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Synthesis/Regeneration 38   (Fall 2005)


Energy Economics vs. Energy Politics

by Patrick Eytchison

A society can be compared over time—or two or more societies can be compared—in terms of energy consumption: total and per capita. Thus, total world energy consumption in 1995 was 344.9 thousand Pj (petajoules). North American energy consumption in the same year was 101.68 thousand Pj, while total African consumption was 12.5 thousand Pj. World per capita energy consumption was 60.97 thousand Gj (gigajoules; 1 million Gj = 1 Pj) while North American per capita consumption was 342.91 Gj.[1] While total world energy use has increased over the past decade, differences between geographic areas have remained essentially the same. Such figures constitute a ground on which progressives generally find it easy to orient.

Traditionally, however, progressives have felt less comfortable with energy politics in a historical dimension, and yet today this may be exactly the direction in which progressive theory and strategy must be shifted if the struggle against corporate globalization is to be won.

While total world energy use has increased over the past decade, differences between geographic areas have remained essentially the same.

For nearly 200 years, progressive politics has been based on an assumption, not always explicitly acknowledged, of continually rising energy input for society as a whole, and more specifically of continually rising fossil fuel input—an assumption which thus far historical experience has confirmed. In fact, global hydrocarbon use by humans increased nearly 800-fold between 1750 and 2000 and about 12-fold during the twentieth century.[2] This increase in energy use has been primarily concentrated in the United States and Europe.

However, historical global per capita energy consumption tells another, slightly different story. From 1920 to 1945, world per capita energy consumption increased at an average rate of 0.69% per year. From 1945 to 1973, this rate of increase jumped to 3.45% per year, at which point it stalled. Between 1979 and 1999, world energy production increased by 1.34% per year, but world population grew faster. As a result, world per capita energy consumption declined at an average rate of 0.33% annually during these 20 years.[2] This decline reflects the fact that global oil production has been essentially level (when annual ups and downs are smoothed out) since 1979 and can be associated with the fact that world per capita grain production peaked in 1985 and has been slowly falling ever since.[3]

…human production can, and should, also be viewed as an external relationship between the world’s total industrial mass and the sun/biosphere.

For a century and a half, progressive theory has emphasized unequal distribution within world production. Human production can, and should, be viewed not only through intrasystem analysis, but also as an external relationship between the world’s total industrial mass and the sun/biosphere. From this perspective, internal distribution of production sites and wealth has less relevance because here what counts is the total mass of all industrial production taken as a single thermodynamic draw-down on the biosphere. Thus, the greater society’s total industrial mass—regardless of how allocated internally—the more rapid will be the movement of global society as a whole towards its ecological/thermodynamic edge. Progressives recognize this when confronted with separate aspects of ecological overshoot (global warming, soil depletion, etc.) but tend to have difficulty conceptualizing the movement as the inevitable outcome of modern industrial society. What is this total movement?

For the past 500 years, human society has been characterized by growing energy use. This has been in part due to growing global population, in part due to more energy-intensive cultivation (going back to the pre-modern “Industrious Era”), and during the past 200 years, due to the ever increasing exploitation of fossil fuels.[4] Modern society (since 1500 CE) and particularly industrial society can be characterized as an ever growing “dissipative energy system.”[5] Such systems draw energy from an external source—in the case of industrial society, fossil fuels—and return heat and waste to their environment. This is an inevitable thermodynamic reality which no amount of recycling or energy efficiency can overcome. It is also an inevitable fact that when the energy source of a dissipative system is finite and nonrenewable, as with fossil fuels, the life of the systems will also be finite—when the energy source is exhausted, the system must collapse. Global industrial society is now approaching this point.

An intense international discussion has been taking place concerning depletion of global oil and natural gas reserves, unfortunately mostly outside of conventional Green circles. This discussion was initiated in 1997, at the periphery of accepted discourse, by Colin J. Campbell, a respected petroleum geologist insider. Campbell proclaimed that although oil depletion scares had surfaced periodically in the past, always to be proved wrong by greater discoveries, this time the scare was real. His argument was that for the first time the globe has been thoroughly surveyed for oil deposits with modern scientific methods and that discoveries of significant new fields had peaked in the 1960s.[6]

This view, at first largely ignored, has since worked its way to respectability. Today, it is probably a minority of the informed who do not accept that world oil production will peak and begin an irreversible decline at some time between 2005 and 2015, to be followed by natural gas a decade later.[7] The social and political significance of this, of course, is that oil, natural gas and coal (in this order) constitute nearly 90% of the world’s energy base.

Petroleum will not suddenly vanish from the global energy mix at any time in the next 40 years; it will, however become more and more costly to recover from the earth as deep off-shore wells and unconventional sources such as tar sands are forced into production. Nor will alternative energy sources be lacking. The problem with alternatives, however, is that none (nor all together) will be able to provide the total energy now supplied by petroleum. Furthermore, most will be more expensive than petroleum and some more polluting, or will take decades of research to become operational. The problem faced by 21st century global society is thus not that energy for an industrial way of life will suddenly cease to exist; the global house of cards built by capitalism will not collapse that quickly. The more likely scenario is that energy will gradually become more and more expensive, more polluting (coal is actually the most logical replacement for oil and natural gas from a corporate point of view), and will follow a long-term down curve of diminishing total availability. The world as a whole, in other words, will be getting poorer and dirtier rather than richer and “greener.” The fundamental cause of this process will not be social but physical and thermodynamic.

Capitalism will not magically disappear with declining energy, but it will adapt in ugly ways.

It is important that the progressive community begin to see that the basic thermodynamic facts underlying its traditional political assumptions are presently undergoing a fundamental transformation. Given that a vision of social equality and fair income distribution will continue to guide the progressive movement, this new reality will have to be taken seriously if such goals are to have a chance of being achieved in the 21st century.

New questions and boundaries will have to be approached openly: How can a dialogue around the reality of decreasing per capita production be initiated with international labor? How can resource wars such as those prioritized by the neoconservative agenda be resisted in times of falling social wealth? And, strategically, how can movements adapt to, and take advantage of, the social decentralization which will inevitably take place as energy scarcity expands time and space (no more taken-for-granted jet hopping), just as cheap energy once shrank it?

Fundamentally, how can the modern hope for social equality be made real under conditions ecologically the opposite of those under which this hope originally came into being? Capitalism will not magically disappear with declining energy, but it will adapt in ugly ways. Progressive politics must adapt in ways that are creative and inspiring.


1. GEO–2000, http://www.grida.no/geo2000/english/i5a.htm (accessed 1/4/2005).

2. Richard Duncan, The Peak of World Oil Production and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge, http://www.oilcrisis.com/duncan/olduvai2000.htm. (accessed 1/4/2005).

3. Charles Hall, Tharakan, Hallock, Cleveland and Jefferson, Hydrocarbons and the evolution of human culture, Nature, v. 426, November 20, 2003, 318–322.

4. Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: 30 Years Update. White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2004, p. 57.

5. Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000.

6. Colin J. Campbell, The Coming Oil Crisis. Brentwood, England: Multi-Science Publishing and Petroconsultants, 1997.

7. Illya Prigogine and I. Stengers, Order Oout of Chaos. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

[28 nov 05]

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