A Matter of Limits

I’ve written repeatedly about the incredible, almost staggering amount of energy in fossil fuels. Here’s why this is a problem—watch this amazing few minutes of video about how economic growth has lifted the world from sickness and poverty since the industrial revolution–

Wonderful, right? Hans Rosling is optimistic, and ends by excitedly saying “…everyone can make it to this healthy, wealthy world.” But, play this similar animated graph about world carbon emissions during that same time period, at Hans Rosling’s Gapminder site. In case you didn’t notice, they track together nearly exactly (and just look at China’s emissions on the rise toward the end—that’s the energy use that is powering China’s growth). Most readers probably know this already, but in case you haven’t thought about it recently—what our economy does, and is very good at, is turning energy into stuff. And, nearly all of our energy comes from fossil fuels. So, without exaggerating much at all, we turn fossil fuels into food, into belongings, into transportation and lifestyle. It is fossil fuels, nearly completely, that have powered humanity upward in the first video.

But herein lies the problem—though it’s only been three or four decades since we’ve truly realized it, the carbon emissions in the second graph are going to wreck the planet. So, thus the conundrum. We need economic growth to continue to lift the poorest billions out of poverty. BUT, the growth comes from energy, and the energy comes from fossil fuels, and we have to quit burning them so that we don’t commit planetary suicide.

Our only hopes, barring miracles of research and development, are energy efficiency and conservation, whereby you get the same lifestyle with less energy input, and transitioning to renewable power. (At this point in the discussion, I can hear some demanding a full review of nuclear power, but I’ll leave that alone just a bit longer). But, as Tom Murphy points out in this really good blog post—if we’re going to use energy to continue to lift the poorest billions out of poverty, say, to the levels of the United States, then we’re going to need more of it. Much more of it.

And, unless something dramatic changes, we aren’t going to get “much more of it”. As we switch to renewable power, we’ll be lucky to keep the levels we have now. The most obvious implications to this aren’t good, but I’m hesitant to extrapolate out too much. We humans are an adaptive and inventive bunch, and if we put our minds to it, I think we’ll figure this out. And I mean that. But by any measure the task ahead is both huge and of great importance. Humanity is beginning to respond to these problems, but we need to step it up. Economic reasons preclude shifting too suddenly away from fossil fuels, but we need to be using fossil fuel in this interim period to power the transition, and not to just keep living large as we discuss change in the abstract. Once yet again, the time is now, and we need to start acting, every one of us.