Thursday, January 26, 2017

Energy Regression: the Looming Apocalypse

At the end of my post on Energy-Backed Currency I mentioned that I viewed energy regression to be the fundamental existential threat to western civilization. It is worth spending time on that subject, as it is key to understanding the second problem that EBC solves. The first problem is in having a currency backed by a valuable asset that grows linearly with the economy. The second problem is in re-orienting society so that it is inherently focused on the energy situation at all times.

I regard energy regression to be the fundamental existential threat to our world. Even more than nuclear holocaust, and that is always a real danger. Even more than civil discord, and I do believe we're on a path to a clash of civilizations within the west like has never been seen. Even more than climate change or economic stagnation or disease epidemics. Because all those problems, whether they occur or not, whether they are easily solved or not, don't change the fact that energy regression is something we will face, no matter what. There is no avoiding it. It is a constant looming threat to every civilization.

Energy regression has happened repeatedly through world history. Until modern times, energy input was in food, and to some extent firewood. Societies collapsed because they deforested their environment. Societies collapsed because crops failed for a multitude of reasons: disease, drought, flood, climate change, soil exhaustion, poor management. Many of the most successful empires in history were fueled by plundering the stored reserves of those they conquered. Once they ran out of new resources to steal, they tended to collapse under their own weight.

I think most Americans, or many at least, have an overly casual relationship with energy. They view it as just another aspect of modern life, right there with having running water and paved roads and classic rock stations on the local radio. We see this taken to an extreme lately with really the entire mainstream left protesting about oil pipelines, as if they were some unnecessary evil. They are depicted as ticking times bombs that might at any time destroy the environment and livelihoods of poor and oppressed people, with the only benefit being to enrich greedy oil corporations. These people then go fill up their gas tanks without a second thought about it. Such an outlook can only be had by someone who has never lived in society without abundant and cheap energy supplies. (And yes that is basically all of us).

This is the viewpoint that having abundant energy is just the natural state of affairs in the world. Oil is greedy, why can't society just use friendlier energy like wind and solar? An abundance of energy is simply assumed. The fact that our entire civilization depends on its energy supplies is easy to lose track of. The fact that most civilizations have collapsed for that reason is not something widely understood. And the fact that we don't really have anything to replace high-density fossil fuels is often ignored.

You have to wonder where we would be if there was no such thing as fossil fuels. If coal and oil and gas weren't, by extreme luck, available to us in great quantities. Would our economy just be fueled by some other source, like solar or nuclear power instead? No, if we never had fossil fuels, it is questionable if we would have ever advanced beyond horse-drawn transportation. No modern agriculture means no modern society, means limited technological development. I harbor the somewhat spiritual notion that fossil fuels were a gift granted to us, just enough to get us boosted to the next technological level. We should use them, but use them wisely. We are not using them wisely now, and a troubling number of people are advocating that we don't use them at all.

Here is the scariest thought exercise I know of, from a civilizational viewpoint. Imagine society suffers some catastrophic setback. Economies fail, war breaks out, maybe nuclear. The power grid stops operating. Imagine a vast calamity. That's bad enough in itself, of course, but not as scary as what comes next. You're one of the survivors. The economy includes subsistence farming and scavenging from the old infrastructure. You and your tribe decide the only thing to do is to begin rebuilding society back to where it was. You know that you have to remodernize agriculture. What do you need? Machinery. You need equipment, but even more you need to fuel it.

The problem is in acquiring oil. The first time we discovered oil it was quite simple. In places like Pennsylvania it was so accessible it could sometimes be found right at the surface. (Which is why we see oil brands such as Pennzoil and Quaker State). As we used the oil to power society we were able to develop increasingly sophisticated techniques to get the less accessible oil. Now we're fracking and running deep-sea oil rigs. There is no way a primitive society can get to that oil. And there's no way a primitive society can build solar panels or nuclear plants. If society fails now, it fails forever. The next big energy regression might well be permanent.

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