Last Chance for Civilization
May 10, 2005
By Ernest Partridge, The
is facing a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. The final depletion
of petroleum reserves is likely within this century. Without this
energy source, and with no alternative sources in place, the Earth
could probably not support half of the present population of six
billion souls. That remnant of humanity would subsist at a level
of poverty suffered today by the typical Bangladeshi.
Furthermore, because concentrated and accessible mineral and energy
resources will no longer be available, the "low-hanging fruit"
having been harvested by preceding generations, there can never
be a restoration of industrial civilization.
Now the good news: this dreadful fate can be avoided. And the
bad news: there appears to be no political will in the United States
to effect a rescue.
Now that I have your attention, let's examine the evidence.
It is impossible to comprehend the total reliance of our industrial
civilization upon cheap and abundant energy. Prior to the industrial
revolution, the "civilized" life of the small minority
privileged individuals, for example in ancient Greece and Rome,
was built upon the backs of hordes of slaves and draft animals.
The use of bio-fuels (e.g. wood) was essentially confined to cooking,
space heating, and metallurgy.
Today, the average North American utilizes each day the energy
equivalent of thousands of slaves (one slave = 1/3 horsepower per
day) and horses (one horse = 6 horsepower per day). Fossil energy
transports his food thousands of miles to his table. Petroleum products
are the source of farm fertilizers and they drive farm machinery.
Because of the productivity of fossil fuel driven industrial agriculture
the average American farmer now feeds fifty of his fellow citizens.
In a very real sense, we "eat
If the oil supply were to dry up with no successor fuel at hand,
most of our population would have to return to the land to raise
their own food, only to find that the fertile land had been sacrificed
to suburban sprawl or lost to erosion and desertification.
In addition, if one contemplates the energy expended to move us
to and from work, to extract and transport raw materials, to manufacture
and distribute consumer goods, to educate and employ the specialists
required to sustain a complex civilization, then one might begin
to appreciate the indispensable role of energy in the support of
True, the wasteful average American uses twice as much energy
as equally affluent Europeans. But compare US energy consumption
with that of less fortunate individuals in the developing world.
That average American uses about fifty times as much fossil fuels
as the average citizen of India, and about five times the world
optimists such as the late Julian Simon like to tell us that
the world population of six billion is not all that much, when we
take into account the vast land area of the planet. Perhaps you
have heard, as I have, that the entire world population could fit
comfortably into the state of Texas. So let's consider that example,
as we take out our handy pocket calculator. The area of Texas is
268,581 square miles, or 171,891,840 acres. Divide that by six billion,
and you have 0.03 acres per person, or about the area of an ordinary
apartment: 1307 square feet. This is, of course, allowing no space
for roads, schools, manufacturing plants, agricultural land, forests,
watershed, etc. As for parks, forests, lakes, and other recreational
In point of fact, far more land is required to support Western
European and North American lifestyles than the land of one's personal
residence. To that personal homestead, one must add the agricultural
land, watershed, roads, industrial facilities, schools, etc. required
to fulfill the needs of that resident.
Two Canadian scholars, Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, have
called this "supporting land" the "ecological footprint."
They have calculated the ecological footprint of the average American
at 12.6 acres, the average (Asian) Indian at one acre, and the world
average at 4.4 acres. Accordingly, the ecological footprint of greater
Vancouver, BC, is roughly equal to the area of Washington state.
For all six billion human beings to live at the economic level of
the average North American would require the land mass of three
Finally, write Wackernagel and Rees, "humanity's ecological
footprint is as much as 30 percent larger than nature can sustain
in the long run. In other words, present consumption exceeds natural
income by 30 percent, and is therefore partially dependent on capital
(wealth) depletion." And that depletion, of course, is largely
the depletion of non-renewable energy resources – primarily fossil
Bottom line: as the oil runs out and fuel prices soar, we'd damned
well better be phasing in other energy sources, or homo sapiens
just might go the way of the dinosaurs – without the nudging of
a killer asteroid.
And note that I've said nothing so far about global warming. If
we are to believe the consensus conclusion of all atmospheric scientists
(industry sponsored "biostitutes" excluded), global fossil
fuel use must be severely curtailed in advance of the natural depletion
of petroleum reserves if a climate catastrophe is to be avoided.
(Lest I digress, this urgent topic must be set aside for another
Fortunately, we just might avoid the twin catastrophes of severe
global warming and the approaching end of petroleum energy. But
to do so will require coordinated global commitment, the best efforts
and lavish public support of a large cadre of scientists and engineers,
and massive investments in new technologies and infrastructures.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration is committed to a race
in precisely the wrong direction. The Bush response to the looming
day of dreadful reckoning is to starve research, development and
investments in alternative energy sources, and to bring that day
of reckoning ever closer by accelerating the consumption of fossil
fuels. It's as if Captain Smith of the Titanic ordered that all
lifeboats be tossed overboard, and then directed the helmsman to
proceed at flank speed toward the iceberg.
Fortunately, there is, in fact, an abundance of potential energy
sources, some already in use, albeit in minuscule amounts compared
the usage of depletable fossil fuels. And these alternative sources
do not exacerbate the global warming emergency.
All useful energy, nuclear, tidal, and geo-thermal power excepted,
comes from the sun. Coal, oil, natural gas, bio-fuels all contain
solar energy captured by photosynthesis and transformed into hydrocarbons.
Wind energy is generated by uneven solar heating of the earth's
surface, and hydroelectric power is derived from solar-induced evaporation
and precipitation. Radiant energy from the sun, falling upon the
earth's surface, can be concentrated through solar collectors, or
directly converted into electricity through photo-electric cells.
Electricity and elemental hydrogen are secondary energy sources
– "energy conveyers," to use physicist Amory Lovins' term
– the primary sources of which are any of the above.
All biomass and bio-waste contains recoverable fuel, though not
all of it is economically recoverable. Ethanol from corn is a newsworthy
example although, to be sure, it is a net-minus source of energy
– i.e., more energy is expended in its production than is recovered
from the ethanol itself. But this is an exceptional case. Dried
biomass – wood, paper, sawdust, corn-stalks, lawn cuttings – produces
heat energy from burning, though this is an inefficient and polluting
A far better source is the anoxic ("oxygen starved")
decomposition of biomass, which produces such high-quality fuels
as gaseous methane and liquid methanol. The sources of this fuel
are limitless, and need only be collected and processed. "Slash"
from lumber, corn stalks, vegetable oil and animal fat, municipal
garbage and sewage, feedlot manure – all this and more can be sources
Household and yard garbage (including leaves and lawn cuttings),
when dumped into land fills, decompose anoxically and release vast
amounts of methane, which, as a greenhouse gas, is thirty times
more damaging than carbon dioxide. But when captured and utilized
as a fuel, the combustion products of methane are water and carbon
dioxide – and benign CO2 at that, since the component carbon is
gathered and released from the ongoing biotic "carbon cycle,"
and not, as with fossil fuels, extracted from geologically sequestered
In short, there is energy all around us. We need only develop
and apply the technology to put it to work for us. Still better,
we have that technology at hand, and are prevented by vested interests
in the fossil fuel economy and their patrons in the government from
developing and distributing these benign and "climate friendly"
sources of energy.
Foremost among the objections to a conversion to a solar-biofuel-hydrogen
economy is cost. Fossil fuels, we are told, are the cheapest source
of energy, and as long is this is the case, renewable sources will
be excluded by the remorseless logic of the free market.
This argument is specious, for numerous reasons.
First of all, the cost advantage is temporary, to say the least.
Now that we have apparently reached the point of peak global oil
production, and now that China and India are entering the world
petroleum market, the price of oil must increase, suddenly and significantly,
as demand surges ahead of supply.
Second, the miserly investment in the research, development, manufacture
and infrastructure of renewables is the cause of the high cost of
these energy sources, which, in turn, provides an excuse for the
failure by the fossil energy establishment (including those oil
industry alumni, Bush and Cheney) to look elsewhere for future energy
Third, as the critics of renewable energy cite the non-competitive
current costs, they neglect to make projections of future costs
which, through advancing research, development and economies of
scale are certain to drop drastically.
Case in point: the cost of information storage in personal computers.
In 1981, when I bought my first personal computer, the salesman
tried to entice me to purchase a hard drive. "For only $2000,"
he told me, "you can put five megabytes of data on this hard
drive." Last year, I bought a 40 gigabyte hard-drive for $150.
– 8,000 times as much storage capacity as the 1981 drive, at about
7% of the cost (in constant dollars). Had automobiles followed the
same cost-curve, I could now buy a Hummer for a dollar.
While there is no way that alternative energy costs will drop in
thirty years as much as computer data storage, they will nonetheless
drop dramatically, as in fact they have already.
In 1979, solar-power advocate Barry Commoner figured the cost of
photo-voltaic electricity to be approximately the same as electricity
supplied by a gas-powered home generator: $1.63 per kilowatt hour.
Residential electricity at the time cost 3.5 cents/kwh (9 cents
in 2004 dollars). As Commoner conceded, "the photovoltaic cell
was hardly commercial."
However, with intervening improvements in technology, photovoltaic
electricity is today approaching competitiveness. In the twenty
years from 1977 to 1997, the cost of photovoltaic energy fell from
$2/kwh to 18 cents/kwh.
Finally, the market can, and in fact must, be federally "shaped,"
through taxes and subsidies, to ease and hasten the transition from
a fossil fuels to a global economy based upon clean and sustainable
energy. Free-market absolutists will complain loudly about such
"big government interference," all the while hoping that
the public will not notice that industrial agriculture, transportation
and distribution systems, and the petroleum industry all benefit
from huge government subsidies.
It is past time for public officials to act in behalf of the public
and future generations, rather than the corporate interests that
have bought them. If they do so, public funds can be directed to
research, development and installation of renewable energy facilities
– "priming the pump" to hasten the establishment of an
eventually self-sustaining renewable energy industry.
The financial and industrial resources are available to make this
transition. The oil companies must redefine themselves as "energy
companies" – not as adversaries and competitors of the emerging
alternative energy providers, but as facilitators, in search of
newer and better energy sources. Some corporations, notably British
Petroleum and Shell, are saying as much in their public pronouncements.
But such PR declarations are all too often belied by the R & D numbers
in the annual reports.
Because the impending end of the petroleum age is a direct threat
to national security, a sizeable portion of the military budget
should be diverted toward energy independence. For example, the
aerospace industry, corporations such as Martin-Marietta, Lockheed,
Rockwell and Boeing, with their state of the art facilities for
producing aircraft and rocket launchers, are superbly equipped to
manufacture high-speed intercity rail systems – by far the most
energy efficient mode of transportation and distribution. Anyone
who has traveled on Japanese and European trains, as I have, can
only be dismayed at the dismal condition of American railroads.
(Six years ago I rode the "Chunnel" train from Paris to
London – 220 miles – in less than three hours at speeds up to 140
The United States must take the lead in the transition to renewable
energy, for if we do not, we can be assured that Europe and Asia
will take that lead, leaving us behind with a declining economy
and standard of living, as we desperately cling to an obsolete and
Can industrial civilization, at the level of development and prosperity
now achieved in the United States, Europe and Japan, be sustained
without the abundant and cheap energy now provided by the fossil
fuels? Amory Lovins and his associates at the Rocky Mountain Institute
believe that we can – and that we must. In an astonishing and hopeful
report, "Winning the Oil Endgame," Lovins et al claim
that "over the next few decades, the United States can get
completely off oil and revitalize its industrial and rural economy."
Moreover, they propose that this transition to a "soft energy"
future can be accomplished profitably by private enterprise. (The
270 page report can be downloaded
at no cost.)
Throughout his thirty year career, Lovins has been widely denounced
as a wild-eyed, impractical visionary. But because he has endured
for three decades, the passage of time has validated his work. With
thorough, peer-reviewed scholarship, Lovins and the Rocky Mountain
Institute present in their "Oil Endgame" report a plausible
avenue of escape from the impending economic collapse which must
follow the sudden and permanent loss of the fossil energy sources
that now sustain industrial civilization. And that is encouraging
news, to say the least.
The RMI solution does not bode well for the investors in oil companies,
if those companies refuse to develop alternative energy sources.
With the future of civilization in the balance, the short-term interests
of petroleum industry investors should not be the controlling factor
in national and global energy policy. However, the choice between
investors vs. civilization is a false dilemma if the oil companies
act as energy companies and lead the transition to an economy based
upon sustainable energy.
Moreover, the petroleum industry will survive the obsolescence
of fossil fuels, for there will be a permanent demand for petrochemical
products, notably plastics. "Firms that are quick to adopt
innovative technologies and business models," states the RMI
report, "will be the winners of the 21st century; those that
deny and resist change will join the dead from the last millennium."
Unfortunately the Bush-Cheney administration, totally captivated
by the short-term interests of the "awl bidness" has given
no serious attention and has proposed no significant appropriations
in support of the transition to sustainable and non-polluting energy
resources. They have set us upon a path to disaster. The Bush Administration,
the Republican Congress, the corporate media, and the American public
appear to be utterly unperturbed by this prospect.
"Civilization," wrote H. G. Wells, "is a race between
education and disaster." At the moment, it appears that the
American civilization is staking its entire future on the losing
horse in this race.
[Author's Note: The critical reader will demand documentation
of the fact claims in this essay. This essay, with notes and references,
may be found here.]
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in
the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes
the website The
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website The
Crisis Papers Archive