"It is not from the benevolence of the
butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but
from their regard to their own interest."
– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776
"[the laws of thermodynamics] control, in the last resort, the rise and fall of political systems, the freedom or bondage of nations, the movements of commerce and industry, the origins of wealth and poverty, and the general physical welfare of the race."
-Frederick Soddy, Matter and Energy, 1912
"I am saddened that it is politically
inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is
largely about oil..."
– Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, 2007
Denial of a crisis begins with the denial of its ethical or moral vexations. No greater crisis has ever faced humanity than the current human population over the natural carrying capacity of the planet, combined with peak oil. But the mere suggestion that peak oil is the primary motivation of our foreign policy evokes conflict in the polite society behind enemy lines, leaves your patriotism impugned, and is "politically inconvenient" for our elected and appointed officials. The level of denial of our energy motives is astounding, a performance of mesmerizing dance steps and pirouettes. Any presentation of the evidence, summary of historical observations,
or dialectic of the facts alluding to energy motives are dismissed as mere political opinion. The significance of Alan Greenspan's Iraq concession was not the admission of reality, but rather that reality had gained some credibility having been "acknowledged" by a retired chief economist. Why is legitimacy only granted by economics? Why is audacity only granted by retirement? Why doesn't anyone in polite society really discuss the war at all? Perhaps now we can begin a more fruitful discussion. If "everyone knows," why is reality "politically inconvenient?"
We have an ethical mystery to solve,
rooted in energy economics, complete with a cover-up, or at least
an evasiveness characteristic of crime. Former Manson prosecutor
Vincent Bugliosi, author of None Dare
Call It Treason, will tell you that, although motive only
provides circumstantial evidence, comparable in value to that of
so many conspiracy theories, establishing motive is essential to
making a case. Money may not be one's primary value or pursuit in
life, but thus springs forth our motives, at least according to
market-based economic theory. In his Harpers article The Oil We
Eat, Richard Manning set out to solve an energy mystery, to
find a concentration of energy wealth. Noting that Cheney had
equated money with energy, he invoked the journalist's rule to
"follow the money." Following the energy, his path led to our farm
fields. Forty percent (40%) of the world's population is fed from
three main grains, fertilized with ammonia produced from one
percent (1%) of the world's total energy production. In addition
to being essential to the economy at large, it turns out energy
resources are eaten, quite literally, and Manning had followed our
food chain back to Iraq.
With the price of gasoline doubled since 2000, peak oil awareness is growing, a reason to be cautiously optimistic that we can at least have frank discussions about energy. The "oil glut" of the '80's and '90's gave rise to gluttonous attitudes that prevented any serious discussion of conserving or weaning from fossil fuels. But unfortunately even today the focus of the peak oil debate–will it be next year, 10 years, or 50 years from now, or was it really in 2004?– is a canard. Hubbert's peak oil curves presented in the common debate plot annual production of oil, in billions of barrels produced, through time in years. Depending on the bias of the analysis, the curve is either leveling off, but still surpassing historic levels, or has just passed its peak where world production will never meet historic levels. An honest discussion of the debate, though, would at least acknowledge what Olduvai theorist Richard Duncan points out: oil production per world human population peaked in 1979. That is to say, the most energy produced per person peaked 30 years ago and has been declining ever since, due to the combination of explosive world population growth and leveling production combined. The rest, as they say, is politics. In the context of oil per capita, the fact that the Pentagon is the single largest purchaser of petroleum in the world goes a long way in explaining our history in the Middle East, our involvement in the current wars there, and our concerns expressed politically over what effect China's new economy, coupled with its population, will have on our energy security. Extreme self delusion is required to deny our true intentions in the Middle East, but examples of the prerequisite moral backflips are hardly uncommon. The political inconvenience is in having to admit moral vexation.
Manning's mystery to solve was to find
the source of a concentration of great wealth, the energy wealth
invested in our food. He gave us a glimpse, a first clue that
there is a modern moral vexation in sustainability. As essential
as a read can be, his article only followed the first part of the
story, the first law of thermodynamics, that energy is neither
created or destroyed and thus can be traced like a currency.
Though Manning very definitely enumerated the environmental
ramifications of industrial agriculture, unfortunately there is a
second part of the story, another energy connection to
sustainability that is even bigger. The moral vexation that is the
result of solving Manning's mystery thus grows ever larger. This
second part of the story leaves a different mystery to solve, the
dispersal of great wealth. Why do we have the colossal scale of
Not to excuse greed, but greed is not why we're so deep in the red. Greed merely involves the concentration of wealth in certain pockets at the expense of others. The debt problem is more systemic, and as we'll see throughout this article, its roots lie in the second part of the energy story, a sequel called entropy. Entropy is the fundamental concept of the second law of thermodynamics describing the dispersal of energy. Cheney's equation is correct. Money and energy are so fundamentally linked, in fact, that if you include entropy while tracing the energy currency through our economic system, you'll go a long way to explaining the cause of our national debt: energy is dissipated permanently, no matter how much you might fight for it, and thus so is money. Entropy happens.
We are now in the process of restructuring our economy. Can we finally address entropy? Can we at least recognize this energy source of our debt and structure our economy in such a way to make it sustainable without vexation? The adjective "sustainable" has long been defined and understood to be our goal economically, but the new noun-form, "sustainability" – still not listed in many dictionaries and still not recognized by Microsoft Word's spell-checker – conjures an environmental agenda. Isn't environmental consideration a luxury we can't afford, especially now? Or as some circles might pejoratively pose the question, isn't "sustainability" just a "politically correct" buzzword? A noted environmentalist Lester Brown did, in fact, coin the term sustainability in 1981, but his definition said nothing about the environment: "[the ability to meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." True, sustainability is a term increasingly used to justify environmental action. But Brown's definition merely addresses an ethics towards future generations. Is our environment in crisis, our livelihood currently not sustainable, as the imperative nature of its goal implies? Is Al Gore correct that economic sustainability is contingent upon environmental sustainability?
What is essential to sustain both the economy and the environment is energy. What is generally not understood, though occasionally illuminated by articles like Manning's, is that we are above the natural carrying capacity of the planet for humans. Thus the ecosystems we rely on to sustain life are intrinsically requiring more and more of our energy resources to be maintained, including resources that had been traditionally reserved for our economy. At least part of the dispersal of wealth, alluded to above, goes into environmental action. Until relatively recently, the energy needed for sustainability has been kept paced naturally by solar energy, and thus largely taken for granted. As the energy required to sustain world population takes an ever increasing amount from what was historically used for our economy, it is no wonder that environmental issues are presented politically as a choice, or at least as an exercise in striking a balance between the economy on one hand and the environment on the other. The reality, of course, is that both need to be maintained in order for humanity to be sustained. The environmental urgency is generally not appreciated as much as the economic, however.
The vast majority of the world's
population has no idea that it exceeds the planet's carrying
capacity for its own numbers, a condition fleetingly possible only
through industrial consumption of currently available energy
resources, especially for agriculture. Of course the consumption
of these energy resources is disparate by culture and lifestyle. Ecological
footprint analysis attempts to sum all of the resources
consumed in a given lifestyle, energy being perhaps a major but
not exclusive resource, and has gone a long way in generating
awareness of these disparities, which in turn has greatly
increased "green consciousness." But the more common effect on the
populace is to induce a sense of guilt which inspires no action.
We may suffer an increasing sense of creeping malaise as we hear
on the radio each new environmental crisis or resource scarcity
issue while we drive to pick up our new plasma T.V., but no
action. In fact the guilt can inspire a kind of ameliorating, or
even backlash, consumerism.
The environmental community must admit
and come to terms with economic motives. Environmental
preservationist's hold that nature's value is self evident,
quoting John Muir, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,
places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give
strength to body and soul." As hard as it is to believe, this
value system is not universal, and this valuation of nature as
priceless is left out of even modern economics. The science of
ecology is more quantifiable, and thus ecologists are making more
practical inroads. Ecological footprint analysis has generated
awareness of the value of the natural resources we take for
granted. But there will be no action, no change of behavior,
unless that value is embedded into our economy. Energy presents a
way to embed that value. All of the renewable resources we consume
can be generated with energy at some time scale, perhaps most with
time or energy too excessive to be feasible, but at least
providing a basis to measure our economy. The environmental
community generally scorns a consumerist approach, thus the
resistance to cap-and-trade programs that "commodify" the
environment. But can there be any other way to economically reward
prevention of pollution or conservation of resources?
The Iroquois Indians based their economy on a currency of clam shell beads. Certain pre-Columbian civilizations used chocolate, feudal Germany used land. We use to base our economic system on silver, then silver and gold, then gold alone, and now by fiat. Clam shells, chocolate, land, silver, gold, and Federal Reserve checks to the government all have their value–especially chocolate–but isn't it time for our economic system to be based on something universally sound, the physical unit of energy, a different jewel spelled J-o-u-l-e? Most would argue that the modern economy is too complex to ever accept a commodity-based currency again. But is energy only a commodity?
The idea to establish an energy currency is nothing new. Energy is central to what an economic system attempts to organize: the ability to perform work, and the inherent value of goods and services resulting from that work. M.K. Hubbert of peak oil fame was a founder of the technocracy movement, and in 1940 proposed to replace money with energy certificates limited to the energy invested in GDP, distributing the certificates pro rata in a non-market economy. Frederick Soddy, winner of the 1921 Nobel chemistry prize for determining the helium chemical composition of alpha nuclear radiation, was one of the technocracy movement's champions, and suggested that energy and its technocrats would replace human labor. A non-market economics run by a technical elite was as suspect then as it is now. "Hubbert's membership of the Technocracy movement was investigated in 1943 by his employers, the Board of Economic Warfare, who may have regarded it (not entirely unreasonably) as a form of communism - though engineers desiring political control didn't seem to do much better in the Soviet Union either." (The Oil Drum, 2008) At the same time, the technocratic elite was perceived as fascist. Satirizing Soddy, Dr. Seuss opined, "It says here, oh most exalted one, that under technocracy one man shall do the work of many." (Seuss, 1933).
To this day, technological panacea has been suspect. Whether Brautigan intended the irony or not, his poem All watched over by machines of loving grace does sound a bit like an ad for Cyberdyne Systems in the movie The Terminator. But isn't a form of mechanized technocracy already in place, enabling one man to do the work of many, and isn't that the root of our current unemployment? Does capital fail to keep labor relevant? Does market shortsightedness squelch creativity and prevent our scientists and engineers from focusing on the most pressing sustainability issues of the day? Is capital going to create or obstruct a green economy? If not pro rata, would a market economy be better served with an energy currency?
Ironically, the "energy certificates" of
the technocracy movement are not far from the concepts of energy
accounting in ecological
economics. Though perhaps anathema to some
environmentalists, tradable "cap allowances" are nothing but
inverses of "energy certificates." Both an energy certificate and
a cap are like a ration, the former a form of a paycheck allowing
energy consumption and the later a form of regulation limiting
entropic energy dissipation. The difference is that they are
equated into the same unit of measure, and are thus tradable. What
good is it to the environment if you carpool, ride the bus or
train, or bike commute only to be passed by a Hummer with a set of
rubber testicles hanging from the back bumper? Let them have their
freedom of self expression, but make them pay for any of its
excesses, and reward yourself by selling them a cap-allowance you
conserved equal in energy terms to your energy-based pay.
The key to any ecologically sound, energy
based economy is to recognize the value of the natural environment
in energy terms, and not just GDP. In a 1997 article in Nature, Robert
Costanza, current Director of the Gund Institute for Ecological
Economics at the University of Vermont, attempted to total
the value of "ecosystem services" in today's economic measure,
money. Though not without his critics for reducing the environment
into commodities, he showed that the economic value of the
environment can no longer be taken for granted. Is Costanza the
economical Lorax? Would Dr. Seuss approve?
We come full circle to the moral vexations embedded in sustainability. In 1798, an Anglican clergyman, Thomas Malthus, first elaborated the grim calculus that arithmetic increases in food production could not keep pace with geometric increases in human population. A chapter in his An Essay on the Principle of Population reviewed a sobering list of the mechanisms that limit human population, including famine, disease, and war. Although his predictions of widespread famine have failed to materialize, human population did not reach its first billion people until the 1880's. At that time, agriculture was already extended beyond the natural rates of production by the mining of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer, but still limited by the availability of these natural deposits, most notably the mined saltpeter in Chile's Atacama Desert. In 1909, Fritz Haber developed a method for which he won the 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry: the industrial synthesis of ammonia using atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen, the hydrogen originally produced from the electrolysis of water. Ammonia, like many high energy nitrogen compounds, had military value in the making of explosives. With the advent of World War I, and with the strategic Chilean deposits in British hands, Haber's ammonia production went into making explosives, and Haber himself went into making chlorine gas chemical weapons. After the war, ammonia production was once again focused into making fertilizer. Eventually natural gas became the principal source of hydrogen, and, as Manning elucidates, an energy path from the oil fields to the farm fields was established. In the short 100 years since the development of the Haber process, along with other technological agricultural methods of the Green Revolution, the world has added another five billion people. Is this growth sustainable?
Malthus was criticized in his day for his
audacity, daring to challenge the assumption of providence. In
more recent times, Paul Ehrlich predicted famine and advocated
population control. Like Malthus before him, his 1968 epic, The Population Bomb overstated predictions
of worldwide famine, but he rightfully points to famine in the 3rd
world as proof that the natural carrying capacity of the region is
exceeded even if the cause of the famine is political. Is Ehrlich
or Malthus proved wrong if the war, disease, and famine–the
dying–occurs only in the 3rd world, for political reasons, out of
sight and thus out of mind? In 1974, Garret Hardin proposed his
"lifeboat ethics," suggesting rich nations refuse to help more
populous poor nations in times of famine, in order to prevent an
even larger famine in subsequent generations. His "ethic" was
roundly criticized primarily for neglecting the disparity of the
ecological footprints of rich versus poor nations. The U.S. is
still the breadbasket
of the world, but is slowly converting part of its
agriculture from growing food for humans to growing fuel for
SUV's. Is this a "lifeboat ethics," or a selfish ethics of
suicide, something that Hardin
himself advocated and followed?
Whether technological agriculture is sustainable or not, the world's population growth is unprecedented, and there's no denying the energy demand to create its food. Manning's treatise on the energy imperatives to sustain our industrial agriculture is not lost on certain Washington D.C. think tanks. Has the issue of world sustainability been used to morally justify U.S. energy security in the name of world food security? Is such an example of moral relativity associated with sustainability in the modern age? What's at stake ethically in these types of questions is every major issue of the modern age. Modern sustainability issues go beyond mere food supply.
In his book The Hydrogen Economy, Jeremey Rifken posited a tenet every bit as sobering as the Malthusian tenets: "...society is organized around the continuous effort to convert available energy from the environment into used energy to sustain human existence."(2002, p. 46). Malthus, Soddy, Haber, Ehrlich, Hardin, Rifken, Manning, and the like are merely messengers of this sobering reality of sustainability. Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons, the depletion of the life-sustaining ecosystem by population, is surmountable only with energy. Thus the moral quandaries are insolvable without energy. But perhaps the vexations can be used to set the priorities of our newly defined economy, and channel our own energies accordingly. For example, the admission of the vexing truth, the real reason for the war as acknowledged by Greenspan, can finally be used in arguments about which energy sector is truly receiving the most government subsidy. Energy is driving. Economics is only along for the ride. Rifken goes on to quote Soddy's prescience: "[the laws of thermodynamics] control, in the last resort, the rise and fall of political systems, the freedom or bondage of nations, the movements of commerce and industry, the origins of wealth and poverty, and the general physical welfare of the race." (Soddy, 1912, p. 245).
As we shall see in the remaining parts of
this article, energy assets and disorder debits can be tracked by
the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics, through systems,
surroundings, and a universal net sum, encompassed like a set of
matryoshka dolls. Sustainability is only possible if the total
disorder created by a life system on its surroundings can be
overcome with an outside source of energy, usually from the Sun,
ultimately shifting a universal net disorder onto the surroundings
of the solar energy system. That is the succinct scientific
statement of the goal of sustainability. Unless and until we reach
that goal, unless and until the total disorder created by the
human population can be overcome with a continuous source of
energy, population will be limited, either naturally by one or
more of the Malthusian tenets, or by some measure of population
control. Though science can guide, the issue is then no longer a
discussion of scientific or technological solutions, but rather
becomes one of ethics, rooted in discussions of environmental and
economic justice. The economies of the world attempt to organize
life's energy and the inherent value of goods and services
resulting from life's work. To do this with any semblance of
justice, the economic system must account for the energy debits of