January 5, 2009
In 1860, a century and an half ago, the human population was about a billion. The individual energy consumption was approximately 250 Watts (metabolism and physical work). The source of energy was then entirely renewable (the sun and its indirect by-product such as wood, wind, hydro, animal power). Anthropogenic irreversible pollution, entropy, the kind the ecosystem cannot handle, or not fast enough, was next to zero. The concentration of CO2 were about 280 ppm, CH4 (900 ppb), tropospheric ozone (10 ppb), N2O (265 ppb). At the beginning of the 21st century, the human population is above 6 billions. The global average individual energy consumption is 2500 Watts (IEA, 2007). Each human being is now consuming 10 times more. And we are 6 times more. Collectively, we require over 60 times more energy from the exact same planet. Or if we like, the same planet has to provide the equivalent energy for 60 billions of our grand-grand-parents. Individually, this is the equivalent of having 10 “energetic slave” working for us constantly. Or 3 horses. Day and night, 24/7/365. In Europe, we need over double the average, 6000 Watts (approx 25 “energetic slave”), in the US, four times the average, 12000 Watts (approx 50 “energetic slave”).
The source of energy is 85 % fossils fuels (coal 24%, gaz 21%, oil 37%), 8 % (hydro + renewable 1%), 7% nuclear (another type of fossil). The concentration of CO2 is about 387 ppm, (+ 40% since 1860, actual rate + 2.14% / year), the concentration of CH4 is about 1750 ppm. The concentration of tropospheric ozone is above 55 ppb, (+ 400 % since 1860, 2.4% /year), N2O (310 ppb).
Anthropogenic irreversible pollution, is everywhere in the ecosystem, and accumulates like a poison. There is heavy metal deposition in the arctic, lead in the blood of polar bears, mercury in the oceans and in wild salmons, PCB in our flesh. Bees are threatened. We over fish. Species are disappearing at an unprecedented pace. Irrelevant externalities from an Adam Smith point of view. The energetic intensity of our activities, the comfortable energetic armchair we are floating in with ease, are over-stretching the ecosystem. And yet, energy has become invisible. It has almost become an abstraction. We don’t see, we don’t feel this addiction. At all. We are totally unaware of these 25 energetic slaves working for us 24/7. Or are we simply uncomfortable with this truth ?We simply deny the irreversible accumulation of wastes that comes with energy, and keep hiding them under the carpet, be it nuclear waste, CO2, plastic bags. For our children to find them ? This is irresponsible. Our energy addiction -call it comfort- comes at a massive price: eroding the future of our own children.
How did we fall into the habit of needing a cart, powered by 50 horses, to go and buy a bottle of milk ? Let’s not forget that the best half of the human body is made up of legs… Not simply meant to fold under steering wheels and screens. Laziness, is this what we call progress ?
Whatever the chemical reaction, that includes any kind of combustions, the second principle of thermodynamics states that alongside this reaction, the entropy of the universe always increases. Which in our context, unless nature cleans it for us, waste accumulates. The contemporary dogma of “ever growth on cheap energy” does not fit the second principle of thermodynamics. And the law of physics are difficult to contradict very long. We cannot negotiate new ones.
Fast and Furious
Not only are we consuming more energy, but our consumption is growing faster and faster. We used as much energy between the years 1900-1950, than we used between the years 2000-05.
By 2050, the human population is estimated to be about 9 billions (factor 1.5). According to nowadays strategies, based on an 18th century model, human activity, the economy, must grow at an annual 3% rate. In 2050, globally, this would translate into an equivalent 4 times more activity (reference year 2000). On average, if the worldwide energy intensity remains the same (optimistic scenario), still we would require between 2 and 6 times more energy globally.
This is going to be difficult to explain to our grand-children.
It is going to be difficult to explain why we have chosen to stick to an 18th century Adam Smith model, invented when pollution was neglectable and therefore relegated to an externality, by default. Adam Smith could not integrate irreversible dispersion of heavy metals in his model, because he never observed the phenomena. This understandable mistake in the 18th century, is turning into the intellectual flaw of the 21st century. Our grand children will have to correct it. They will have to refresh this old fashioned model which does not take into account accumulation of poison. As well as handle simultaneously the collapse of the ecosystem, climate change and fossil peaks.
James Watt died in 1819. Energy, thermodynamics were not even understood before the 19th century. Adam Smith died in 1790, when energy consumption was marginal. Energy not even yet a unified concept. How could he forecast the 21st century ? Schönbein discovered ozone in the 1850’s. In the times of Adam Smith, CO2 was described as “wild spirit”. CO2, ozone, methane, energy, entropy, pollution were not discovered. They were “spiritus sylvestre”, “vis viva”. If anything, their were ghosts-like diffuse concepts. At the time of Adam Smith, regarding the ecosystem as an externality was not an ideological choice. It was just a methodological error due to limited knowledge of the times. Adam Smith could not integrate concepts that were to be invented a century later. We only started studying pollution 30 years ago.
We are counting the world with the wrong units (GDP, % of growth). Observing it with an 1750’s telescope. No wonder we keep accelerating in a U-turn, with such anachronism in mind. Where is the room for growth on this planet ? WHERE ? Which ecosystem can absorb our mistakes any longer ? Drilling for oil under the feet of the last polar bear, is this the best we can come up with ? We ought to change the unadapted striped 78 rpm disc of “perpetual growth on ever abundant cheap energy” or “growth at any cost” for a new conjunction of concepts such as stabilization, collective intelligence, survival of the next generations. In a word, sustainable development MUST become the overarching conceptual framework. NOW.
The law of economics have to obey the law of physics. There is a time when the ever growth scenario hits the curve of remaining available energy, and another one when its hits the curve of accumulated waste, when the ecosystem will stop sponging our mistakes and bounce them back. We must refrain our veneration of money and consider these big bangs ahead of us instead.
We must fit nature, not nature fits us.
Anything else is counterproductive, irresponsible short-termism.Author : herve