Humankind evolved out of a hunter-gatherer past, using stone, fire and then metals to survive in a harsh yet sustainable environment. Although they had no concept of it, their existence was self-sustaining and energy-balanced. All physical effort was expended in catching food and basic survival, which left no energy surplus. Without energy surplus there could be no specialization, no society and no economy.
All the bright whirry things that make up our current version of civilization, and the fact that we have full bellies, pretty clothes, warm houses and the ability to defy gravity fosters the delusion that we have progressed beyond that era.
We face our ‘modern’ world still under the control of the survival instincts that were honed to perfection over millennia to cope with hazards and problems that faced our ancestors in a different age. Their dangers were real and immediate, to be dealt with on the instant. They could not concern themselves with that which might happen next week or years hence. Our prehistoric forebears were too busy sourcing sufficient energy for their living day, which was locked into the bodies of dangerous animals who were unwilling to surrender it.
Thus the skill of the hunt became paramount to get sufficient energy to survive and breed. A female offered herself to the best hunter, because that gave her offspring the maximum boost to chances of survival. Crude perhaps, but the forces of nature take no account of civilized niceties.
Successful hunters killed and consumed, lived and procreated; unsuccessful ones did not.
So we are the progeny of success: they are us, and we are they. Within us we carry the mindset of our ancestors.
But nature still cares only that we survive the present, and our hunter gatherer instinct concurs; in evolutionary terms, action on a threat that is not imminent is a still a waste of precious energy, the fact that we have a surplus is taken as confirmation that we need do nothing, because there will always be more. That is why we perceive the dangers of climate change, overpopulation and energy depletion and our other potential problems as being beyond our event horizon, so the majority of us obey primitive instincts and ignore them.
We burn our fuel to sate immediate needs because we can. Supermarkets are full, fuel pumps work and light remains available at our fingertips. These are now our energy sources and our legacy instinct tells us they will always be available, so why should we disbelieve those who cry ‘hoax’?
The complacency of surplus
Despite the trappings of our consumer society, our main preoccupation is still that of procuring sufficient energy to sustain our lifestyle at its current level, and fulfill promises of growth. Oil, coal and gas enable our existence so we tear the earth apart to get more.
In the early 1800s, the industrial revolution gave an enormous boost to our survival chances as we released the unprecedented amount of energy locked in coal oil and gas. Surplus energy was bestowed on mankind as a once-only gift. And though we were not intelligent enough to see that, it allowed us to maximise our consumption at every available opportunity for the next 250 years.
The development of the heat engine gave leverage to the labour of the minority, allowing them to feed the majority.
For the first time in history much of the world’s population was freed to take employment other than that of food sourcing. Now a 500 acre farm can be run by half a dozen workers instead of 100 and deliver many times more food. This has not been due to our innate cleverness, but the burning of hydrocarbon fuels which provided cheap food surpluses to support extra people, and the means to employ those people in the context we know today: manufacturing, medicine, teaching, the arts and thousands of other professions that are now essential to the society we live in. Hydrocarbon processes also form the basis of all the tools and transport we need in our job-functions that make our living possible, together with the houses we live in.
Our dependence on oil, coal and gas is now absolute, and there are no meaningful substitutes. Windfarms and solar panels deliver electricity, but the complexity of human civilization has been built on the input of hydrocarbons. The energy output of a wind turbine and a barrel of oil is not interchangeable to the extent necessary to support any working infrastructure that would relate to the one we have.
We have enjoyed the benefits of fossil fuel energy for so long that we take it all for granted. Such complaisance has become another part of our perceived infinity. Without blind faith in that infinity of supply, our industrial infrastructure would collapse. So the legacy instinct kicks in again, allowing us to hold onto the delusion that supply really is infinite.
We must add that personal lie to the climate change hoax list.
It is more comforting to ignore modern history, even though it clearly shows that the slightest downturn of energy input in our industrial system produces a pro rata rise in unemployment.
All our employment is now dependent on the conversion of one form of energy into another. Money is the tokenization of that employment, it has no intrinsic value other than a medium of exchange. Our global economy has become a dynamic of (surplus) energy availability. Any cash you have available represents the means by which you can purchase the results of someone else’s energy output, or you can buy the source of energy itself, a farm or an oilwell if you happen to be cash-rich.
Unlike our prehistoric forebears, our hydrocarbon energy to cash exchange system has enabled us to turn our environment into a capital asset, to be traded at will to create wealth for a privileged few. Now a dozen billionaires have capital assets equal to 3.5 billion of the poorest people in the world. The odd concept has arisen that the planet is now property, owned by we who live on it. We must add that to our infinity list, because rich and poor alike are locked into the same delusion. Though for the time being, wealth for the few has meant debt for everyone else. As energy resources deplete, our planet will reassert itself, shrug off the concept of ownership and dissolve all concept of wealth.
Which brings us up to date, to explain where we are.
When the planet was inhabited by scattered tribes numbering maybe a few million, regarding the environment as infinite presented no problems. By the measure of the time and available energy resources, it was.
250 years ago, at the start of the industrial revolution, the world supported around 1 billion people.
Now there are 7.5 billion of us, but we are still committed to a rate of consumption dictated by primeval instinct, giving us the certainty of infinity. Our political leaders say this can go on, promising infinite growth, despite the inconvenience of living on a finite planet, and having no others to colonise.
No politician who wants to hold on to office dare say otherwise, relying on an electorate being convinced that prosperity can be voted into office.
Our current rate of growth is 1.11%, a seemingly insignificant figure; but that will double our numbers in 63 years. As it is, we are set to increase to 9 or 10 billion by mid century. Maybe more. The mothers of those extra billions are alive now, with the instinct to procreate driven by the genetic forces that our ancestors had. The elderly will also insist on staying alive as long as possible.
Can we support that number in food, water and other essentials?
In the unlikely event that we can, well and good.
If we can’t, then we must face the fact that something is going to prevent it. Just what, we cannot know, but the world is already carrying an (oil fuelled) excess of maybe 5 billion, and can’t support 2 or 3 billion more. Which means that billions of people living and billions yet unborn do not have a future.
Right now about 1 billion people are at or close to starvation level, and most of those yet unborn are set to join them. When the food source for any species goes into short supply through overpopulation, nature has an inflexible and drastic remedy.
There can be no airy dismissal of the problem, that it will be solved by future generations. We are that generation; we will be witness to the events of the next 20 or 30 years. We cannot know for certain what that catastrophe is to be, but it will happen.
For a century or more the USA has been the breadbasket of the world, but that colossal food output has been entirely due to input of cheap hydrocarbon fuels, fed into Farm USA as a commercial enterprise. Few other countries are now major net exporters of critical foodstuffs, grain and meat; all rely on hydrocarbon input to support food production and when food shortages begin to bite, those nations will have no choice but to stop exports.
Estimates vary, but we are unlikely to have more than 20/30 years worth of easily accessible global oil reserves; as mid century approaches, hydrocarbon reserves will diminish and the violent struggle to get hold of it will increase, thus restricting access even more.
All world leaders of whatever persuasion are aware of the critical link between oil and food. They will have no option but to join the struggle to keep it or get hold of it. We can only guess at what that will mean in real terms, but the major wars of the last century and this one were fought over resources, specifically oil.
By 2050 the population of the USA is set to grow by nearly 150 million, up by 48% on current numbers. So the USA will barely be able to feed her own, let alone billions of the world’s starving. The nonsense of ‘Saudi America’ can be dismissed by pointing out that the USA produces 10Mbd of oil, but uses 18Mbd. That also exposes the fantasy of ‘making America great again’. The bridges, roads and tunnels promised in Trump’s acceptance speech cannot be built without cheap oil.
Compounding the food issue is the stark reality that without oil we will not be able to ship food around the globe, should there be any available.
250 years of hydrocarbon fuelburning has brought us what appears to be a new era, that of luxury and plenty and bright light. But viewed in the wider timeframe of human history the last two centuries might be seen instead as the supernova of humanity — a brief flash of light in the million years of darkness that had been our normality till around 1750.
That light has been our hydrocarbon resource exploding all at once, and probably taking us with it.