What's Your Energy Ideology?

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energy economy growth peak oil future beliefs

We all have beliefs about energy, the economy, and growth. Mostly, we hold the beliefs of the people who influenced us growing up—our family, friends, and teachers—and the media voices we pay attention to. A lot of people don't see them as beliefs but rather as some kind of universal truth because most people believe the same things and they rarely see anyone in their sphere of influence question these beliefs.

I'll take a stab at laying out what most people in the developed world seem to believe:

  • The economy will continue to grow forever.
  • Economic growth requires energy, so we must keep pumping more energy into the economy.
  • When one energy resource can't keep up with demand, we'll find others to take its place.

Can we grow forever?

The first of those beliefs underlies pretty much every economic report that comes out of the government, universities, and the media. The economy must grow! This is a sacred belief. We're hot and heavy in election season in the US now, and all the candidates want to tell us how they'll get the economy growing at a 'healthy' rate again.

But why do we believe this? Is it really a universal truth? Or is it merely ideology? The history of the human race seems to lead us to the conclusion that growth is our destiny. Yes, we've had our temporary setbacks with the collapses of the Roman Empire, the Mayan civilization, and others that didn't make it. The overall trend, though, has been more, more, more. More people. More stuff. More energy.

I guess it's natural to look at that trend and see that it's got to keep going, right? But what if it doesn't? There's no evidence from Nature that it must continue. Plenty of species have come and gone from the Earth, and we'll eventually be gone, too.

What do you believe?

So, what's your energy ideology? The vast majority of our energy now comes from fossil fuels: petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Unless you believe in abiotic oil theories or that there are huge, hidden oil reserves just waiting for us to find, you probably acknowledge that we'll eventually run into the peak of global oil production (if we haven't already). Once we get to the other side of the peak, what happens?

The fossil fuel age and peak oil, a temporary phenomenon

Here are some alternative ideologies, as I see them:

  1. We won't run out of oil because the Earth keeps making more of it. The idea that it's the result of millions of years of heat and pressure acting on the remains of prehistoric plants and animals is wrong.
  2. We've got enough oil to last hundreds or thousands of years. By the time we get to the end of that, we'll have other resources well developed and ready to take over in a smooth transition.
  3. We're nearing peak oil, but we'll have plenty of coal and natural gas to carry us through to the nuclear fusion age.
  4. We're nearing peak oil, and things may be tough for a while, but we'll eventually get back on track and start growing again once we perfect our use of solar energy and other renewable sources.
  5. We're nearing peak oil, and we won't have enough energy to continue on this path of indefinite growth. We may be in for tough times, but if we can find a way to achieve a steady state economy, we'll regain some stability.
  6. We're nearing (or at or past) peak oil, and civilization is about to collapse. 

Whichever of those you believe, it's an ideology. It's not a universal truth. Also, if you notice, there are really two strands of belief in those ideologies. One has to do with energy and the other, growth. If we plot them on a graph, we could place all of the above ideologies on it, as below.

energy economy growth peak oil ideology graph

Most people believe in more growth and more energy, a group I've seen called cornucopians for their belief in plenty. I put myself at the origin of the graph in ideology number 5. Because I've been hanging around in peak oil circles for nearly a decade now, I know some serious believers in ideology number 6.

Where are we headed?

As I said last week, my crystal ball doesn't work, so I only do ridiculous, made-up predictions. I like what physicist Neils Bohr said: "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." I don't know which way things will go in the future, but I do know that we humans aren't always the most rational creatures.

Right now, our energy future is uncertain and our economy is broken. I think most people can agree with that assessment. Now that the bubble has burst and we recognize that we have problems, we have a golden opportunity to look at what we believe and see if changes are in order. I believe they are.

Maybe this is a physics thing. I've written about Dr. Albert Bartlett and the talk about the end of growth that he's given nearly 2000 times. Yesterday, thanks to Lucas Durand's comment in my first post of 2012, I discovered another physicist who's speaking out on energy and growth. And he's a blogger, too! Dr. Tom Murphy a professor at the University of California in San Diego, and you really should check out his blog, Do the Math. His latest article is called The Future Needs an Attitude Adjustment. Go ahead and read it. I'll wait here.



Related Articles

The End of Growth - Mathematics & Peak Oil

The Optimism of Pessimism in the Age of Peak Oil

Declining Oil Discoveries - The Truth Behind Peak Oil



Photo at top by H!ROK<" target="_blank">Bidrohi >H!ROK< from flickr.com, used under a Creative Commons license.


Jan 4 2012 - 10:50am

As long as the government (aka taxpayers) keeps subsidizing energy costs there will be little effort to conserve. If energy was sold at it's true cost it would hit the "poor" and you know the government would never go for that because it would cost them votes. Also the energy lobbyists would stop lining the politicians pockets..

Stu Langley
Jan 4 2012 - 11:24am

I expect we will grow beyond measuring piles of stuff produced to measuring growth of happiness and contentment.  
Growth based on more than 2 cars in every garage is doomed. Computers are going to empower easy sharing of cars, sharing of services and an empowering of commerce on a local level.  
This will all shrink the existing economy as we measure growth by measuring dollars worth of production and sale of services. Measuring dollars is easy but will not be an effective measure of future human productive activity. I look forward to big corporations straining to make themselves look like a local resource.  
We may not realize it yet, but all these people out of work just might be the harbinger of the age of computers allowing us to work less.  
I remember from my Weekly Reader many years ago the forecasts of a future with less work to do and more done by computers.  
How do you figure we get there without having the dislocation first?  
It will require leadership from politicians, a reworking of our educational system, and a rethinking of what is productive human activity. It will take a lot of community building as we support each other spiritually as well as financially through this tumultuous period before we feel the sunbeams of this bright future. 
Oh, and we will be using less or about the same amount of energy as we do now. It will be a more distributed energy and the amount of energy we use will be a direct function of how well we are able to create renewable energy sources not dependent on extraction from the earth. 
So where on your quadrant does this missive fall?

M. Johnson
Jan 4 2012 - 11:52am

Ever read a book titled "The Chicken Little Syndrome"? You might think I am mocking you but please don't. The book, out of print, was a very entertaining list of previous fallacies of collapse. A variety of subjects not just about energy and oil. What it teaches me is there will ALWAYS be people in Quadrant #6, and that it relates to some instinct wired into our dinosaur brains.

Jan 4 2012 - 1:30pm

The big problem with human productivity is that the people too lazy to work are in record numbers. never in history have we had so many "living off the system".

Lucas Durand
Jan 4 2012 - 3:05pm

Hi Allison, 
I thought you might like that blog. 
Also, bravo for adressing this issue in your blog. 
You're right, of course, that economic growth as we know it now cannot continue forever. Such a scenario would be in violation of the laws of thermodynamics.  
Physics trumps economics. 
So if it must end - when? 
The future is a spectrum of possibilities... 
However, given the nature and magnitude of some of the problems our civilisation faces, it is possible to "miss the boat" in implementing the types of mitigation that would allow for a smooth transition to something else - the so-called "soft landing". 
Personally, my view is somewhere between 5 and 6... 
I'm not sure that "the boat" has left yet but I'm not sure that it hasen't either. 
One thing for sure, the longer we dither, the more likely it seems that we will simply be left behind.

Lucas Durand
Jan 4 2012 - 3:06pm

Sorry about the formatting in my post. I didn't realize the spacing would turn out like that. 

Dennis Cheslik
Jan 4 2012 - 3:54pm

Your posts are excellent and this one is no exception. From my perspective: we need to ask our selves how can the world provide enough energy for 9 billion people around the year 2050 when we already have an energy crisis to provide for the 7 billion today.

Michael Anschel
Jan 5 2012 - 12:00am

There is a wonderful book called "The life and death of planet earth." The essence of which is to demonstrate from both a biological and geological perspective why the existence of humans on the planet is largely inconsequential to its future. 
At the risk of getting philosophical here....energy is hardly in short supply, nor will it ever be. We are a primitive type I society still, and our ability to harness any quantity of energy is still quite poor.  
What is at issue is the energy market and the influence it will have on politics, national security, and societal stability globally. The harsh reality is that long before energy becomes a destabilizing factor water will have changed everything. (Yes, energy will play a role in water access.) 
In my humble opinion, and much to the chagrin of almost all of my environmentalist friends, I don't believe that any solutions lie within the energy conservation movement. I would rather see us focus on an increase in access to inexpensive energy that has a significantly reduced impact on the environment. 
We need only look at technology to see that the amazing improvements we have made in the energy arena have no connection to conservation, but rather to an increased consumption, portability, reliability, and cost. 

Mike Legge
Jan 5 2012 - 12:28am

As always, a great blog. The book by Christian De Duve,a Nobel Laureate in biology has written a book that may explain in an evolutionary way how we appear to be incapable of planning more than our immediate future.It is called "The Genetics of Original Sin". Again, thank you for such a succinct summary.

Kerry Mitchell
Jan 5 2012 - 9:24am

My ideology is the formula education to the masses and the results that can be recognized. . We are beginning finally to understand that education within the corporate and government cultures must take place for energy awareness and market transformation. We teach employees on line, globally on the issues at hand. Change cannot take place unless employees on all levels have education on what earth systems are and how they work. This must take more of a bottom-up approach and not top down. We must remember employees in every government and company are also consumers and are already considering and making lifestyle changes for family life. Their children are educating them on this level. We are already seeing a shift in a creating awareness from the employers mindset as sustainability, environmental directors and energy officers are becoming part of the organizational charts, globally. But it is with education for compliance for their employees where buy-in will be provide transparency and be able to be measured. Management must create a community of care and as stakeholders begin to demand this, and they are, but it is within the employee pool where change must take place. They must be trained because they are the ones to implement procedure and must be able to understand why this is coming about now. Without adding compliance education on the importance of recycling, sustainability planning, managing waste, environmental accounting and conserving the organizations resources, benchmarks cannot be truly recognized. Without education, we are just like a dog running in circles, grabbing at its own tail. We must train on why all life systems must work together. Charles Wolforth explains this in a way that is a bottom line approach. We must then educate to bring it to fruition.He is the author of The Fate of Nature has spoken all over the United States and overseas. He refers to the self-absorbed attitude humans have had to date as a “tragedy of the commons.” This is living life for a self-oriented existence. Connecting survival not for just ourselves but include each living system as intricate parts of our own existence is what needs to happen to connect our will to protect all life. Wolforth says we need to become more “we” oriented as other cultures. Link our lifestyles to estuaries and the eco-systems of all life. It makes sense that if we link all living systems and people together as stakeholders, preservation and health would prevail. This cannot happen and we all fight an uphill battle until education in the adult sectors takes place on a massive scale. Once this happens, products and services can be purchased, a stronger respect for our planet will be evident, energy efficiency and renewable energy can be appreciated, economic indicators will show positive results and this all scales.

John Poole
Jan 5 2012 - 11:49am

My energy ideology is that Santa Bailes and his elves will go around making every one's home more energy efficient, and all in just one night! 
No, seriously: I think both extreme conservation and aggressive pursuit of renewables is necessary, to as to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as quickly as possible.  
We also need to figure out how to manage endless population growth (and, no, I have no easy answer for that one), because any conservation efforts we make will always be outdone by an ever increasing population of energy consumers. 
I also believe that any successful efforts along these lines will have to be promoted by smart people working at the grass roots level and realized via competition in the market place for cost savings based on energy efficiency, because other wise, we totally lack the political will to get this job done (case in point: the recent de-clawing of the EISA by congress). 
So in a nutshell, that's my ideology.

John Poole
Jan 5 2012 - 12:03pm

Here's one more aspect of my ideology I'd meant to include:  
I believe that the era of fossil fuels is what finally propelled us to our current level of technological and economic development. When combined with the last few hundred years' worth of cumulative technological advances, fossil fuels made everything finally take off (so to speak). But that is precisely why it's so difficult to wean ourselves away from them. 
The fossil fuel era is kind of like a ladder that got us on top of a roof: Now that we're on the roof, we now need to figure out how to toss the ladder away and get by without. It will take know-how and courage, but it has to be done.

Gary Kahanak
Jan 5 2012 - 8:42pm

Thanks for bringing up this incredibly important topic, Allison. If we don't get this one right, nothing else really matters. 
The most recent book by Mark Lynas, "The God Species---Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans," http://shop.nationalgeographic.com/ngs/product/books/animals-and-nature/... explores the limits to growth in a science-based, quantifiable manner, using the latest understandings of earth sciences. A group of 29 world experts from various disciplines boiled it down to nine limit points, which they called planetary boundaries. They were able to set quantified limits on seven of the boundaries; we are over the limit on three; climate change, biodiversity loss, and nitrogen pollution. The concept is that growth can continue sustainably as long as we manage to stay within all nine boundaries; otherwise, the biosphere destabilizes. If we have metrics for measurable limits, that will help us to shape our policies and monitor our progress. By the way, the other six boundaries are: land use, freshwater, toxics, aerosols, ocean acidification, and the ozone layer.  
On the energy side, it's clear to me that nuclear power, specifically advanced fast neutron reactors with a closed fuel cycle, is the only way we can get our world to a near-zero carbon energy economy by 2050. The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) is the technology of choice, and it has already been fully developed; it just awaits commercialization. See http://bravenewclimate.com/2012/01/05/plentiful-energy-ifr-book/#more-5440 for the just released book about the IFR by the two senior scientists who oversaw the IFR research. The book is titled, "Plentiful Energy---The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor." 
If we have plentiful, non-fossil fuel energy and adequate knowledge of the workings and limits of the biosphere, then at least theoretically we will have to tools to do the right thing.

Andrew Ramponi
Jan 16 2012 - 7:31am

Excellent post, and blog. Thanks also for the reference to Do the Math.  
There's more than enough evidence that we are very often wrong (see Kathryn Shultz Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error) and irrational (Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman) to suggest we need to be wary of all predictions, whether by expert advisors, ourselves, or anyone else. Sadly, formal education hasn't helped much. Again and again smart educated people do extremely stupid things. I find keeping things simple helps. Complex problems will likely not be solved by the complex thinking that created them...

Steve Byers
Jan 23 2012 - 7:59pm

Hi Allison,  
Prescient as always. One thing missing from the comments above and the reason that some end up really believing in #6 (not sayin' where I am), is not the math of the energy equation, it's the reaction of people to unpleasant math.  
Prediction is difficult, but not being prepared is really nasty. What seems most sure to me is that business as usual, whether it's energy, food production, climate change (pick your poison), is unlikely to work out well for us.  
A staffer brought in some old papers today, I was flipping through one on John Glenn's flight, circa 1962 - Soviets hold lead in nuclear weapons research and the U.S. debt limit raised to $300 Billion jumped out at me!  
Take care everyone!