I have written the following outlining a brief history of where our recent abundant energy discoveries have led us. I feel that if you read only one page of this web site, this should be the one. In a brief flicker of time vast discoveries of energy have unleashed unprecedented growth.
This is an open letter to all involved in the energy arena, which I hope will stimulate discussion. I see clearly that while all concerned have good intentions, pursuing the goal to supply more energy or even to maintain the current level of consumption will result in dire consequences.
Solar Spirits: Living With The Sun
For a hundred thousand years of human civilization the population never exceeded half a billion people globally. During the last one thousand years (a small fraction of human history) we have increased by another five billion people.The sudden population explosion coincides with the discovery of coal (900 years ago) and then oil (140 years ago).Before the advent of coal and oil, human populations were always limited by the amount of energy that plants could absorb from sunlight (photosynthesis). Reproduction and survival, fundamental factors in population growth, directly correlate with the amount of plant food (and animals feeding on same) available in a given area.We refer to these food resources as being a result of current sunlight. This balancing factor worked well for tens of thousands of years, maintaining a stable human population size. Enter the discovery of ancient sunlight energy in the form of coal and oil which are essentially fossilized sunlight. With these concentrated energy sources humankind progressed rapidly in the areas of agriculture and technology. Tools and machinery enabled humans to clear and cultivate more land to feed greater numbers of people. Radically increased production led to an unprecedented population explosion. Human numbers, remaining under a billion for 100,000 years of civilization, doubled to two billion in 150 years and reached 3 billion in just another 30 years. We now add another billion people every 12 years to an already strained ecosystem.
This rapid and dangerous growth rate is tied very closely to the discovery of vast reserves of ancient sunlight energy (fossil fuels). The environmental consequences of unchecked population growth can be seen everywhere and are reaching frightening proportions. All of our planetary resources are shrinking rapidly. Plant and animal species, soil fertility, water tables, rainforests, coral reef and ice caps have all been reduced and degraded by human activity. Oil reserves are rapidly disappearing too as growing populations demand and consume more and more of the byproducts of ancient sunlight (see State of the World Report by WorldWatch Institute).
So if we accept the premise that increased energy usage and availability lead to explosive population growth that results in increasing environmental degradation and destruction, then we are faced with a dilemma. Can we still seriously search for and develop means to meet or exceed current energy usage when all the indications are that our efforts will have disastrous results? Something seemingly as good as a free solar /hydrogen economy could actually exacerbate our current environmental problems. Regardless of the energy source, solar or otherwise, abundant energy tends to trigger unchecked consumption and growth.
For tens of thousands of years our ancestors lived sustainably by using only the energy of current sunlight. While I do not advocate returning to the Stone Age, (although we may be hurtling in that direction) we do need to rethink deeply and carefully the way we use energy. For example, currently we are building "web hotels," single buildings that use as much energy as a city of 10,000, for the express purpose of storing information. Efficient use of energy is an admirable goal, but what does it gain if the electricity is used to perform a task that can just as easily be accomplished without electricity? Why design an award winning energy efficient solar home of 2,000 square feet (or often, much larger) when most of the world's peoples live successfully in spaces of 1,000 square feet or much less? In our examination of the way we relate to and use energy, we need to reevaluate our society. Nothing less than a fundamental spiritual and cultural transformation is likely to alter our path. Mere reforms often foster a false sense that things are being taken care of when indeed nothing critical is being accomplished. Much of our thinking is at the core of these problems for which we need to take greater responsibility.