In most of the populist energy plans offered by the Democrats and Republicans, there is an assumption of economic growth that is going to follow off-shore drilling of oil. The implied assumption is that we will have natural resources with which to do more. This is blatantly un-true.
I don’t understand why it’s so hard for politicians to see non-growth. Probably because of the cyclical growth we experienced in the past. We had growth in the late 70s, gross national product and energy then came down in the 80s, went back up in the 90s, and now it’s back down to where it was in the 80s, and everybody is assuming it’s going right-on up. I don’t think so, because each year we have more problems spending energy to get energy.
Modern society as we know it is subsidized by oil. Roughly two-thirds of our energy base is fossil fuels and one-third is environmental energies (sun, water, wind, etc.). Therefore, if we had no fossil fuels at all, then our economy would have to drop to about a third. The implied assumption that solar energy can replace fossil fuels is a paradox. It’s a conservation device, not an energy source. The solar equipment is made out of fossil fuels; therefore, it’s going to get more expensive as the fuels get higher. A solar heater is 99.9% made of goods and services out of the economy. It uses just a tiny bit of sunlight and lots of money. It’s a big money-sunlight ratio.
Right now, most of our main sources of energy are running about 2 to 1, that is, coal and oil. We are putting in two units of energy and getting out one. Before, we used to put in 1 and get 40 because it was right on the surface and it was just coming in and doing all sorts of marvelous things. We became superior because we had the energy to get educated and explore more. But now, we don’t have that energy because we’re putting it all back into getting it.
Crude oil production in the Persian Gulf has been nearly flat at just over 20 million barrels a day since the early 1970s. The growth in world supply since that time has come from oil fields outside the Middle East, but many have reached their production limits and important ones are in decline.
As gas prices go up, a lot of people assume we are approaching the true cost of oil. It never will. Money does not represent the value of something that comes in from the outside. They don’t understand that something like a book is very energy expensive because you pay someone for two years to write it, and that person is operating on a regular standard of living to do it. It is made efficient because of all the things that were done for him by his own standard of living. Therefore, we spend a lot of energy to produce that book.
The same thing goes for technology. It’s making fancy devices which are themselves energy, and the more technology we develop, the more energy is involved. For example, a computer takes huge amounts of energy, not in its operation, but to support all those manufacturing processes, so that the more complex it is, the more energy is expended.
Moreover, agricultural technology itself contributes to energy drain. With subsistence agriculture, you use a lot of land and a little hand labor, and receive a low yield because the plants do all the work for themselves. You have varieties that fought their own diseases and did their own work and most of their energy went into survival and not much into yield, so you get small potatoes. Now, we put in all those energies to do that for them. We fertilize, spray, and protect them. You don’t get something for nothing. There’s no miracle. You bred one thing out and bred another in — it was a transfer of energy. Put the oil in and take out the miracle rice. Thus, you can’t take a miracle variety and run it without all the industrial agriculture. That’s the thing that people haven’t understood yet.
In the future, we will not have more energy for more growth. The possible implications for this will be a declining economy. And there’s yet to appear a politician who will come out, and finally say that our economy is declining and that now or shortly this will require certain changes.
In one generation, everything will tend to get smaller. The economy of scale: building bigger shopping centers, bigger government, go in part because the energy for transportation and communications was cheap. So as it gets to be expensive, it pays not to be in the big scale. For example, it could affect Ohio with perhaps more diversified agriculture, with a smaller circle of shipment.
There wouldn’t be much of a decline for a generation as long as we are sensible about keeping and developing our coal and using foreign oil. I think here, none of the presidential candidates have come around this issue. That is, you don’t want to use your oil. You want to use foreign oil. Save yours. Why? Well, that prevents them from growing too much and that’s where war goes, in centers of expanding growth, where countries are pressing each other.
The energy crisis will create a prolonged period of “stable-inflation,” increased oil skirmishes and even oil wars, and further marginalization of the poor. Yet it could also be the critical spur to action, prompting vital changes in technologies and lifestyles. It’s not too late to take the more productive path, but time is running out.
The writer is professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Toledo in Ohio.