribusiness or car culture could be systematically and alternatively replaced, the scope of our energy crisis has been framed within the question “What’s next?” Proponents of green energy enthusiastically point toward expanding wind and solar capacity, or for those unwilling to undertake these initiatives, a move away from uranium bomb-building to power-plant construction.
Though small in comparison to Big Oil, these eco-warriors have been granted a limited but growing audience.
Germany leads the world in renewable energy. By 2030 its government projects to have moved its consumption into sustainability by as much as 50%, and an ambitious 100% by 2050, political will enduring. It will do so through a variety of wind and solar initiatives, whilst moving away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. The German trailblazers are not alone with Spain and the United Kingdom following suit.
According to Forbes, China too, home of the world’s second largest economy, has recognized the urgency of looming energy crises. This year it has invested $52billion in green projects and will quintuple its investment over the next half decade. US investment was $51billion, despite its dwarfingly large economy.
Even the oil saturated Middle-East has stepped into the sunshine, literally. Earlier this year Saudi Arabia announced plans to initiate one of the most drastic moves toward solar energy the world has yet seen. The Kingdom of 27million will install and operate solar panels to generate electricity to the tune of 54,000MW (megawatts), twice that of US output.
Sounds good right?
A better example of using statistics to paint a green-washed projection of our planetary future would be hard to find. Valiant as they are, and as inevitably as green energy must be pursued, these efforts cannot solve our problem for it remains framed within false presumptions. On this planet an endless energy supply does not exist, nor one that can sustain the economic expansion the capitalist nations of the world require.
Above all others, the Adam Smiths of the planet ought to recognize the impossibility of our problem; after all, this iron curtain is merely a function of supply and demand economics.
Currently, US demand consumes 25% of the world’s oil production—it holds less than 3% of its reserves. With all variables held constant this would not be a problem; but, systemically, the variables must change. The world’s largest capitalist economy must continue to grow, less it were to accept decline, recession, higher unemployment and eventual depression. Its GDP (gross domestic product) of over $14trillion must eventually become $15trillion, and subsequently $16trillion. To accomplish this, as demand continues to escalate, so too will the need to exponentially increase the supply of energy—more importantly, cost effective energy.
Expanded globally, the industrialized world, and emerging economies, depend on the same capitalist principle of perpetual growth. Like the US, their economies require much the same petrol-dependent consumption to drive their own expansion. As each economy grows within our oil paradigm, each nation must aggregate enough of it to continue onward unfettered.
Competition is the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Resource aggregation has become a primary function of government. China’s positioning in Africa, and US positioning in the Middle-East, even if not for its own direct consumption but to ensure the health of the markets where its consumables are bought, serve as primary examples. Thus, each nation must increase its demand, whether domestic or abroad, and find supply to sustain growth, even if at the expense of other nations and peoples.
The drive to expand, consume, exploit at rates ever escalating is presented within the global market as a zero-sum game. Either our economy must grow, or we will suffer. Either our economy must grow faster than all other economies, or our nation will suffer.
With this arrogant mentality we have begun to address our energy crisis still believing we can infinitely expand. We believe we can infinitely increase demand and that supply can infinitely be found. This is preposterous. The Global Footprint Network, a non-profit for sustainable futures, has estimated that if we continue along this path of consumption, human populations will require an equivalent of three Earths by 2050 to survive. This knowledge is openly available and easily accessed, yet from the lowest levels of societal participation to the highest levels of political governance the problem accelerates.
More and more madness.
To paraphrase philosopher Slavoj Žižek, paradoxically, consensus of the solution to the failures of capitalism seems to be more capitalism. Runaway grow-baby-grow consumption at all costs is exemplified in our drill-baby-drill environmental policies.
After British Petroleum plastered the Gulf of Mexico with pollution through an ill-maintained oil rig, a temporary moratorium was placed on some deepwater drilling. Shortly thereafter that restriction was lifted. This year more permits for new wells have been issued than since 2007. The Obama Administration has taken it further by approving the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a transnational oil line to transport the most toxic oil imaginable from Canada’s tar-sands back to the very ecosystem so recently assaulted, and directly over precious natural aquifers. To top it off, would-be elect presidential nominee Mitt Romney wants to expand harmful drilling in Alaska’s park reserves, as well as expand the already 4,000 ticking time bombs in the Gulf.
These are not solutions to our crisis; they are band-aids to a gushing wound. They are ecocidal mania perpetuated by a global culture which does not understand that living 300% beyond sustainability is going to kill us all. None of these self-proclaimed solutions put at the forefront of our efforts that nothing can grow in perpetuity. We have grown too accustomed to the benefits of petrochemical economies, on growth for the sake of growth.
Consider the impacts of oil on agriculture. Oil is an energy dense compound. Stored within it is the photosynthetic energy of plants and animals now long dead. This is energy absorbed from the sun by plants, then consumed by animals, now decomposed into fossil fuel. Before oil was discovered the planet was filled for millions of years with these energy deposits. As we discovered and began to use oil we developed more machinery to help farm, and we also invented petroleum based herbicides to enhance crop yields. Food supplies exploded upwards. All the while we have been using energy stored from the past, not energy produced in the present. It is as if we are spending money from a savings account—but we have been over-drafting. When we include the stored energy we consume to produce our food, according to author Jason Godesky, we consume ten calories for every one calorie produced. We have been running an energy deficit for nearly a century, counting on the dead to sustain the continuously expanding living with food, transportation and disposable consumption.
Moving on is more necessity than choice.
The sobering truth is when the oil is gone, or when it takes more calories of energy to aggregate it than it would yield in products, the maximum energy we will ever be able to use is what the sun can photosynthetically give us in a day. Though we can already store solar energy, neither it, nor wind or any chemically based energy source can allow humanity to continue to run the deficits oil does now.
There is no ‘next’ to cure our oil addiction. There is only the realization that eventually we will have to drastically change our energy consumption. We will have to abandon capitalist dictated expansion and opt for systems of locality with our primary focus on sustainable living. Nothing grows forever, and we do not need it to either. For us to be happy, the good news is we do not need to live in the way this culture has fashioned. We do not need avocados shipped to us from laborers in Peru—we have pumpkin squash right here in our community’s garden. We do not need Nike shoes made in Vietnam—a shoemaker is just around the bend. We do not need an SUV to get to Pensacola beach—the train leaves tomorrow. Only solutions where we grow not our militaries and economies, but our families and communities can ultimately reinvent the future shaping before us.