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A driver behind the wheel, driving on a warm day, might find themselves frustrated and upset if the air conditioner in the car suddenly stops working. Rather than appreciating that the brief journey they

Energy: A cursed blessing?

On our current energy blindness and steps we must take for the future of energy

Dec 11, 2023

A driver behind the wheel, driving on a warm day, might find themselves frustrated and upset if the air conditioner in the car suddenly stops working. Rather than appreciating that the brief journey they're taking is powered by the equivalent of 180 invisible horses, they often overlook this aspect. That is how energy blind we have become. We have an abundance of energy that we are largely unaware of and take for granted. “We swim in a sea of energy as fish swim in the water, and we are oblivious to it”, says ecological economist Dr. Nate Hagens in one of his episodes. Now imagine telling fish you are too dependent on water and comparing that to our relationship with energy to prompt us to think of the consequences this dependence has on our civilization.
Energy Blindness
Our societal energy blindness is so pervasive that suggesting a shift away from the narrative of growth and consumption and instead proposing a move toward a "greater simplification" is often dismissed as foolish. Hagens emerges as one of the few voices courageously and realistically addressing the controversial question of what happens when growth stops– which has never happened before– and how can we prepare for that.
In Jed Dorsheimer’s podcast, Hagens says that striving for energy solutions implies that there's a problem. Instead, he argues that what we're confronting right now is not a problem but a predicament–something intractable that surpasses the complexities of a typical problem. Using data, Hagens interestingly points to how our culture has been consuming beyond sustainable means for the past five decades, driven by the naive expectations our civilization has built around energy and growth. Most importantly, he states that framing this sticky situation as a problem and persisting in seeking growth-oriented solutions is a direct result and reflection of our societal energy blindness. The core of the issue, as he reiterates, lies in the fact that our society is built on the expectation of growth, with all institutions and societal norms anticipating this trajectory when numbers indicate otherwise. “If we continue to abide by the expectation of global economic growth at 3% a year, we will use as much energy and materials in the next 30 years as we have in the past 10,000 years,” he says.
As the Executive Director of The Institute for the Study of Energy & Our Future, Hagens has coined the term "energy blindness" to explain such a phenomenon. “It is appalling,” he says, “how with all this advancement in our society, some fundamental truths are still strangely obscured from view.”
In his paper, he makes the case that the world is exhausting all the cheap fossil energy, which will have an incredibly disruptive effect on the global economy and our entire way of living. Using the metaphor of the global economy as a "mindless hungry superorganism," he states that energy–in the form of buried sunlight–is its lifeblood or hemoglobin, needed for its growth and survival.
Hagens brings up examples of how we’ve added tens and thousands of units of energy to tasks that humans used to do manually. We made everything cheap and accessible using energy. We’re energy blind to the extent that we carpet-bomb countries to fuel this very energy-hungry superorganism. We no longer experience ourselves as integral parts of nature but as outside forces bound to dominate and conquer it. We are ultimately, as he likes to say, “blind to what energy does for our culture.”
Living during the carbon pulse: the 100 years we are extracting down the stored potential energy 10 million times faster than it took to form.
One of Hagens' papers points to the major issue of the exhaustion of fossil fuels—a resource that took millions of years to form—being depleted at a rate 10 million times faster, meaning much of the accessible, high-quality oil has already been consumed, according to data. Soon, the effort to obtain the remaining hard-to-extract amounts of energy will require more energy, and it will not make sense to do so with the amount of energy left we have. Humanity, therefore, currently lives at the historical peak of global oil consumption, known as the carbon pulse, which is approaching its end. This end will be significant, as energy, to remind you once again, is the lifeblood of economic growth, and the current economic structure may falter without this continuous growth.
In his conclusion, Hagens presents a critical choice: either we gracefully navigate the transition away from fossil fuels towards a simpler post-growth, renewable future, or opt for a darker path of burning all available fossil fuels to sustain the fantasy of endless economic growth until we ruin the environment and our resource depletion forces a reckoning. Regardless of the path chosen, Hagens asserts that our growth-based economic and financial systems will not survive this transition, which means “we have arrived at a species-level conversation around what type of society we want.”
The future of energy and false saviors
Hagens also addresses the naive assumption that the adoption of electric cars implies we no longer need oil or energy. He points out that gasoline is just one component derived from a barrel of oil. Beyond fuel, oil contributes to the production of necessities such as medicine, petrochemicals, devices, rubber, clothes, and magnets. While there is potential to substitute some of these with renewable energy, Hagens says it is costly, and the higher the cost, the less beneficial the substitution becomes for us.
Moreover, he expresses skepticism about hydrogen as a promising and viable solution, stating that the energy required for the production and maintenance of hydrogen often exceeds the energy it provides when converted for practical use. He also introduces the term "rebuildable energy" as a more nuanced descriptor for renewable energy because of the substantial amount of materials, energy, infrastructure, and complexity involved in constructing it, which will supposedly require maintenance and rebuilding every 25 years. Additionally, he touches on the limitations of renewable energy sources, stating that they predominantly generate electricity, accounting for only 20% of global energy consumption.
Should we curb consumption and growth?
Hagens asserts an interesting point by saying that almost all future perspectives, despite their optimism, are misguided due to energy blindness. Transitioning to renewable energy, with decreasing fossil fuel use, will not allow for the sustenance of our current level of goods and services.
He urges humanity to focus on ecological awareness and incorporate it into education to overcome the blind spots. He also calls for the use of a systems lens for foresight by looking at biology, sociology, anthropology, and physics. Most importantly, he recommends we look back to see how our ancestors got here to inform our way forward and to navigate what he predicts the future is heading towards “a great simplification”.
Reflecting on all of what he has said, we have to be conscious of how energy blindness manifests in our daily lives, whether it be through the multitude of plugged-in devices consuming a significant portion of the world's energy or through energy-intensive activities such as flights and drives. With such prospects for the future, we need to start preparing for not just using a different kind of energy but also for using energy differently.
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