Energy: An Addiction or a Necessity?
Energy is arguably the most defining aspect of industrial civilization. For the first couple hundred thousand years of human existence, our ability to affect the world around us was limited by the amount of energy the human body can produce. It is estimated that, on average, a fit laborer can produce about 75 Watts of energy over an eight hour period. To those of us not familiar with energy terms, let it suffice to say that´s not very much energy, at least compared to modern day usage.
Though the elites of past civilizations were able to harness vast amounts of human energy (usually through slavery) in order to build astounding civilizations (think of the Roman aqueducts and the Egyptian pyramids), the majority of our ancestors lived lives that were constrained by the limits imposed by the places and conditions where they lived. They simply didn´t have enough human energy to drastically change the world.
Many scientists who study the history of evolution consider that it was only a matter of time before our species was to make the leap into the world-altering people that we´ve become. A self-conscious brain capable of understanding the world around us coupled with a rotatable thumb that allowed us to modify our surroundings was a combination that undoubtedly was to lead us into the modern civilization that defines us.
When our ancestors first discovered how to harness the power of the steam engine in the early 1800´s something changed in our world. For the first time ever, we were able to harness a power dozens of times greater than what we could produce from our own bodies or from the domestication of horses and other draft animals. The ability to harness energy, first through water vapor and then through fossil fuels and nuclear sources of energy, lead directly to the Industrial Revolution and to the infinite discoveries and comforts that define Western Civilization.
Today, the vast majority of us are completely dependent on cheap, readily available fossil-fuel energy to get through our days. Our food is catered to us by the oil industry. Our houses are cooled and warmed with fossil fuel energy. We depend on cars to move us from one place to the next. We don´t even know how to get rid of our own feces without a flush toilet that has water pumped into our homes using fossil fuel energy.
In 2012, close to 105,000 Terra Watt hours of energy was used worldwide. A Terra Watt hour is 1 billion Kilo Watt hours, what shows up on your electricity bill. Of that energy, over 40% came from oil, 10% from coal, 15% from natural gas, and only 3.5% from renewable sources like solar and wind energy.
Our modern civilization, then, is completely subsidized by a cheap source of unrenewable energy that IS running out and is also vastly altering our world´s atmosphere and climate systems. What´s worse is that very few people seem willing to surrender our energy intensive, consumer way of life. The majority of our politicians talk of transitioning to renewable energies, but almost no one talks of actually limiting our use of energy in the first place.
Richard Heinberg from the Post Carbon Institute has said that “we´ve created a way of life that´s fundamentally unsustainable. It´s not just ecologically irresponsible, it can´t continue.” One of the most defining characteristics of that way of life is our dependence and addiction on sources of ancient sunlight (fossil fuels). Unless we wake up to the truth of the fact that we´re living in a fantasy world that simply can´t go on, our species may very well drown in our own unlimited desire for energy.
Limiting Energy Use: the Number One Priority
Limits aren´t exactly a popular theme in our world. We´re continually encouraged to “go beyond our limits” and to overcome whatever confines or restricts our plans and goals and aspirations. We proudly consider ourselves to be the “do-anything, go-anywhere, dream big generation.” We overlook, however, the irrefutable fact that we live in a limited world with limited resources and with a limited ability to sustain our opulent, energy-intensive lifestyles.
The majority of indigenous and peasant cultures around the world defined their very cultural existence on the limits that their ancestral territories defined. What the land allowed is what their culture would entail. The wisdom of those lifestyles defined by the limits of the land is long gone, unfortunately.
We need to rediscover and recreate a cultural ethic that puts value on abiding by and respecting certain limits. And none is more important than the limitation we put on the amount of energy we use. The writer and farmer Wendell Berry, when speaking of our civilization´s ignorant dependence on cheap energy says:
“This curious faith is predicated on the notion that we will soon develop unlimited new sources of energy: domestic oil fields, shale oil, gasified coal, nuclear power, solar energy, and so on. This is fantastical because the basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity: it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don’t know how to use energy or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil fuel energy.”
Our inability to constrain ourselves is troubling and worrisome because that is exactly what the energy debate should be centered on. Instead of blindly placing our faith on the ability of technology to create new, “cleaner” sources of energy to fuel our unrestrained way of life, we need to begin to learn how to use less energy. As Berry says, that will require us to let go of “moral ignorance and weakness of character.”
We will have to question whether or not we need to use a dryer to dry our clothes when the sun is shining, whether we should depend on water pumped into our houses when we have a spring uphill from our house, whether we should buy our vegetables flown in from Mexico when a fertile patch of soil sits covered by grass in our front lawn.
The famous environmentalist David Brower once remarked that “I believe that the average guy in the street will give up a great deal if he really understands the cost of not giving it up. In fact, we may find that, while we’re drastically cutting our energy consumption, we’re actually raising our standard of living.”
Similarly, the “degrowth” movement which is popular in Spain and other European countries, “advocates for the downscaling of production and consumption—the contraction of economies—arguing that overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities.” But downscaling our economies, and thus limiting the amount of energy we use, doesn´t necessarily mean that we will be martyring our happiness or well-being. Rather, it means finding happiness through means other than consumption.
Limiting our use of energy, then, opens up the possibility for new forms of community life. In one rural, Guatemalan village, a government sponsored program brought potable water into villager’s homes. The government bought a nearby spring, installed an expensive pump, and put in pipes so that each family had access to water in their own homes. A couple of months after having installed the system, a government official went to check on the project and found that the pump had become dysfunctional and that the majority of the households rejected the indoor water faucets.
When he began to ask the villagers why they didn´t take care of the expensive project, one woman remarked: “It was nice to have water in our homes, but I missed going to the spring to wash clothes together with the other women. I guess I prefer to walk a little bit every day in order to spend time with my friends.”