Carbon Civilization and the Energy Descent Future

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 billions still living in conditions of energy poverty. Collectively though, we now face dual energy crises that are distinct but intimately connected: first, fossil energy depletion, and secondly, the major contribution that combustion of these same energy sources makes to climate change. Both arise from the vastly increased scale of humanity’s energy use during the industrial age. As humanity’s demand for energy expands, the problems attending satisfaction of this demand intensify. To the extent that conventional responses to this situation themselves stand to further increase energy demand—including the default reliance on ‘technological fixes’—the dual crises perpetuate themselves. This is the energy paradox that is coming to define our age: we expect to solve the dual energy crises with approaches that themselves demand more overall energy use.

Energy forecasting conducted within the auspices of conventional institutions typically reinforces the orthodox assumption that humanity (or the portion living in the rich world, at least) will always be able to satisfy ongoing energy demand in a timely and affordable fashion.1 This is not necessarily a conscious assumption.

Rather, it is a consequence of the ways in which large-scale societies are constituted that the association between institutional responses to collective problems and increased demand for energy is rarely apparent. As citizens of societies organised by industrial economies and market capitalism, we have simply become accustomed to overcoming (or at least displacing) any immediate problem that arises and, simultaneously, to satisfying the aggregate growth in energy demand. In mainstream energy discourse the fact that fossil fuels are finite and being depleted at pace is generally dismissed as a distant concern that will be solved before it arrives. Even if such a view is by no means universal, media narratives both reflect and propagate the widespread and popular assumption that renewable energy or nuclear power will be able to replace current fossil fuel use without significant social or economic disruption, as well as match growing global energy demand into the distant future.

In support of this energy optimism, analysts point to promising advances in technology. Sure, they say, new energy demands will arise, but a clever and resourceful humanity will be able to meet them. Markets and price signals will provide the right incentives.

According to this narrative, industrial capitalism will soon be global—a transition almost complete—and efficiency gains and new energy sources and conversion technologies will mean we can avoid the worst oil depletion and climate change scenarios. Just look to history and you will see that in recent periods, humans have always managed to satisfy growing energy demand. The future will be the same, won’t it?

This book challenges that dominant energy narrative from a range of angles and offers an alternative perspective on humanity’s energy futures. First, we remind the reader that fossil fuels—currently comprising about 86% of global primary energy use2 —are finite, and therefore carbon civilisation, one way or another, has a time limit.

Our one-off fossil energy inheritance is but a brief anomaly in the evolution of the human story, a momentary energy spike from the perspective of deep time.

Although the timing and trajectory of fossil energy depletion is subject to many uncertainties and controversies—some of which are reviewed here—the fact that fossil fuels are finite and subject to depletion is an undeniable geological reality. This is a matter of particular significance in relation to oil, given its role in enabling industrial agriculture, and global transport systems and supply chains. With each passing day, as the low-hanging fruit is picked, it becomes harder to increase or even maintain current net energy supply. In recent years, the large growth in United States oil production due to shale oil developments using hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) techniques has encouraged some commentators to proclaim ‘the death of peak oil’. Our assessment of the evidence suggests that such pronouncements are greatly exaggerated.3 Eventually—perhaps sooner than most think—the rate of oil production will enter a phase of net energy decline, with new discoveries unable to offset the flagging fortunes of existing assets.

And while oil has commanded the vast majority of attention to date in public discourse about fossil energy resource depletion, the timelines for gas and coal may not be anywhere near as protracted as is typically assumed. Alongside this, as we’ll discuss in more detail as we proceed, exponential growth trends (both energetic and economic) that have defined dominant conceptions of human development since the industrial revolution can be expected to end, and even reverse. This raises questions not only about what a post-carbon civilisation will look like, but, perhaps more pressingly, how we should best manage the inevitable and foreseeable contraction of fossil energy source production in coming years and decades.

Secondly, and perhaps most prominently, there is the climate crisis, no longer of the future but the present. What was only a few years ago thought to be a sufficiently distant concern to be deferred or ignored, is now upon us. Compounding the challenge of maintaining energy supply in the face of fossil energy depletion, climate science overwhelmingly concludes that the burning of fossil fuels is a leading cause of anthropogenic climate change. Any adequate response to this potentially existential threat is going to require, among other things, a swift and committed transition beyond fossil energy sources. The best available science tells us that to keep the impacts of climate change within the range of human adaptation, we need to limit the consumption of fossil fuels even before limits are geologically enforced—that we must leave them before they leave us. The question is whether we are able to muster the wisdom to do this, and what the resultant societies might look like if we succeed.

If we fail, then it seems that we will burn—and already things are heating up. According to NASA, seventeen of the eighteen hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 2001, to say nothing of the increasing regularity and severity of extreme weather events.4

And yet we wait.

In light of the urgent imperative to reduce carbon-based fuel combustion to mitigate climate change, it may be tempting to see the prospect of fossil energy depletion as a red herring. If fossil fuel use is incompatible with maintaining a habitable climate anyway, then why be concerned about geophysical supply constraints?

Surely these must, if they come into play in time, only help with the climate imperative for decarbonising economies.

While that perspective makes sense if current fossil energy reliance is viewed in very abstract terms, it oversimplifies the complex relationship between climate change and energy resource depletion.5

The arrival of peak oil, if planned for, will unfold very differently than if it arrives without any or much preparation. So an assumption that peak oil will necessarily be good for climate change mitigation is by no means self-evident. Furthermore, in our more pessimistic moods, the sluggish political and cultural responses to climate change to date make it plausible that peak oil transforms (or disrupts) the global economy before any serious climate response does. Accordingly, it is not enough to say we need to decarbonise the global economy to mitigate climate change. That may be true, but if, in fact, the world fails to mobilise adequately in that regard—which, again, strikes us as a plausible scenario—then peak oil may be the energy challenge the world is forced to deal with.

The review of humanity’s situation through the overlapping contextual lenses of fossil energy resource depletion and climate disruption sets the scene for a third context of inquiry. This concerns the extent to which alternative energy sources—specifically renewable and/or nuclear energy—will be able to replace the fossil energy sources of carbon civilisation. Can this be achieved without significant disruption or fundamental change to its industrial, energy-intensive, extractivist and expansionary nature? We acknowledge a range of promising technological and economic advances in the energy domain, and categorically support the planned transition to a postcarbon society. At the same time, we raise critical questions about whether alternative sources can seamlessly substitute for incumbent energy systems, without transformation of the wider social and cultural contexts within which they are deployed.

Adding further to the scope of the challenge confronted in this book is the perennial question of ‘who benefits?’ Throughout the analysis we raise distributive questions about how the energy humanity manages to harness should be shared amongst the growing global human population, currently at 7.6 billion and, according to the United Nations, trending toward 11 billion or more by the end of the century. This is the ethical dimension that energy transition inquiries too often marginalise or simply ignore altogether, in favour of technological and market-driven solutions.

The alternative energy narrative we present maintains that we should be preparing for futures not of energy abundance, but rather of reduced energy availability, futures in which viable ways of life are characterised by energy sufficiency. With respect to the most energy intensive societies, this means planning for what permaculture theorist and practitioner David Holmgren calls ‘energy descent’.

While acknowledging a range of uncertainties about how humanity’s energy futures will unfold, we argue that the plausibility and even the likelihood of energy descent futures implies that planning and preparing for such futures is the most prudent course of action.

The implications of this alternative narrative are profound, yet rarely addressed in the dominant discourses around energy. Our goal presently is to broaden the discourse on energy futures. If we cannot always provide comprehensive answers in the space available, we hope at least to provoke thought about new questions, with the aim of unsettling some assumptions about energy futures presently held with undue confidence. Such an act of unsettling can prepare the way for developing perspectives on energy futures that better equip humanity to find viable pathways amongst the landscape of emerging global challenges.

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