Earlier this week I spent a while looking through some of the early posts I put up on my original blog, The Archdruid Report. Maybe it’s just the rose-colored reactions of middle age gazing back on the follies of youth, but it all seems so innocent now. I was part of a movement in those days, the peak oil movement, which hoped to shake people out of their fond delusion that an infinite amount of fossil fuels can be extracted from a finite planet. The last attempt along those lines, back in the 1970s, was far enough in the past that many of us managed to convince ourselves that this time, we could get people to notice that the laws of physics really do matter.
We were wrong. There’s no kinder way to put it. While we helped some people to grapple with the hard realities of fossil fuel depletion and come to terms with the consequences, they were very much in the minority. Most people dismissed the peak oil message out of hand. They had plenty of help doing this, because a certain loud fraction of peak oilers ignored the hard lessons of history, and insisted that fossil fuel depletion would cause the entire world to crash to ruin sometime very soon. Those of us who knew better, and said so, were shoved aside in the rush to proclaim the apocalypse, which inevitably failed to arrive. That failure was then systematically used to discredit the movement as a whole. It’s an old, ugly story.
Yet the apocalypse follies weren’t the only factor in play. At least as important was a set of counterarguments that claimed to take fossil fuel depletion seriously but claimed to offer a solution—or, more to the point, two solutions. Neither of them were actually workable, but people bent over backwards not to notice that.
The first of the nonsolutions I have in mind was that endlessly rewarmed casserole of twentieth-century fantasies, nuclear power. A few centuries from now, when some future equivalent of Rev. Charles Mackay pens a new version of that durable classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, industrial society’s obsession with nuclear power will rank high among the exhibits. No matter how many times nuclear power plants turn out to be unaffordable without gargantuan government subsidies, some people remain fixated on the notion that some future iteration of nuclear power will finally fulfill the Eisenhower-era delusion of energy too cheap to meter. If one nuclear technology fails, we hear, surely the next one will succeed, or the one after that. It never sinks in that every nuclear technology looks cheap, clean, and reliable until it’s built.
There are good reasons why this should be so. At the heart of our energy conundrum is the neglected reality of net energy—that is to say, how much energy you get out after you subtract all the energy you have to put in. Nuclear fission looks great as long as you don’t think about net energy. True believers gaze on the fuel pellets that provide the energy behind nuclear power and say, “All that energy in so tiny a space!”
What they never seem to notice is that fuel pellets as such don’t occur in nature. They have to be manufactured from one of a small handful of fissionable metals, which can be found only in very, very diffuse form in mineral ores. Behind each of those fuel pellets, in other words, is a gigantic heap of mine tailings, which have to be dug from the ground and subjected to a whole series of processes to get the fissionable material out. All this takes energy—huge amounts of energy. Then, of course, you have to build, maintain, and decommission the nuclear power plant, which also takes a whale of a lot of energy, and the radioactive waste also has to be dealt with, taking more energy still. All this has to be subtracted from the output, for the same reason that a bookkeeper has to subtract expenses from income to determine the profit.
Net energy calculations are fiendishly difficult, since you have to factor in every energy input into every stage of the process, from the raw ore in the ground, raw materials not yet turned into a power plant, and so on. Fortunately there’s a convenient proxy measure, which is the price set by the market. It’s a source of wry amusement to me that so many of the cheerleaders for nuclear power these days think of themselves as conservatives, insist that they favor the free market and oppose government intervention, and then turn around and back a power source that has been weighed repeatedly by the market and found wanting, and only remains in existence today because of gigantic government subsidies.
Nuclear power never pays for itself. That’s the hard lesson of the last three quarters of a century. The writing was already on the wall back in the 1960s, when the NS Savannah, the first nuclear-powered commercial freighter, was still in service. It was a technological success but an economic flop, which is why it was mothballed as soon as the subsidies ran out. The handful of other nuclear freighters that were built all met the same fate. You can use nuclear power to run naval vessels because navies don’t have to pay for themselves. Commercial shipping does—and on a much broader scale, of course, so does an industrial economy.
The other supposed solution suffered from the same problem,. and added another problem on top of it. This pseudosolution was the green energy revolution—you know, the one that was still being touted just a few years ago as the solution to all the world’s problems, and is still being pushed in a few backward places such as California. Solar photovoltaic power and windpower, the mainstays of the German Energiewende and its equivalents elsewhere, got the same kind of starry-eyed enthusiasm from the left that nuclear power still gets from some corners of the right, and of course it also got gigantic government subsidies, like nuclear power.
It was pretty clear to anyone who was paying attention that all this would be a total flop, but we had to wait until the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war earlier this year before that became impossible to ignore. All those wind turbines and PV systems didn’t make Germany, for example, any less dependent on fossil fuels. Quite the contrary, they made Germany more dependent on cheap Russian natural gas. Part of the problem was net energy—wind turbines and solar PV also require huge energy inputs, which have to be extracted from the outputs before you can know how much net energy you’re getting—but there’s another problem.
Sun and wind are intermittent power sources. The sun doesn’t shine all the time and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. This isn’t a problem if your economy is set up to run on intermittent energy sources—plenty of windmills in premodern Europe, for example, contributed mightily to local prosperity by grinding grain, pumping water, sawing lumber, fulling cloth, and doing other heavy labor whenever the wind blew. If your economy is designed to run off a 24/7 electricity grid, by contrast, intermittent energy sources are a huge problem. Available means of energy storage are utterly inadequate for this purpose; you’ve got to have an energy source you can cycle up any time sun and wind aren’t available. That basically means fossil fuels.
All those wind turbines and solar panels, in other words, were Potemkin-village power systems, meant to allow the various green parties and environmental lobbies to pretend that they were solving the world’s problems, while natural gas actually provided the power that mattered. If you’ve been wondering, dear reader, why the Green Party in Germany stopped being a bunch of peaceniks and is currently breathing threats of all-out war at Russia, there’s a very simple reason for it. Vladimir Putin has proved to the world that the German Energiewende was nothing more than an empty façade. I don’t imagine German environmentalists will ever forgive him for that.
Now of course if you point out to most people that nuclear power isn’t a viable source of energy for our civilization, and that green energy sources such as solar PV and windpower are even less viable than nuclear power, the inevitable response is, “But there’s got to be something!” That’s where the jaws of the future close tight around the throat of modern industrial society, because no, there doesn’t have to be something. No law of God or nature requires there to be some new and even more abundant resource in waiting to replace the ones we’ve wasted so casually.
Before 1800 or so, when the large-scale systematic exploitation of fossil fuels took off for the first time, human societies had been in something very close to a steady state for more than five thousand years. Granted, there had been technological advances during that time. Advances in metallurgy had turned metal tools from expensive luxury items to everyday conveniences; advances in agronomy had worked out many of the bugs in agriculture; advances in shipbuilding and navigation had expanded the possibilities of international trade; the printing press, invented in China and perfected in Germany, brought literacy in reach of much larger fractions of the world population than ever before. It was nonetheless true that life in the England of George I was not noticeably different in most ways from life in the Egypt of Ramses I.
Fossil fuels changed that. Coal had two world-changing effects. The first, the one everyone thinks of, is that it could be used to power steam engines, replacing wind, water, and muscle power first in dozens, then in hundreds, and finally in thousands of uses. The second, less widely known but just as dramatic, is that it could be used via the Bessemer process to produce steel in previously unimaginable amounts. Steel plus steam power drove the industrial revolution, sent railroads scything across continents and steamships driving through oceans, and transformed human life in a galaxy of ways.
Then, about the time coal reserves started to run short, petroleum (and its gaseous form, natural gas) came into general use. More chemically complex than coal, petroleum had even more net energy, and shifted the industrial revolution into overdrive. Airplanes, automobiles, plastics, industrial lubricants, the entire modern chemical industry—the list just keeps on going. Lewis Mumford, one of the twentieth century’s most insightful students of energy and civilization, argued that the distinction between coal-fired technologies and petroleum-fueled technologies was significant enough to define a change of eras: he called the coal period the Paleotechnic Era, and the petroleum period the Neotechnic Era.
The assumption all along was that petroleum would eventually run short and have to be replaced by something else, leading to a third technic era. By 1950 nearly everyone assumed that what would replace it was nuclear power. You have to read books from that time to get a sense of just how inevitable the coming nuclear era was thought to be. Even avant-garde ecological thinkers treated nuclear power as the next inevitable thing. Pick up any of the works of Paolo Soleri, Frank Lloyd Wright’s most innovative student, who imagined humanity settling in gigantic city-sized buildings called arcologies so that the natural world could be allowed to thrive elsewhere. Each of his arcologies was supposed to be powered by its own nuclear power plant.
That, in turn, was where the dream ran off the rails, because it turned out that nuclear power doesn’t pay for itself. It’s not economically viable, because its net energy is so low. Thus it wasn’t Chernobyl or Fukushima Daiichi that brought the nuclear dream to a grinding halt, it was a long series of financial disasters suffered by utilities that got suckered into the nuclear hoopla, above all the bankruptcy of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS, unfondly remembered as “Whoops!” by the many thousands who lost money on it).
That caught nearly everybody by surprise, because net energy analysis wasn’t something you saw even in the energy industry—fossil fuels had so much net energy that nobody had to worry about it, and that led to the delusion that net energy didn’t matter more generally. Frantic attempts to evade the consequences followed. Those of my readers who’ve been following energy news long enough will remember any number of attempts to insist that this or that brand new nuclear technology would surely fulfill the fantasies heaped onto Our Friend The Atom. None of them worked, because the underlying problem of inadequate net energy is not being addressed. It can’t be addressed, because it’s hardwired into the laws of physics.
The various green energy gimmicks that have soaked up their share of government subsidies since the twilight of nuclear power can best be seen as desperation moves to try to fill the void left yawning by the failure of the nuclear dream. Here again, those of my readers who’ve been following energy news long enough can recite a whole litany of gimmicks that were supposed to do the trick. Corn ethanol, algal biodiesel, solar photovoltaic systems, windpower—the list goes on. Most of them got deployed to one degree or another, since there was plenty of money and plenty of fossil fuel energy available to make the attempt.
They didn’t work. That’s the lesson of the last two decades. You can’t run an industrial society on green energy technology, any more than you can run it on nuclear power; the net energy is too low. It’s like trying to maintain a six-figure income by vacuuming up spare change from under your friends’ sofas. Meanwhile the coal, oil, and natural gas that we use to run our industrial society are depleting steadily. They’re not going to run out overnight—that’s something those of us in the peak oil scene pointed out over and over back in the day, though nobody was listening. They’re going to become a little more expensive, a little less accessible, a little more loaded with political and economic burdens with every year that passes, and bit by bit, individuals, social classes, and entire nations will be priced out of the slowly shrinking market.
That’s what’s happening in Europe right now. For political reasons, Europe built a Potemkin-village energy system of wind turbines and solar panels, which they propped up by importing huge volumes of cheap natural gas from Russia. With the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war, European leaders convinced themselves that they could fling around sanctions and still force Russia to keep selling them gas, and discovered the hard way that there are plenty of buyers elsewhere in the world who are eager to buy the same gas and aren’t stupid enough to try bullying the producer. Europe’s increasingly frantic attempts to buy more gas elsewhere have run into the awkward reality that there isn’t much spare capacity anywhere in the world. So Europe’s heading into winter without enough natural gas to keep its economies running, and Russia shrugs and counts its earnings in rupees and yuan.
That’s the wave of the future. Despite all the rhetoric about climate change, and despite the hard (if considerably less apocalyptic) realities behind that rhetoric, those nations that have fossil fuels to sell will continue selling them, and plenty of nations will be lining up to buy them, since the alternative is a bitter economic slump of the kind that’s hitting Europe right now. Yes, this means that carbon dioxide is going to keep pouring into the atmosphere. That in turn very likely means that drought will continue to tighten its grip on the western half of the United States and the southern half of Europe; it also very likely means that low-lying coastal cities are going to have to be abandoned to rising seas over the course of the next century or two.
That can’t be helped. We’ve already seen that the people who yell the loudest about climate change aren’t willing to downshift their own lifestyles in the slightest to keep that future from happening. Those of us who are willing to live on a less extravagant energy budget—well, we exist, but there are frankly too few of us to make a difference now. (We might just make a big difference later on, because the lifestyles we’re exploring now will be what’s available as the supply of fossil fuels runs down further, but that’s still a good long ways in the future.)
Mind you, I know perfectly well that none of this is going to keep people from insisting that nuclear power can still bail us out of the mess we’re in, if only we flush more money down the latest collection of glow-in-the-dark ratholes. Nor is it going to keep other people from insisting that the only problem with windpower and solar PV is that we haven’t flushed enough money down those green-painted ratholes instead. The delusion that there’s got to be some way to keep wasting energy as extravagantly as we’ve done for the last two centuries runs very deep in contemporary culture. To give it up is to let go of a vast gallimaufry of emotionally appealing fantasies about the future, and even though most of those fantasies have already been disproven, hope springs infernal and all that.
The future we’re facing is not the one that gets shoved at us daily by the corporate mass media. All that pretentious drivel about humanity’s destiny in space passed its pull date a long time ago. Nor are we facing the flipside of those same fantasies, the overnight apocalypse that wipes us all out or plunges us all back to the stone age by next Thursday at the latest. What we’re facing instead might best be called history as usual: the long slow unraveling of a civilization that drew too heavily on its resource base. It’s an old story and, for the historically literate, a familiar one.
That doesn’t mean that the societies of the future will have to get by on the same technological basis as the societies of the past—again, the England of George I had technologies and options that the Egypt of Ramses I didn’t have. In the same way, the societies of the deindustrial age ahead of us will very likely have useful things invented in our age: shortwave radio, ultralight aircraft, and a good solid grasp of basic sanitation are among the candidates that come immediately to mind. Further out, as new civilizations rise on our ruins, technologies well suited to function within the long-term energy budget of our planet will doubtless blossom in turn.
Just as history didn’t begin with the steam engine, in other words, it won’t end with the last dying gurgle of oil coming from the last commercially viable well. Over the months ahead, I plan on taking a look ahead at some of the history waiting for us in the wake of the fossil fuel age.