The Energy of Society: What's at Stake this Election

November 1, 2012

CREDIT: © 2012 Jane Kratochvil Photography.

This is an absolutely crucial election. The fate of the country—and the planet—is at stake. I know that sounds portentous and dramatic. But I think the diagnosis is justified.

This election gives us a choice between two clearly different paths. Will we take the first halting baby steps toward developing a sustainable civilization, and elect someone who has supported the development of renewable energy? Or will we stay the course with infinite-planet economic thinking, the theories and practices that have destroyed the ecosystems that support us, given us a climate change crisis, and produced regular financial crises and recessions? Will we begin to reconstruct our economy on a sounder foundation, or will we continue to try to breathe life into an aging economic system that has run up against the planet's hard limits, becoming little more than a pump that siphons money from the bottom and hands it to those who already have more than enough?

A clear choice is emerging between Infinite Planet Politics and the politics of Sustainable Communities.

There’s an emergent division in American politics that doesn’t follow the old alignments. It isn’t about red state versus blue state, neoconservatism versus liberalism, capitalism versus socialism, Republicans versus Democrats, north versus south, or heartland America versus the coasts. What's emerging is a clear choice between Infinite Planet Politics and the politics of Sustainable Communities.

That cleavage isn't fully visible this election, but the outlines of that choice become clearer with every passing day, with every news item about glaciers shrinking, sea ice melting, and crop yields falling. We see it when financial systems fail to produce the economic growth that's needed to pay back the huge amounts of debt that have been gambled in the faith that we can increase our collective ecological footprint forever. It’s visible in arguments about what should or shouldn’t happen to Greece, to the Eurozone, to servicing the national debt.

If the economic theories that lie behind Mitt Romney's policy proposals sound increasingly like wishful thinking sold with smoke and mirrors, it's because they are. They’re rooted in the hopelessly deluded idea that we can have infinite economic growth on our finite planet. We can’t. Economic activity is irreducibly physical. It involves extraction of matter and energy from the planet and shaping it to suit our purposes, which means that most economic growth comes from growth in throughput—increasing the rate at which the economy sucks up matter and energy. And, because you can't make nothing from something, the rate at which the economy takes in matter and energy determines the rate at which it discards degraded matter and energy, like greenhouse gas emissions, back into the environment.

Back in the nineteenth century, when the basic outlines of most modern economic thinking were laid out, the world was a different place: It was large and expansive and seemed infinitely capable of absorbing our acts and works. There were fewer than a billion of us on the planet then, and our economic ambitions hadn't yet been amplified by exploitation of ancient solar energy in the form of petroleum.

Petroleum is pretty nifty stuff. Pound for pound it offers more energy than any other easily used energy medium. A single tablespoon of it contains roughly the energy equivalent of an hour of hard human labor. Every gallon of it gives you command of sixty slaves working a 40-hour week.

For most of the twentieth century, petroleum wasn't even particularly hard to get: At the dawn of the petroleum era it would squirt out of the ground with the simple drilling of a hole, propelled by the pressure of the gases dissolved in it. This meant that as energy sources go, oil was thermodynamically cheap—it didn't take much energy to get it out of the ground and into the economy. Thermodynamically cheap, easily portable, easily convertible into almost any kind of work, and not even particularly dangerous to have and hold: Oil was a boon.

Humans are learning (and more of us need to know) that the thermodynamic cost of energy—the Energy Return on Energy Invested—is a key figure for an economy. In the centuries before we discovered the trick of turning ancient solar energy into present-day wealth, humans had to rely on more recently available solar energy—much of it captured by green plants, which we exploited through agriculture, forestry, and animal power.

Civilizations stand or fall on their EROIs. In The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, Thomas Homer-Dixon performs an EROI analysis of the Roman Empire, finding that among the many plausible explanations for collapse is a thermodynamic one: As the empire expanded its agricultural reach into new territories, the net energy surplus it could reap from sunlight falling on plowed fields grew smaller and smaller. Even if productive lands were brought into the Empire, their distance from Rome meant more energy had to be invested in controlling the land and shipping its produce to points of use.

Civilizations stand or fall based on their EROI: Energy Return on Investment.

The logistics of the empire grew increasingly complex—scribes, messengers, centurions, and methods for organizing them were all necessary to maintain it—which meant that the system itself needed more and more energy to function. Demand for energy rising, EROI falling: Where those lines cross an energy system can no longer support a complex civilization, and it crashes.

In the 1920s, oil had an EROI of 100:1 or better. If the energy at the foundation of your economy is paying off at that rate, you can believe almost any economic theory you want and still see the economy create a lot of wealth. You can even see that wealth trickle down from the original appropriators of the energy—the Rockefellers and Gettys of the world—to others.

But today the EROI of oil has fallen to 20:1 on average, and for new sources of oil it can be even lower (for example, 5:1 for tar sands). In our era, an economy that functioned as a generator of middle-class wellbeing when oil paid 100:1 has become, instead, a system whose regular debt crises—made necessary by the optimistic assumption we can always create more wealth to pay back what we borrow—impose suffering and loss of economic security on more and more of us.

These are the ecological and economic truths on which a sustainable civilization will be built. Neither candidate is talking about them, but one candidate has consistently emphasized the importance of building the energy infrastructure we need to overcome our dependence on a source of energy that is finite and that is steadily degrading in its power to create wealth. The other candidate talks of solving the problem by more drilling and is enamored of restoring the kind of petroleum-based economy we had when oil was paying off at 40:1 or 50:1. That simply isn't going to happen, and the sooner we start admitting it the better off we'll be.

What we need is a sustainable economy that operates on current solar income rather than the diminishing returns we get from exploiting ancient sunlight.

What we need is a sustainable economy that operates on current solar income rather than the diminishing returns we get from exploiting ancient sunlight.

We'll have one, eventually, because the one thing that can be known for certain about an unsustainable system is that it cannot last. Between where we are now and where we need to be lie enormous changes, and at every step along the way we face a crucial choice: Will we make steady progress toward the goal, or will we turn aside by embracing the economic ideas and practices that seemed to work when there were just a billion people on the planet and oil was giving us a phenomenal rate of return? Will we work toward a sustainable future, or will we continue to thrash our infinite planet system harder and harder, staggering from one crisis to another?

This election presents us with the current version of a crossroads we will face in every election, every important public policy choice, until we reach that elusive goal: an economy and civilization built on a firm and sustainable energy foundation.

Eric Zencey is a fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and author of The Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy.