MuseLetter #293 / October 2016 by Richard Heinberg

Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 121 KB)

This month’s MuseLetter consists of the first few chapters of the script of a video series we’re producing. It will be targeted at an academic audience but will also be released for general viewing; it will be accompanied by study materials and a discussion guide. We hope to have it out within a month. The title of the series is still being discussed, but will certainly feature the word “Resilience.”


1. Introduction

This is the first of a series of 22 short videos that explore the interrelated crises of the twenty-first century, and what we as citizens, students, and community leaders can do to respond to them.

Over about four hours total, we’ll do the following:

1.     We’ll examine the interrelated crises themselves, in four main spheres: energy, ecology, economy, and equity.

2.     We will learn to think in systems. This means understanding the

  • boundaries,
  • inputs,
  • outputs,
  • energy and information flows, and
  • feedbacks

in whatever system you happen to be studying—an ecosystem, an economy, a community, or an industry.

3.     We’ll learn the necessity of reinventing culture—moving from a consumer economy to a conserver economy. We’ll see why deep and lasting cultural change often starts with a shift in our relationship with nature. And we’ll see what neuroscience has to teach us about how humans either change, or resist change.

4.     As the title of this series suggests, a great deal of what we will learn has to do with resilience. We’ll explore the science of ecosystem resilience, and how our understanding of nature’s ability to adapt to change can help human societies navigate the rough waters ahead. And we’ll look at why it’s especially important to build resilience in our communities.

5.     Then we’ll apply that basic understanding throughout the sectors of society, exploring ways to build community resilience in transportation, food systems, urban design, buildings, water systems, energy systems, and even financial systems. In each case we’ll explore at least one example of how resilience thinking is already being applied.

Here are a few thoughts on how to best use these videos. Bingeing on them is acceptable—it’s fine to watch the whole three hours at one go. But you’re likely to get more benefit if you stop and think about the material after watching each video. Also, these mini-lectures work well as catalysts for group discussion. If you’re not in a classroom setting, consider forming a discussion group.

From time to time during each video, resources in the forms of websites, or the titles of books or articles, will appear on-screen. All of these resources are also listed, with links, on the website that supports this series. Please search out these additional resources and read as many of them as you can.

You’re more than welcome to look for contrasting points of view. Use this course as an opportunity to develop your critical thinking skills. If you disagree with some of what’s presented, look for outside materials that support your contrary view—but also look for flaws in your own view by searching out materials that criticize it. We’re all in the process of learning, and there’s a lot to learn. We at Post Carbon Institute, the producers of this series, are happy to receive your feedback. You can contact us at the address on the screen.

On a personal note, I’d like to say a few words about why I was motivated to help produce this video series. I’m a baby boomer who has reached retirement age. I’ve spent the last two or three decades studying, writing, and speaking about the environmental, social, and economic issues confronting humanity. Frankly, I think my generation did a pretty terrible job tackling those issues, and now climate change, economic inequality, and resource depletion are far more serious and immediate threats than was the case when I was a student. I feel I owe it to today’s young people to take what I’ve learned—not only about the problems, but about the best strategies being developed to address them—and to put that information in an easily digestible form, so that viewers can get a head start on the work that will inevitably shape and inform the rest of their lives.

I wish you every success in building a more just, resilient, and sustainable world.

Now prepare yourself for a deep dive into the most important and interesting of topics. Set aside some time for viewing, reading, thinking, and writing. Let’s go.


2. Energy

We’re starting this series with the subject of energy, and for a good reason. Energy is key to everything—it’s an essential driver of the natural world and of human societies, and it will also be pivotal to the societal transformations we’ll be experiencing in the 21st century and beyond. Energy is what enables us to live, and to build civilizations and thriving economies. But it’s even more fundamental than that. Without energy, literally nothing can happen.

Physicists define energy as “the ability to do work.” Energy exists in several forms—including thermal, radioactive decay, kinetic, mechanical, and electrical—and its form can change. The energy in sunlight is captured by green plants in photosynthesis and converted to energy that’s chemically stored in the form of carbohydrates. Animals eat those plants, and some other animals eat those animals. In this way, sunlight energy gets distributed throughout the living world.

We humans get our biological energy from plant and animal foods, but we also derive energy in other ways. For example, the sunlight energy chemically stored in coal millions of years ago can be released as heat through combustion. That heat can be used to boil water, creating steam at high pressure, which can flow through turbines that spin magnets to produce an electric current. The electric current is then passed through transformers and wires into homes, offices, and factories, where it is available to power computers, lights, and appliances.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, and it tends to move from areas of high concentration to low concentration. Just observe what happens to the heat energy in a cup of coffee that sits for half an hour; it dissipates through the air and the table on which it’s sitting. When we drill an oil well or put up a solar panel, we are not actually creating energy; all we are really doing is getting energy that already existed as a static stock (in an oil deposit) or an ongoing flow (such as sunlight) to do some work for us as it’s in the process of being dispersed.

Archaeologists and historians tend to categorize periods of human history based on technological or political developments—the Iron Age, for example, or the Han Dynasty. But the truly great transformations in human history are a result of changes in the ways we harnessed energy.

First came the use of fire, starting hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of years ago. Fire not only provided warmth but also enabled us to cook food, increasing the efficiency of our internal, metabolic energy systems.

About 10,000 years ago the Agricultural Revolution began, increasing our ability to harvest energy from the land.

Then, only about 250 years ago, our expanding use of fossil fuels ushered in the Industrial Revolution.   

For over 99 percent of our history as a species, we had harvested solar energy concentrated in firewood and wild or cultivated foods, and we exerted energy through muscle power. But during the last couple of centuries we’ve found ways to use ancient sunlight stored in coal, oil, and natural gas. These fuels have given us energy that’s even more highly concentrated, that’s easily transported, and that’s available in quantities that dwarf what we used previously.

Think of it this way. If you had to push your car thirty miles, it would take you weeks of hard work. But a single gallon of gasoline, costing just a couple of dollars, will do the same work in just a few minutes. That’s cheap, concentrated energy.

During the past century, per capita global energy use has increased 800 percent. And we’ve invented an astonishing variety of machines to take advantage of all that energy—machines to heat and cool us, to transport and feed us, to enable us to process information and communicate, to extract raw materials, and to manufacture consumer products.

Agricultural machinery has largely replaced human labor. Before fossil fuels, at least three-quarters of the population had to work at farming to provide food for everyone else. In contrast, mechanized agriculture requires about one percent of all labor in industrialized countries. It has freed an enormous number of people to engage in other pursuits, including manufacturing, advertising, banking, sales, and marketing. The result has been the explosive growth of the middle class.

However, energy is also central to our current global sustainability predicament, due to two problems:

  • depletion, which means that over time we are exhausting the economically useful, easy-to-get fossil fuels;
  • and pollution, one of the effects of which is climate change.

We’ll talk about each of those two problems in more detail later in this video series. But what’s important to understand for now is that these two inevitable consequences of burning more and more coal, oil, and natural gas make it imperative that we make a transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources as quickly as possible.

The fossil fuel era has been transformative, but it is destined to be brief in historic terms, maybe just 300 years in all. And its last chapters are beginning to unfold right now.

What will be the energy sources of the future? Some say nuclear power—but we’ve had a few decades of experience with nuclear plants and they’ve turned out to be expensive and risky.

Realistically, our best bets are solar and wind. But these have very different characteristics from the energy sources that modern industrial society was built around. Solar panels and wind turbines produce electricity, which is high-value energy, without having to burn fuels and create pollution. But sunlight and wind are only available intermittently—the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow.  

We will have to design new energy systems and retrofit existing ones to account for the different characteristics of renewable energy. In practice this means we need to invest in a combination of

  • large-scale energy storage (using large batteries, for example),
  • capacity redundancy (where we build much more electricity generation capacity than we actually need most of the time), and
  • demand management (using energy when it’s available rather than any old time).

Currently only about 20 percent of the energy we use is in the form of electricity, so we will have to adapt transportation and a wide range of industrial processes to these new energy sources. Some of these adaptations will be easy: instead of heating most of our buildings with natural gas as we do today, we could insulate our buildings better and provide heat with electric heat pumps, a technology widely used in Japan and Europe. Other adaptations will be a challenge: the best renewable energy options for airplanes and container ships will likely be very expensive substitutes for the oil-based fuels we currently use. The extremely high heat necessary for making cement, steel, and other industrial materials and products will also probably be expensive to produce without cheap fossil fuels.

In some ways, the challenges of the transition to renewable energy are best exemplified by the electric car. We can replace vehicles that run on internal combustion engines with ones that run on electric batteries. And those batteries can be charged with renewable wind or solar energy. But, in order for us to get to a 100 percent renewable energy economy, the lithium in those batteries, along with hundreds of other raw materials, will somehow eventually have to be extracted without enormous, diesel powered excavators and trucks. Parts now made from byproducts of fossil fuels—including tires, seats, and dashboards—will have to be manufactured from some other materials. And millions of miles of roads and countless parking structures currently made from asphalt, concrete, and steel will need to be made or repaired using alternative materials, or with concrete and steel somehow made using only renewable energy. The more detailed our analysis of the car and its support infrastructure gets, the more challenges to a completely renewable automotive transport system we uncover.

Moreover, because we will be substituting out our current energy sources, rather than just adding new energy supplies to existing ones, it is very likely that we won’t have as much energy available at the end of the transition as we did when we started.

 That has enormous implications for economic growth and globalization—implications we’ll be exploring in later videos. Our future may very well be slower-paced and more localized.

Energy is at the center of our century’s predicaments, and the transition away from fossil fuels to other energy sources is probably humanity’s most important project for the 21st century. But, as we are about to see, it’s certainly not the only challenge we should be paying attention to.

3. Population and Consumption

We humans have certain advantages over other animals. Our larger brains have enabled us to develop language, which in turn helps us coordinate our behavior over time and space. Also, our opposable thumbs allow us to make and use tools. Many other animals communicate through sounds or gestures, and a few make tools, but humans are far and away the champions at both communication and tool-making.

Some of our tools—like weapons for hunting, and clothing for staying warm in cold climates—enabled us to expand our range into new habitats as we left Africa over 100,000 years ago. Control of fire enabled us not only to cook food but also to alter ecosystems so they could produce more of the food we liked. Wherever we went, we tended to take over habitat from other creatures; we also hunted some large game animals like mastodons to extinction.

Our adoption of agriculture, starting about 10,000 years ago, entailed harder work, but also produced food surpluses that allowed groups of us to build permanent communities. Storable food surpluses also led to full-time division of labor, which in turn led to writing, money, and the development of even more new tools. Meanwhile, more people could be supported per unit of land area.

Eventually we developed cities, and thus, civilization. Cities became centers of knowledge-sharing, administration, and resource consumption. They drew food, firewood, pelts, ores, and people from the countryside, often leaving cleared forests and depleted soils around the urban periphery.

Civilization was evidently a perilous social development: after all, early civilizations had a tendency to collapse. We’ll discuss that inherent instability in video 9.

The development of agriculture caused a pulse of human population growth, but otherwise our numbers ebbed and flowed through the millennia, with a very small long-term trend toward growth. Population dynamics for humans were still largely subject to the same forces as in nature. Let’s examine those forces and dynamics briefly.

Take the field mouse. Its numbers in any given area vary according to the relative abundance of its food (typically small plants), and that in turn depends on climate and weather. The local mouse population size also depends on the numbers of its predators—which include foxes, raccoons, hawks, and snakes. A wet year can result in heavy plant growth, which temporarily increases the land’s carrying capacity for mice, allowing the mouse population to grow. This growth trend is likely to overshoot the mouse population level that can be sustained in succeeding years of normal rainfall; this eventually leads to a partial die-off of mice. Meanwhile, during the period that the population of mice is larger, the population of predators—say, foxes—increases to take advantage of this expanded food source. But as mice start to disappear, the increased population of predators can no longer be supported. Over time, the populations of mice and foxes can be described in terms of overshoot and die-off cycles, again tied to external factors like longer-term patterns of rainfall and temperature.

Using tools, language, and agriculture, humans gradually found ways to overcome some of these natural checks and balances. With our weapons we could kill off our predators, like lions and tigers. Now the only direct challengers we had to worry about were other humans. We could expand into new territories. We could adapt to using new and different resources. These were the reasons for our long-term population growth trend.

Still there were limiting factors, one of which was energy. As long as we depended on firewood for fuel, our numbers were limited by the availability of trees. Ancient civilizations consumed forest after forest—indeed, one of the oldest known human stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh, revolves around the hero chopping down trees—and the resulting deforestation was sometimes associated with the decline of civilizations. But in the last few centuries—and especially the last decades—fossil fuels began to substitute for firewood. And this soon enabled a massive increase in the global human population.

With so much energy now available, we have developed far more tools to use it. We’ve used some of these tools—like those related to sanitation and medical care—to lower the human death rate. At the same time, we have developed artificial fertilizers, tractors, and other tools to increase food production. We also developed ways to transport resources and goods longer distances, from places of abundance to places of scarcity, so that people can live in even the most harsh and barren environments. In effect, we have dramatically and quickly increased the carrying capacity of Earth for humans.

Especially during the past century, our population growth has largely escaped the overshoot and die-off cycles that characterize population dynamics in other species. In mid-nineteenth century, the global human population stood at about one billion; in the century-and-a-half since, it has grown to well over 7 billion. Our current rate of growth is 1.1 percent per year. That may not sound like much, but any constant rate of increase is unsustainable over the long run: at once percent compounded growth, any quantity will double in about 70 years. If our numbers were to continue growing at just one percent per year, our population would increase to over 115 trillion during the next thousand years. Of course, that’s physically impossible on planet Earth. So one way or another, our population growth will end at some point.

Currently, on a net basis (births minus deaths, that is) we are adding about 80 million new people to the planet each year. Think of that as the populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Mexico City added together. Each year we must find ways to feed, house, and otherwise care for that many more of us. It’s the highest annual number in human history. That’s because, even though the percentage rate of population increase is slowing, it is now a percentage of a very large number. The United Nations predicts that world population will reach more than 11 billion by 2100—and most of the growth will be in the less-industrialized countries.

Demographics is the statistical study of population; demographers speak of a “demographic transition,” which describes the tendency for population growth rates to decrease as nations become wealthier. Can we reduce population growth by increasing per capita wealth throughout the world?

This is how most people would like to solve the problem of unsustainable population growth. However, growth in per capita consumption is also unsustainable over the long haul. During the past few decades we have accelerated the rate at which we consume commodities and products of all kinds—everything from water, steel, plastic, and copper to smart phones and cars. Indeed, increasing consumption is, in effect, how we’ve come to measure progress.

But our planet’s nonrenewable resources—like minerals, metals, and fossil fuels—are finite. There’s only a certain amount, and once these are gone they’re gone forever. We also use renewable resources like forests and fish, but in many cases they are being harvested faster than they can replenish themselves.

Ecological footprint analysis measures the human impact on Earth’s ecosystems. Our ecological footprint is calculated in terms of the amount of land and sea that would be needed to sustainably yield the energy and materials we humans consume. According to the Global Footprint Network, at our current numbers and current rate of consumption we humans would need 1.5 Earths’ worth of resources to sustainably supply our appetites. At the U.S. standard of living, we would need the equivalent of four Earths to sustain us. Of course, we don’t have four or even one-and-a-half planets at our disposal—yet we are still using more than one Earth by drawing down resources faster than they can regenerate—in effect, reducing the carrying capacity that would otherwise be available to future generations.

Human impact on the environment results not just from population size, and not just from the per capita rate of consumption, but from both together.

Clearly, different countries’ per capita rates of consumption vary greatly: the ecological footprint of the average American is almost eleven-and-a-half times as big as that of the average Bangladeshi. And within a nation like the United States, there is also a great deal of economic inequality—and thus vastly different levels of consumption. Later in this series we will examine some of the historical, political, economic and military reasons behind this inequality.

But first, we are going to dig deeper into the subject of resource depletion, to see whether this is an issue that concerns us now, or whether it’s merely a theoretical problem for future generations to worry about.

4. Depletion

Imagine you’re at a big party. The host wheels out a tub of ice cream—the giant ones they use at ice cream parlors—and yells, “help yourselves!”  A few people grab scoops, spoons, and bowls from the kitchen and start digging into the frozen top. As they work the tub and it warms up, the ice cream becomes easier to scoop; more people bring spoons and bowls, and ice cream flies out of the bin as fast as people can eat it. When the ice cream is over half gone, it becomes harder to get at; people have to reach in farther to scoop, and they’re bumping in to each other. The ice cream isn’t coming out as fast anymore, and some people lose interest and turn their attention to the cake. Finally a small group of the most intrepid scoopers are literally scraping the bottom of the barrel, resorting to small spoons to get the last bits of ice cream out of the corners.

That’s depletion. The faster you scoop, the sooner you arrive at the point where there is no more left.

Like our hypothetical tub of ice cream, Earth’s resources are subject to depletion—but usually the process is a little more complicated.

First, material resources come in two kinds: renewable and non-renewable. Renewable resources like forests and fisheries replenish themselves over time. Harvesting trees or fish faster than they can replenish will deplete them, and if you do that for too long it may become impossible for the resource to recover. We’re seeing that right now with many global fish stocks.

Non-renewable resources—like minerals, metals, and fossil fuels—on the other hand, don’t grow back at all. Minerals and metals can often be recycled, but that requires energy and sometimes the resources gradually degrade as they’re cycled repeatedly. When we extract and burn fossil fuels, they are gone forever.

Another complicating issue is resource quality. Our hypothetical ice cream is the same from top of the barrel to the bottom. But most non-renewable resources vary greatly in terms of quality. For example, there are rich natural iron deposits called magnetite in which iron makes up about three-quarters of the material that’s mined; at the other end of the spectrum is taconite, of which only about one-quarter is iron. If you’re looking to mine iron, guess which ores you’ll start with. High-grade resources—the “low-hanging fruit”—tend to be depleted first.

Defining which resources can be considered “high-grade” is also a little complicated. We’ve just discussed ore grades. But there are also issues of accessibility: how deeply is the resource buried? And location: is it nearby, or under a mile of ocean water, or in a hostile country on the other side of the planet? There’s also the issue of contaminants: for example, coal with high sulfur content is much less desirable than low-sulfur coal.

Let’s see how issues of resource quality play out in the case of one of the world’s most precious resources, crude oil.

Modern oil production started around 1860 in the United States, when deposits of oil in Pennsylvania were found and simple, shallow wells were drilled into them. This petroleum was under great pressure underground, and the wells allowed that oil to escape to the surface. Over time, as the pressure decreased, the remaining oil needed to be pumped out. When no more oil could be pumped, the well was depleted and abandoned.

Exploration geologists soon discovered oil in other places: Oklahoma, Texas, California, and later in other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. During the century-and-a-half that we humans have been extracting and burning oil, hundreds of thousands of individual oil wells around the world have been drilled, depleted and abandoned.

Oil deposits are generally too big to be drained from a single oil well; many wells drilling into the same underground reservoir are called an oil field. Oil fields are geological formations where oil has accumulated over millions of years. Some are small, others are huge. Smaller oil fields are fairly numerous. The super-giant ones—like Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, which in its glory days of the 1990s yielded nearly ten percent of all the world’s oil on a daily basis—are very rare. Like individual oil wells, oil fields also deplete over time.

Today, most of the world’s onshore crude oil deposits—often called conventional oil—have already been discovered and are in the process of being depleted. The oil industry is quickly moving toward several kinds of unconventional oil—for example the tar sands in Canada, deepwater oil in places like the Gulf of Mexico, and tight oil (also known as shale oil) produced by fracking in North Dakota and Texas. Unconventional oil resources are either of lower quality, or are more challenging to extract or process, compared to conventional oil—therefore production costs are significantly higher, and so are the environmental impacts and risks.

As fossil fuels are depleted, their energy profitability generally declines. It takes energy to get energy—it takes energy to drill an oil well, to mine coal, or even to build a solar panel. But we expect an energy profit in the long run: our energy resource will give us much more useful energy than was required to develop it. But as we move to lower quality fuels or ones that are harder to extract, the ratio of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (or EROEI) falls. In the early days of the oil industry, energy returns of a hundred-to-one were routine; in today’s petroleum industry, returns of ten-to-one are more common. That means more and more of society’s overall resources have to be invested in producing energy. It also means oil prices are likely to become more volatile.

During the past century, our transportation systems were built on the assumption of continually low prices and growing supplies, and the petroleum industry was structured to anticipate low extraction costs. Now that extraction costs are going up because we’re relying more on unconventional resources, there is no longer an oil price that works well for both producers and consumers. Either the oil price is too high, eating into motorists’ disposable income, reducing spending on everything else and thus making the economy trend toward recession; or the oil price is too low, bankrupting the oil producers.

 This suggests that the free market may not be capable of managing non-renewable resources in a way that meets everyone’s needs over the long run—especially those of future generations, who don’t have a voice in the discussion. In theory, when a resource that’s in high demand becomes scarce, its price rises to discourage consumption and encourage substitutes. But what if poor people need that resource, too? What if the entire economy depends on ever-expanding cheap supplies of that resource? What if a substitute is hard to find, or fails to match the original resource in versatility or price? What happens to producers if costs of extraction are rising rapidly, but a temporary surge in supply or a fall in demand causes prices to plummet far below production costs? In just the last decade, we’ve seen all of these problems begin to play out in oil markets.

The main alternative to market-based resource extraction and distribution is for governments and communities to collaborate on a program of resource management. We’ve done this with renewable resources, for example by establishing quotas on fishing or by protecting old-growth forests. However, conservation efforts have seldom been undertaken in the case of non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. Humanity’s collective plan evidently is to extract and use these resources as quickly as possible, and to hope that economically viable substitutes appear in time to avert a future economic catastrophe.

In agrarian societies the most crucial depletion issue is usually the depletion of soil nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which together make soil fertile enough to grow crops. In farming societies, soil fertility largely determines population size. To avert population declines, successful agrarian societies like the ancient Chinese learned to recycle nutrients using animal and human manures. In contrast, modern industrial societies typically get these nutrients from non-renewable resources: we mine phosphate from large deposits in China, Morocco, and Florida, and ship it around the world. And we produce artificial nitrogen fertilizers from fossil fuels like natural gas. Since both phosphate deposits and fossil fuel deposits will ultimately be depleted, industrial agriculture will have to find ways to break its dependence from these non-renewable resources to become sustainable over the long term. Meanwhile, our ability to supply plant nutrients artificially has enabled us to largely ignore the depletion of topsoil itself, of which we are losing over 25 billion tons per year globally.

In short, the depletion of renewable and non-renewable resources is a very real problem, one that contributed to the collapse of societies in the past. Today we consume resources at a far higher rate than any previous civilization. We can do this mainly due to our reliance on a few particularly useful nonrenewable and depleting resources, namely fossil fuels. Energy from fossil fuels enables us to mine, transform, and transport other resources at very high rates; it also yields synthetic fertilizers to make up for our ongoing depletion of natural soil nutrients.

This deep dependency on fossil fuels of course raises the question of what we will do as the depletion of fossil fuels themselves becomes more of an issue.

Spotlight image via shutterstock.