I’m an engineer, a technical sort who has paid attention to energy for decades. The possibilities and the limitations of energy sources have a great deal to do with the economic and political crisis we have today. Ignorance of these possibilities and limitations, or mistaken ideas about energy, lead people to have impractical ideas about economic and political policies. I do not have all the answers, but I can see that some proposed answers are just wrong.

I support democracy, which I believe is impossible without equality and social justice. Because inequality and injustice are so dominant in this country, we have only some ineffective appearance of democracy in our government. Well over 90% of the population did not want bank bailouts in 2008, but we got bank bailouts. As we also saw in the 2008 election, the two-party system does not work to create change in the direction of equality and social justice, but to direct those aspirations into a practically meaningless exercise in voting for candidates who support business as usual.

We still want change, not just the temporary and illusory promise of it. Let me lay out why we need to understand something about energy to have a workable plan for change in the direction of greater equality and social justice.

We could describe our consumer economy: Make cars and trucks and planes and ships and roads and bridges and airports and houses and hotels and shopping malls and hospitals and universities, etc.

Stimulating this economy means: Sell more cars and trucks and houses and so on. Drive more. Fly more. Rebuild transportation infrastructure and build more of it. Buy more stuff from stores. Spend more time at vacation resorts and business conferences. Build more electrical power plants (coal and nuclear and gas and wind and solar) and upgrade the electrical distribution grid. More fracking for oil and gas. More mountaintop removal and other mining for coal. More biofuels.

Running this economy takes energy, mostly (85% or so) fossil fuel energy. Growing this economy takes even more energy.

That’s energy of specific types for each part of the economy, not just an abstract concept of energy. If you have a gasoline powered car, then you need gasoline or an equivalent liquid fuel such as gasoline-alcohol mix to run it. You can’t run it on coal or natural gas or electricity or even on diesel fuel without extensive and expensive modification. You can’t use wood in your natural gas furnace. You can’t even use direct current from your car’s 12-volt system to run your 120-volt alternating current appliances unless you have an inverter to convert one into the other. You can’t run anything except your imagination on a concept of energy.

We are living in an era when the limitations of sources of energy to power the industrial economy are becoming increasingly evident.

Peak oil has caused the price of oil, which was ~$20 per barrel through the 1980s and 1990s, to double and then double again in this century. It has to stay at or above these levels in order to make synthetic oil from Canada’s tar sands a viable product and to give the Saudis enough profit to buy off their increasingly restive population. When the amount of oil available on earth is limited, the price can increase until the price crushes demand. That’s a simple explanation of what happened in 2008.

Even with all the subsidies, we can see the price of nuclear power in the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. While we all hope for nothing worse than Three Mile island in this country, there is no guarantee we will not get worse. With a hundred or more reactors operating, some of them in severe earthquake zones, we might expect worse.

Fracking can produce natural gas as long as we can stand the chemical contamination of water and air that goes with it, just as coal can provide energy as long as we can stand the environmental destruction that it brings. Because deposits of coal and natural gas are finite, peak coal and peak natural gas are just as certainly ahead of us as peak oil is behind us.

All these limitations of conventional sources of energy are behind the frantic and so far unsatisfactory search for alternative energy. All the alternatives so far have proven to be too expensive or too low in net energy return or too small to support economic growth, or all of the above.

The overall result for the United States is that energy per capita peaked in 1978-1979 at 359 Billion BTUs per person per year. By 2009, it was down to 309 Billion BTUs per person per year. Economic growth was possible during recent decades in part by increasing the efficiency with which various forms of energy were used. Efficiency also has its limits, both technical and economic. Even if everyone could be persuaded to buy a Chevy Volt and super-insulate their house, at this point most of us can’t afford to do it.

The short story is, the energy consuming economy we actually have cannot grow without more energy being available to support that growth. Stimulating it will not result in restoring growth any more than stimulating a starving horse will cause it to return to health and strength. If the horse is lacking adequate food and you can’t feed it properly, then plenty of water, rest and kind words of encouragement will still leave you with a starving horse.

That’s how it is with the energy-intensive parts of our economy. Those parts of the economy shrink as the energy sources are depleted and become too expensive to maintain. That’s why the auto industry used to make 16 million units per year, and now 12 million units is considered pretty good. Unfortunately, energy-intensive industries are the overwhelming majority of our economy. In the midst of a shrinking economy, our real choices are between finding and developing less energy intensive ways of doing all of our business and complete failure.

Let me repeat that. Business as usual is already failing us. Economics as usual is failing us. Politics as usual is failing us. Business, economics and politics as usual promised prosperity and, after the Great Depression, delivered it for some decades. Different people will have different ideas about when it failed to deliver prosperity for them, but there’s not much doubt that it failed most of us by the mortgage/finance/credit crisis of 2008. That event, inconveniently interrupting a conventional Presidential election campaign, is a milestone at the start of our Great Recession.

This Great Recession has some similarities with the Great Depression, but it is not the same. in 1930, the United States was 40 years away from national peak oil. Now, we are 40 years past that event, extracting half the oil domestically for 50% more population.

Oil is not the only depleted resource. It’s just one obvious depleted resource. Water, fish, forests and farmland are a few of the essential resources we all know are less abundant than they were. On the other hand, we have enough nitrogen fertilizer to create a giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and enough nuclear weapons to exterminate humanity.

Policies that worked to fix the Depression will not work to fix our Great Recession. Fundamental conditions are too different. Stimulating the pre-WW II economy worked. It will not work again.

This is, in my opinion, why the #Occupy movement exists. It’s also why the Transiton Towns movement exists. Both are part of a collective effort to work out what we can do about the prosperity that vanished like the woman who went behind the curtain for a stage magician.

We are trying to grasp the reality behind the illusion, because our lives depend on that reality. One essential reality is that all conventional sources of energy are reaching the limits of their availability. In coming decades, we will have less energy available to run the global economy, so we need to develop less energy intensive ways of creating and transporting everything.

The corporate global economy will continue to abandon us. It’s not going to save us. It will save only those corporations who control it, and only as long as they control us. Stimulating it will stimulate it to waste more of the planet’s resources. We will do well to abandon globalism as soon as possible, and to develop low-energy local economies everywhere we can.

Art Myatt

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