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Everyone knows that when a potential employer makes a job offer, the salary or wage he or she proposes isn’t what you’ll be taking home. What you’ll take home is your net pay. The number the employer offers you is your gross pay, and that’s just what it says on your pay stub.
It’s not quite a perfect analogy with net energy versus gross energy. But it’s an everyday analogy that most people can understand. Net pay is what you have to pay your bills today. And, net energy is what society has in order to conduct its business (and its fun) on any given day. Net energy is what’s left after the energy sectors of the economy–oil and gas, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, renewable energy industries, and farming which provides food for human and animal energy and crops for biofuels–expend the energy they must to extract energy from the environment and then sell the surplus to the rest of us.
We don’t often think of these sectors of the economy because for most people they are out of sight and therefore out of mind. And, until the last decade food and energy have been so consistently cheap in the last 60 years or so, that few people ever paused to ponder the fact that it takes energy to get energy. And, after all, cheap energy is an indication that it takes very little energy to extract huge amounts of energy from the environment. So, why worry about that?
However, as food and energy costs have risen dramatically in the last decade, the public and policymakers have begun to notice. What they don’t seem to understand is that this rise results from the fact that it is now taking significantly more energy (and therefore money) to extract the energy we desire, both from fossil fuels in the ground and farm crops on the land (yields of which are currently heavily dependent on fossil fuel inputs). An obvious symptom is that wealth is flowing into the energy-gathering sectors of the economy mentioned above. But, that means there is less wealth left for the other sectors of the economy where the vast majority of people work, at least in so-called developed countries.
Still, as costs to extract energy continue to rise for those in the energy-gathering sectors of the economy, even their profits and wages will ultimately get squeezed. Yes, everyone eventually suffers when society must use more and more energy just to get the energy it needs to allow the non-energy parts of the economy to function properly.
Since 86 percent of the energy consumed worldwide is derived from burning finite fossil fuels, we are faced with a serious dilemma. Eventually, the energy we get from these fuels will turn down–and not for the reason that most people think. The world continues to extract more gross energy in the form of oil, natural gas, and coal each year. And yet, it takes energy to find, extract, refine and deliver that energy to society. So, are we still getting more net energy from those fuels each year? No one knows the answer.
One thing is clear. Because fossil fuels are finite, one day their rate of extraction will peak and then begin an irreversible decline. When that will occur, no one can know. But, before that happens–perhaps many, many years before it happens–the net energy from fossil fuels will peak and then begin an irreversible decline.
There are clues, obvious clues, that we may be nearing a net energy peak, even as the energy companies tout new records of gross fossil fuel extraction. High prices and now shrinking profits are evident in the oil and gas industry. Executives in the linked article give many explanations for falling profits, but none of them have to do with the declining net energy from their extractive activities. And, if the executives understand the latter cause–and I’m not sure they do–announcing it would hardly boost oil company stock prices.
But the word is out now that high costs for developing new fossil fuel energy sources are finally biting into energy company profits despite continuing high prices for oil and rebounding prices for natural gas.
One way the companies are fighting the high cost of developing new resources is simply to cut back on investment. But, this could create a self-reinforcing cycle in which exploration and development cutbacks lead to supply reductions worldwide which lead to higher prices which lead to recession and thus lower demand–and finally to much lower prices which discourage exploration and development.
But, back to my answer to the question, “Are we still getting more net energy from those [fossil] fuels each year?” My answer was that nobody knows. It’s curious that in the information age no one has thought to examine this question very deeply except a few energy researchers who have been too ill-funded to gather and analyze extensive data on the subject. Charlie Hall and his students come to mind. They have gone to heroic lengths to obtain at least some data and analyze it in order to explore this question.
It is instructive that the premier energy statistics agency on the planet, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (upon which I rely heavily for accurate historical energy statistics), does not even have a category in its tables for net energy, nor any mention of it (in the sense I mean it) anywhere on its site that I can find.
The real peak then in fossil fuel energy will come not when the rate of extraction of oil or coal or natural gas peaks. As far as society is concerned, it will come when the net energy from these sources peaks and begins to decline. The fact that we won’t even be able to see this when it arrives means we’re headed for trouble already.
Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novelPrelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For millennia the presence of humans on planet Earth hardly made a dent in its ecosystems. Humans were at the mercy of their environment as much as any other creature. But with the advent of agriculture, humans began to influence the planet in major ways. Some scientists posit that the clearing of large swaths of land for planting over the past 10,000 years released enough carbon into the atmosphere to delay the next ice age.
Of course, in the past two centuries the pace of those carbon releases has grown exponentially with the industrial revolution through the burning of fossil fuels. These emissions now threaten to flip the planet into a warm state far beyond anything experienced by humans in their relatively brief time on Earth. The question we must now face is whether humans still live in “the environment” or whether they now are“the environment” by virtue of their actions.
The distinction mattered little as long as we didn’t live in what economist Herman Daly calls “a full world.” The introduction to his piece “Economics in a Full World” which appeared in Scientific American in 2005 states: “The global economy is now so large that society can no longer safely pretend it operates within a limitless ecosystem.”
And, pretending is all we’ve been doing since the dawn of humans. As it turns out, the biosphere that is our home has been shaped by the very organisms that inhabit it. For example, about 2.4 billion years ago, cyanobacteria which are capable of photosynthesis appeared and began absorbing carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere and releasing oxygen in great quantities back into it. The period has been dubbed The Great Oxidation Event, and it wiped out most anaerobic bacteria (because, of course, they can’t survive in an oxygen environment). As a result, The Great Oxidation Event is regarded as one of the largest extinction events of all time.
We see the imprint of living organisms shaping the biosphere everywhere. The carbon cycle–the very basis of life as we know it–involves plants and microorganisms both on land and in the sea. Even our human bodies are part of it as we breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Shell-making aquatic organisms use carbon and calcium from seawater to make their shells. When these organisms die, their shells sink to the ocean floor where they become part of the vast carbonate-rich deposits of sedimentary rocks.
And there is the nitrogen cycle, a cycle critical to the survival of all living things. None of us can live without the nitrogen needed to build the proteins and the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) we depend on for our functioning. Nitrogen in the atmosphere, however, cannot be utilized by plants. But, it turns out that soil bacteria convert this nitrogen into a form that is usable for plants and therefore usable for the animals that eat those plants. (Lightening also performs this transformation.)
So the principle is that organisms are both acted upon by their environment and act ontheir environment. They both adapt to their circumstances and attempt to alter those circumstances to enable them to survive and thrive. There can be no doubt that humans do this. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that all organisms will survive, at least not in their current form. And, that’s how we get evolution on Earth. Organisms gradually change over time or go extinct if they cannot adapt quickly enough to changing circumstances or alter those circumstances enough to allow their survival.
All organisms are continuously acting both to adjust to surrounding circumstances and to shape those circumstances. This is a key insight. We earthbound organisms are not, as Darwin implies, mere helpless actors. Each of us has a role to play in maintaining the web of life. This conclusion is logical. How can we say that wolves are influencing the evolutionary development of sheep without saying sheep are influencing the evolutionary development of wolves?
What can we now say about “the environment” when the dominant force shaping it us? We have interfered in the carbon cycle in a profound way, vastly speeding up the introduction of carbon into the atmosphere and the oceans (ocean acidification). What can we now say about the nitrogen cycle after 1905 when Fritz Haber figured out how to convert nitrogen from the air into a form usable for plants–a discovery that led to modern-day nitrogen fertilizers that have greatly expanded the food supply and thus allowed human populations to skyrocket?
But, runoff laced with these same fertilizers is responsible for the eutrophication of bodies of water. And, it turns out that the long-term use of artificial nitrogen fertilizers actually reduces the productivity of the soil. One affectless but nevertheless ominous observation from recent research on the subject summarizes the problem: Long-term nitrogen fertilizer use “has been implicated in widespread reports of yield stagnation or even decline for grain production in Asia.” (For a fuller summary, see this piece inGrist.)
To every action there is a reaction. It just may not show up right away.
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times Erle Ellis, a biologist, embraced the idea that there is no “environment” that constrains human action. Here is the heart of his argument:
The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.
Ellis is one of the few scientists I’ve read who understands that what we humans are doing to the Earth is really a political issue–notice that he invokes social science. And, he has given his advocacy services over to the side that proclaims that perpetual growth in the human domain is possible. To repeat: His conclusion stems not from mere natural science, but from social science, that is, the realm of the political.
But, he makes two obvious errors in his piece when he proclaims: “There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity. We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish.”
He is referring, of course, to the classic illustration of the petri dish which ultimately runs out of food for the hungry, multiplying bacteria it contains, and that leads to a population crash among the bacteria. His error is in assigning agency only to humans, in assigning the ability to shape our environment only to humans. And yet, as a biologist who must know the history of planet Earth, he is being disingenuous. Remember the humble cyanobacteria and the huge destruction it wreaked on other forms of life. Ellis says in the previous excerpt: “Humans are niche creators.” But, so are all other organisms on the planet, a rather glaring omission. This is, in fact, a key similarity between us and bacteria.
What Ellis imagines is that humans will always and everywhere be successful at creating new niches for themselves–that all the other organisms on the planet will somehow accommodate us enough to allow the human species to grow continuously and its extractions from the rest of the natural world to grow with it. He is right that humans have always altered the biosphere (as has every other organism). But he seems not to understand the current scale of alterations and the rapidity with which they are taking place. Scale matters. Remember Herman Daly’s admonish that we live in a full world. And, that world is on course to change its climate dramatically in just a few decades. Such a time line is unprecedented in human history.
Ellis again has a scientific lapse by simply dismissing the competition and cooperation from other species as inconsequential–for example, competition for basic resources such as food and water and cooperation from such species as bees which pollinate the lion’s share of the world crops. He is too dismissive of human-induced changes in the oceans, the soils and the atmosphere as something humans will always and everywhere be able to survive.
He tells us that 200,000 years ago humans started to transform the planet. What he fails to mention is that it has not been a one-way trajectory skyward. About 70,000 years ago, probably because of climate change, human numbers were likely reduced to just 2,000. The lack of genetic diversity in humans has long pointed to such an event. All of us today come from those 2,000.
But, of course, we’re better equipped than those humans. And today, with our unparalleled knowledge, we wouldn’t foolishly undermine the systems in our biosphere that are critical to our well-being, would we?
Ellis writes with the vast overconfidence of someone who thinks he knows the future with certainty and that humans will always figure something out no matter the scope or rapidity of the changes they face. In his opinion piece he gushes: “Who knows what will be possible with the technologies of the future?” Actually, nobody knows.
But, we humans are not “in charge” of the biosphere. We are only competing and cooperating with various parts of it in a struggle to survive and thrive. Isn’t it obvious by now that the biosphere does not always do what we want it to do and only what we want it to do? It’s as if the law of unintended consequences has never occurred to Ellis.
Given that we know now that all organisms try to remake the biosphere to their liking, this should make us far less confident that we can make everything turn out just fine for humans. Keep in mind that we face a bewildering and essentially incalculable array of actors with whom we are forced sometimes to fight and sometimes to cooperate. In fact, we cannot even know what all of them are and probably are only familiar with a small sliver of all that lives. Our knowledge of the biosphere and the Earth is not just imperfect, it is wildly imperfect. If we’re so smart, why didn’t we avoid changing the climate, devastating the fisheries, degrading the soil through rapid erosion, and lacing the air, water and soil with toxic chemicals in the first place?
Even though Ellis is right that there is no fixed human carrying capacity–because humans, their social and technological circumstances, and the world of other organisms and Earth processes are changing all the time–this is but a red herring. No bona fide scientist has said otherwise. When most scientists refer to human carrying capacity, they mean long-term carrying capacity; they mean thousands of years. And, Ellis never even contemplates the possibility that this fluctuating human carrying capacity might go down! The human story forever goes upward (except, for example, 70,000 years ago, when, due to climate change, it didn’t).
So we have a semantic sleight-of-hand that ducks the long-term problem and places Ellis (whether he knows it or not) firmly on the side of interests that only think short-term, primarily the industrial and commercial interests. We are back to politics, again. With which interests should we ally ourselves? The well-being and futurity of the human race or the short-term interests of powerful elites?
William Catton Jr., author of the ecological classic Overshoot, prefigured the coming of the Anthropocene, an age of the Earth dominated by human actions–where menacing geological changes such as changes in the chemistry of the ocean and the atmosphere take place by dint of human action and within a human lifetime. Catton gave humans a new name, homo colossus, a human-tool hybrid with immense power to shape the globe. With worldwide geologic changes coming this fast, what will it mean from now on to refer to the geologic time scale?
If we are indeed already in the Anthropocene, then “the environment” cannot be “out there.” And, it cannot be “preserved.” The environment is us and everything else together constantly in flux. It is no longer a static scientific construction, but a political one within which we humans are firmly situated along with all the other organisms and Earth processes. We cannot be above or apart from it. We cannot “save it” as actors from beyond.
But, we can decide which values we want to defend. With apologies to some of my geologist friends who understand rightly that the human project on planet Earth will just be a blip in Earth’s history–please stop identifying with the rocks! Rocks are an excellent area of study; and, we have geologists to thank for much of what we know about Earth’s systems. But, the time has now come to realize that that knowledge has political implications for what we as humans will actually do from here on out.
The advent of the Anthropocene has wiped out the distinction between human history and natural history. And so, my minor temper tantrum over geology applies to all the other natural sciences. There is no distinction between us and the natural world. There is just the thin membrane of life and life processes clinging to the Earth’s surface which we call the biosphere and of which humans are merely a part.
It has always been thus. But now, it is imperative that we understand this if we wish to salvage anything we call human in the century to come.
P.S. The inspiration for this piece comes from Bruno Latour who gave the Gifford Lectures last year, particularly the third and fourth lectures. And, I thank my friend Jim Armstrong for some thoroughly stimulating discussions about these lectures and Latour’s latest work.
What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent.
As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
–Donald Rumsfeld, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense
We live in an age of enlightenment, in the belief that the entire universe is open to our inspection and more than this, that it is theoretically all intelligible to us. If we just apply enough science and enough rationality, nature will reveal all its secrets to us in ordered sets of data that we can then use to control the entire world around us.
That we can wrest a comfortable life from the Earth is, however, nothing special. Plants and animals do this without resorting to colleges, symposia or research laboratories. And, humans used to do it without these things as well. Ancient Greeks–if they survived childhood diseases, war and the occasional plague–regularly managed to live into their 60s and 70s among balmy Mediterranean breezes. It’s not that there hasn’t been any progress; it’s just that we may not have made as much progress as we think.
And yet, in the age of Big Data we have become ever more enamored with the representations of the world that we gather in the form of numbers and words, believing (wrongly) that the map is the territory.
My father used to annoy his business partners by offering quick-fire solutions to problems–solutions that worked with distressing regularity. When pressed, he often could not explain why these solutions would work, only that he knew they would. His partners, suspicious of things that could not be rendered into rational discourse, eventually bought him out. How could they trust such intuitions, even if they appeared to be on target?
In his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (from which I’ve drawn several ideas for this piece) author Nassim Nicholas Taleb cites the above quotation by Nietzsche and calls it “the most potent sentence in all of Nietzsche’s century.” We tend to dismiss things we cannot understand: “If I cannot understand it, then it must not exist.” And there is the seemingly less pernicious, “If I cannot understand it, it must not be important.”
The second notion is actually more pernicious. I can show convincingly that a person who does not understand a well-supported fact is merely ignorant. But it is much harder to convince someone that something which he or she doesn’t understand–but doesn’t deny either–is actually important enough to pay attention to. Climate change comes to mind.
This is the conundrum of the modern world. The world is so complex that it seems hopeless to try to understand how all things human and natural work together. We live in an age that calls out for explanations of nature and society that provide something genuinely revelatory to the layperson. What we mostly get, however, is hucksterism and public relations, information designed to mislead rather than clarify. Under the circumstances, we are lucky if we occasionally discover a small and perhaps fleeting truth.
We often believe that the explainers know what they are talking about because they speak with such conviction. The economists, the Wall Street analysts, the technical geniuses, the captains of industry, the billionaires, the airwave pundits, they must know something we don’t or they wouldn’t be that successful. But what they know isn’t necessarily what they are telling us. And, what they are telling us is, in any case, almost always designed to advance their interests, not ours.
In such a world, how shall we get through the day? It is best to start from humble premises:
- Nature knows better than we do in most things. It’s been tested for a lot longer than any human invention.
- No one knows the future, but we should strive to make ourselves less vulnerable to damage from extreme events which are the ones that can really hurt us.
- Beware of anyone who tells you he or she knows the future with certainty. Unless you are speaking with, say, a scientist calculating the orbit of a planet, such a person is a fraud.
- Our social relations–our loves and friendships–are more important than anything else because they are our true anchors in an uncertain world.
- The longer a practice or design has been around, say, a book versus an e-reader, the longer it is likely to be around. It has endured the test of time.
- There is wisdom in insecurity to quote Alan Watts. We actually live in an insecure and uncertain world. Those who promise to free us from our anxiety and insecurity are merely trying to manipulate us for their own gain. (I would distinguish such people from bona fide practitioners who help those with paralyzing anxiety reduce it to a manageable level.) Do not trust people or pills that promise to end your anxiety. Even if you get temporary relief, the actual uncertainty in your life and the universe will remain.
- Just because the world is uncertain doesn’t mean it is implacably hostile. Sometimes good things come from an uncertain future if we are wise enough to be on the lookout for them.
None of these principles will deliver you from all of life’s difficulties. But they can help you avoid hucksters who simply wish to exploit you by placing you in harm’s way while they reap the benefits.
Only when we accept that we have a rather limited understanding of the world we live in are we able to act in ways that are prudent for ourselves and our communities and respectful of the Earth and of our fellow beings, human and otherwise.
Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at email@example.com.