Energy is not the only dimension to this problem. From a purely energetic point of view, we have enough solar input to allow sustained energy use at high rates (though not sustained growth). That’s the good news. But we would still strain the throughput of materials harvested from the planet. Pollution will continue to pile up; arable land will be lost to erosion, desertification, salinity increase, and exhaustion of ancient aquifers; fisheries will collapse; important metals will become ever harder to find and extract; we will learn too late that species driven to extinction by climate change and other human impositions are actually vital to our well-being. No one knows for sure what the ultimate carrying capacity of the Earth is: many estimates indicate that we have already exceeded it. And it is distressing that we do not have a plan for living within our means at today’s level of industrial activity, let alone a 5× expansion.
Let’s say that our nation (or world) uses 100 units of fossil fuel energy one year, and expects to get only 98 units the following year. We need to come up with 2 units of replacement energy within a year’s time to fill the gap. If, for example, the replacement:
has an EROEI of 10:1;
requires most of the energy investment up front (solar panel or wind turbine manufacture, nuclear plant construction, etc.);
and will last 40 years,
then we need an up-front energy investment amounting to 4 year’s worth of the new source’s output energy. Since we require an output of 2 units of energy to fill the gap, we will need 8 units of energy to bring the resource into use.
Of the 100 units of total energy resource in place in year one, only 92 are available for use—looking suddenly like an 8% decline. If we sit on our hands and do not launch a replacement infrastructure, we would have 98 units available for use next year. It’s still a decline, but a 2% decline is more palatable than an effective 8% decline. Since each subsequent year expects a similar fossil fuel decline, the game repeats. Where is the incentive to launch a new infrastructure? This is why I call it a trap. We need to exacerbate the sacrifice for a prolonged period in order to come out on top in the end.
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