Thursday, October 20, 2011

the energy trap

DoTheMath | Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.

In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!

When I first encountered the concept of peak oil, I was most distressed about the economic implications. In part, this was prompted by David Goodstein’s book Out of Gas, which highlighted the potential for global panic in reaction to peak oil—making the gas lines associated with the temporary oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 look like warm-up acts. Because I knew Professor Goodstein personally, and held him in high regard as a solid physicist, I took his message seriously. Extrapolating his vision of a global reaction to peak oil, I imagined that the prospect of a decades-long decline in available energy—while we strained to institute a replacement infrastructure—would destroy confidence in short-term economic growth, thus destroying investment and crashing markets. The market relies on investor confidence—which, in some sense, makes it a con job, since “con” is short for confidence. If that confidence is shattered on a global scale, what happens next?

I still consider economic panic to be a distinctly possible eventuality, but psychology can be hard to predict. Market optimists would see the tremendous investment potential of a new energy infrastructure as an antidote against such an outbreak. Given this uncertainty, let’s shy away from economic prognostication and look at a purely physical dimension to the problem—namely, the Energy Trap.


Big Don said...

There is no shortage of energy.  Rather, there are simply too many people.  The Final_Solution is obvious...

CNu said...

That'd be the invisible 800lb gorilla that nobody dares discuss...,

umbrarchist said...

And too many people doing too many stupid things with the energy.

nanakwame said...

CNu said...

Currently, there isn't enough energy being extracted from known sources
of fossil fuels to sustain 10 billion people. This means that humans
will be forced to turn to a new energy source before the end of the
century. However, it's a mystery what that new source will be.


after hitting this indigestible mass of illogic - I just turned the handle and flushed the rest