Our current rate of consumption of those ancient carbohydrates is 37,000 years worth of them every day, globally. The harshest reality of this consumption is that not only is it creating climate change through the massive fossilized carbon released daily, but also the fact that there is an end to this ancient sunlight.
January 20, 20213 min read
Closed Gas Station in the Utah Desert - By Braden Trauth 2006
Our Modern Predicament
To understand energy comprehensively is to understand the universe itself. However, to understand how important it is to our daily lives here in the West is to understand the difference between the “haves” and “have nots” or those in a developing country and a developed country. Our modern civilization is built upon energy and would be nearly unthinkable without it.
The challenge we have as a society is that the primary energy source is ancient carbohydrates, created by sun, water, air and minerals that have been converted through geologic processes into hydrocarbons or fossil fuel. Our current rate of consumption of those ancient carbohydrates is 37,000 years worth of them every day, globally. The harshest realities of this consumption is that not only is it creating climate change through the massive fossilized carbon released daily, but also that there is an end to this ancient sunlight. So the unprecedented task we have upon us is to transition our society beyond this finite, yet foundational, energy source. (See the following video for a great TED Talk by Saul Griffith analyzing Earth's energy situation and an audacious solution.)
120 Years of Surplus
To begin to understand these challenges we must trace our human journey back before fossil fuels. Upon their discovery in the late 18th, early 19th centuries, human population reached nearly one billion. This journey took approximately 40,000-100,000 years from the evolution of modern homo-sapiens. Since then our population has gone up 7 fold through the enabling of fossil fuel. Tractors, trains, fertilizer and plastic, fossil fuels are at the cornerstone of modern life. Each billion since has been added at an ever growing rate, founded on our exponential rate of fossil fuel consumption.
But how did we survive before fossil fuels? That first billion preceding oil, was achieved through the tilling of prairies and cutting of forests; the smelting of the iron age and the advances of annual agriculture. The trouble with these developments is that over decades they resulted in depleted ecosystems and ultimately rainfall, potentially resulting in desertification. Fossil fuel has only served as an accelerant to these dysfunctional processes, which has resulted in the creation of almost 4 square miles of desert a day and that number has been on a 30-50% increase each decade since the 1970’s.
Deforestation on the Border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic
This process has also resulted in a major species extinction, of which we are currently spectators. This global unraveling of the resilient and regenerative web of life is particularly alarming when one takes into account that before oil, this delicate web supported populations for millennia.
Beyond transportation and electricity, agriculture is one of the primary energy consumers in our modern society. The fossilized energy investment in our annual agriculture has spawned industrial agriculture, which on another challenging front, has also allowed western farmers to go from feeding 8-9 people to 150 people on average, founded on 18 basic crops globally and minimizing agriculture as a viable livelihood. This system has not only dismantled our ecosystems but has created a an unsustainable foundation upon which modern society is built. Experts estimate that we have between 50-120 years of fossil fuel reserves remaining.
Enough with the doom and gloom. There are options to address our current predicament, but as you will see, not all options are equal. For an overview of our post fossil fuel pathways, take a look at my follow up blogpost expanding on the topics raised in this post.
This post is part of an energy literacy and regenerative design theory series by University of Cincinnati Instructor, Permaculture Educator and GoSun advocate, Braden Trauth. With more than a decade of experience working in a variety of climates, from suburban backyards to the eroding hillsides of Haiti, Braden has developed a unique perspective on the energy and environment, asking the big questions that need to be addressed for humanity to thrive for generations to come.