Note: This is the introduction to Carbon Civilization and the Energy Descent Future by Samuel Alexander and Josh Floyd. You can find out more about the book here.
Just as the bird’s nest, the badger’s lodge and the bees’ hive require investments of energy for their construction and maintenance, so too with human settlements. Taken to the extremes of scale and intricacy, settlements in the form of cities constitute humanity’s most energy-intensive creations. In fact, cities might be viewed as meta-creations that enable the emergence and development of other expressions of human creativity, and this creativity, as with all life, depends on energy, in requisite forms and quantities, for its sustenance and development.
A hunger for energy is woven particularly deeply into the nature and condition of modern humanity. We fell the forests and mine the landscapes to construct our dwellings and build our roads. In much of the world, heating of houses and water relies on combustion of wood, gas, oil or coal. Electricity, like a god, gives us light and it powers our abundance of convenient appliances and machines.
Oil takes us where we desire to be and back again without effort.
The expansion of energy harvesting and use that allows large-scale societies to grow inevitably generates new problems that these societies must then deal with. In turn, responses to such problems typically drive further energy demand. The processes by which large-scale societies take form and evolve are both enabled and constrained by their energetic foundations.
Throughout history the over-use of energy has not been a prevailing problem—more often, the existential challenges that humans have faced can be viewed in terms of energy scarcity. Had ready access to new energy sources been available, many past societies may have overcome (or at least delayed) crises that precipitated their demise. Even so, the provision and use of energy in previous eras caused problems too. Deforestation is not a purely modern phenomenon. The harm caused by airborne particulates from burning wood and coal has a long history. As horses became a dominant mode of urban transport, their manure in the streets became a hazard. That human exploitation of energy resources should drive environmental change is not new. This is as old as the mastery of fire, and our energy use always has and always will have consequences beyond the benefits it brings.
Nevertheless, it seems that we have now entered an age in which problems that can be characterised in terms of the under-use of energy are being eclipsed by dilemmas in which over-use is central. Granted, humans enjoy vastly disparate access to energy, with Continue reading “Carbon Civilization and the Energy Descent Future”