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Success is Winding Up with Oil in the Ground
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Will we always be more capable in the future?

One basic economic argument against substantial climate change mitigation investments often centers on the concept that, because of monetary discount rates and historically-proven continuous economic and technological growth, society will be both ‘richer’ and more capable of dealing with possible negative effects in the future. Proponents of this argument often use it to reason that mitigation is simply too economically costly to pursue.

Can the same argument hold for production of fossil fuels? That is to say, if we are going to be richer and more capable in the future, won’t we have a better use for all energy sources, including fossil fuels? And will part of our ability to deal with societal issues, such as those caused by climate change, be predicated upon having available energy? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then we should keep our fossil fuels in the ground.

The reason that the idea of preserving fossil fuels and ecosystems for future generations is not widely held is that the pattern since the industrial revolution of the 1800s shows us that energy consumption is highly correlated to economic growth, and thus the ability to become ‘richer’ (Figure 1). But recently Ecuadorian officials have proposed that the international community pay approximately half of the assumed value an oil deposit that lies beneath the Yasuni Amazon ecological reserve in order not to extract the oil [1]. Is this a beginning to question the present value of fossil fuels?

In the United States before the industrial revolution, the labor of 95 out of 100 people were required to feed the population of 5 million. Today, the less than 3 out of 100 are required to feed the US population of over 300 million - with food to spare for export. How is this possible? Fossil fuels provide high energy density storage sources that literally take the place of labor, and since their large scale use, we have used them to accumulate knowledge in how to further reduce physical labor. The huge reduction in farming labor over the last 200 years has resulted in “extra” hours for people to get paid to do things like drive around taking photos of celebrities for gossip magazines.

Because fossil fuels are limited and have provided us with the luxury of excess time, a major goal of society should be to break the causation between increasing fossil fuel consumption and increasing human development. I say human development and not economic growth, because the social aspect of economics is only a part of human development [2]. Extracting more fossil resources by consuming more fossil energy only buys more time to learn how to design and implement sustainable energy systems.

The laws of diminishing returns for fossil fuels cannot be avoided on the time scale of human civilization. Human civilization operated on a 100% sustainable energy a few hundred years ago, and after fossil fuels become completely uneconomical in hundreds of years more, we’ll again operate on a 100% sustainable energy system. The question is: what is that next 100% sustainable system going to look like?

Will it not be a success if human society finds an acceptable sustainable arrangement where we have excess fossil fuel reserves still lying in the ground? That is to say, we could define success as solving the energy and development problem before running out of economical fossil energy resources. Why consume the last of fossil energy reserves? Since reserves are partially defined by the economics of extraction, they are also partially a measure of our culture in how we value things, including energy resources, food, and social goods. If we want future human civilization to live in a manner better than the time before fossil fuels, that demands using our fossil fuels today such that we learn not to need them in the future.

Today we can’t make a photovoltaic solar panel without fossil-powered electricity manufacturing plant. We couldn’t build a hydroelectric dam without fossil-powered vehicles and cement plants. We can’t make and install a wind turbine without fossil-powered steel factories and transport systems. We need to track the progress, or lack thereof, of the ability of renewable energy systems to make themselves.

We didn’t need Nobel Prize Chemist Richard Smalley to tell us that the sun is the only source of energy for a sustainable human society. What we do need is everyone focused on the issue of both cultural and technological adjustments to make the most of solar direct (sunlight) and indirect (wind, waves, crops) energy.

Carey King, PhD, works at the University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology. This is his first contribution to Worldchanging.


[1] Pearson, Natalie O. Ecuador Plans to Nix Exploitation of 1B Bbl Oil Deposit. Dow Jones Newswires. March 03, 2008. Available at:
[2] Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. First Anchor Books, 1999.

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Carey King's article is very apt and to the point. Planning for a planet is the task before us and it is a mighty task.

I just want to take issue with your definition of sustainability and sustainable energy, however. You paint the picture of the sun, wind, rain, geothermal heat, biofuels, as being the only forms of sustainable or renewable energy. This is missing a vital component...You need to include uranium and thorium in the mix.

You cannot dismiss nuclear energy - at present fission but eventually fusion - for the long-term provision of massive amounts of energy for not just a few decades, as antinuclear and ignorant campaigners like to promulgate, but effectively forever. The contribution of this electrical power for the powering of vehicular transportation as well as keeping the world's electrical grids humming 24/7 cannot be dismissed. And countries all round the world are now busy planning to install nuclear power for the provision of carbon-free electricity. Even those which are extremely rich in fossil fuel reserves. And even those, like Uganda in Africa, which to date are not classified as ‘developed’ or industrialized. The whole world is now looking at nuclear energy for electricity as it is such an ecological and economically significant power source.

So those who claim to present the concept of Sustainability through writing, teaching or political processes need to widen their discourse, please.

There is enough uranium inside the Earth and in the waters of the oceans to power current population levels with electricity for the rest of civilization’s existence. We find it as the demand grows and research in Japan has shown that we can collect a kilogram of uranium from the ocean over a 265 day period through some special process. Extrapolate from that and you have the reality. We inhabit a universe drenched in energy in every corner we look.

There will always be electrical power to do all manner of things, fired by a 100% reliable and much, much denser form of energy than any fossil fuel. We may as well view the heavy, intensely energy-packed atoms used in nuclear energy production as we view sunlight – in terms of the length of time of their availability. I am not attempting to equate these energy sources in other regards.

Life on Earth has progressed (evolved) in a chaotic and creative manner of self-organization. We now witness this process in full consciousness and as major players within Earth’s chemistry, physics and biology. We are effectively an overnight geological force and the main authors of the destiny of life and the planet as a whole - for the time being. We are all learning. The comments made by Carey King are absolutely vital to take on board and will become major items of policy discussion in the coming decade or so, we may surely predict. They are part of the whole big question of forming an ecologically astute civilization that takes care of human needs – all humans – and knows with certainty and commitment that it must also take care of all other species’ needs. That ecologically astute civilization will have finally understood that the wellbeing of the human depends absolutely on the wellbeing of the planetary ‘environment’.

Posted by: Caroline Webb on 15 Apr 08

Well put, worldchanging team. Winding up with oil in the ground would indeed be a very clear indicator of success. It is entirely possible to use our current obscene levels of oil flows to create a real renewable energy infrastructure. If we do this aggressively, we can make it cheaper to use renewables than the oil left in the ground. Only then will the oil actually stay there, at least for the purposes of extracting the energy in it. I could see it being used in small amounts thereafter for the multitude of materials it can provide (though many of those can be produced with biological materials as well).

As for that nuclear commercial we just heard:

What about nuclear waste? How much energy does it take to create and maintain a facility for nuclear waste that will remain dangerous for longer than any known society has lasted?
What about socio-political inequities of centralized power production?
What about transmission losses of centralized power production?
What about vulnerabilities of a small number of transmission lines serving millions?
What about mining and transporting nuclear fuels--is this "carbon free" or ecologically sound in any way, shape or form?
What about risk of meltdown from inevitable human error?
What about nuclear plants being an enticing terrorist target?

What about the citizens who are aware of all these problems with nuclear power and demand something better?

I would be hard pressed to believe there's a better energy plan than distributed renewables with distributed storage in a smart grid that is resilient and keeps chugging along amidst a multitude of disturbances.

Posted by: greensolutions on 16 Apr 08

@Caroline Webb :
I believe you don't live in a country where 80% of electricity is nuclear , I do.
I believe your country wasn't hit by Chernobyl fallouts, mine does.

Nuclear has its place in the actual energy supply chain, but reducing "Global Warming" or "Global Climate Disorder" or "Global Mess" isn't worth all other solutions.
Some solutions are neither really ecological, nor sustainable, nor desirable.

For all the reasons that 'greensolutions' exposed and for the reason that sun is really more abundant than everybody needs, whe should focus as much as we can on using this energy.

Humanity needs 18 TW on a global scale.
We dispose of :

- 5000 TW surface incident Solar Radiation
- 870 TW of wind
- 100 TW Ocean Thermal Gradient
- 32 TW of geothermy
- 7.2 TW river kinetic hydro-energy
- 5 TW Wood
- 3.5 TW ocean tides
- 3 TW Waves

Take the ones you like, they are renewables, you don't have to focus on a single energy.

source : (PDF 5 Mo) by Wes Hermann

Read and understand

Posted by: litteuldav on 18 Apr 08



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