Sunday, January 27, 2013

Energy Disorder

Source:, Intelligent Energy Blog
George W. Bush was not exactly right when he claimed that America was addicted to oil. America (and most of the industrial and industrializing world, for that matter) is addicted to consuming energy. Oil just happens to be a particularly powerful type of energy, readily available, and relatively cheap (at least for now); and thus it is the primary vessel through which this addiction is satiated. But theoretically, there is no reason why this addiction couldn’t be satiated by other forms of energy. And in fact a transition of this sort seems to be currently underway as the world undergoes an energy revolution in which oil is slowly being replaced by natural gas as the primary fuel. Unfortunately, natural gas, while slightly better than oil in terms of carbon footprint, presents other socio-ecological problems (most notably through its unconventional production in the form of fracking, which is becoming more common).

But it is a fallacy to claim that once we get off oil or even natural gas our socio-ecological woes will disappear. And that’s the problem with the oil addiction analogy. By claiming that industrial civilization is addicted to oil, we miss out on the root of the problem, the real addiction – energy consumption. Like any addiction, the overconsumption of energy is unsustainable. The particular class of energy which civilization uses most often today (fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, coal) makes this particularly evident, thanks to its dramatic impact on the environment (both in its production and its use).

Yet the overconsumption of an entirely different class of fuels (say, renewable energies – wind, solar, hydro) would also be unsustainable if used in the same quantities as presently experienced with fossil fuels. This may be less evident because this class of fuels has a far less potent and visible impact, but imagine all the damage that would accrue from exponential growth in hydroelectric dams, and mining (for the materials required in photovoltaics), and wind farms (these are completely manufactured landscapes). An addiction is an addiction. By nature it is unsustainable. Let a metaphor prove the point: Being addicted to health food, for example, is unhealthy – despite its obvious initial benefits.

When most people hear the ‘addiction’ analogy in reference to oil, they metaphorically think of an addiction to drugs. Really though, the drug analogy is not quite right, because energy is something we actually need to survive and thrive. A more appropriate analogy for addiction is food – which we also need to survive and thrive. People can be addicted to food, just as they can be addicted to energy. Some amount of food consumption is required (as with energy – heck, food is human energy), but the overconsumption of food is a serious problem. While fossil fuels are like junk food – clearly unsustainable when over-consumed; most classes of food are also unsustainable in the long run if over-consumed as well.

So just as an individual with an eating disorder must at some point face the difficult choice between drastic behavioural reform or a downward fatal spiral – so must our modern civilization. This does not mean going ‘cold turkey’, because, as the analogy reminds us, doing so simply is not possible, since we need energy to survive. What it does mean is taking a step in the right direction. When a food addict switches from a unhealthy foods to healthier foods – this is a step in the right direction, though ultimately more further action will be required. The line between ‘overconsumption’ and ‘consumption’ certainly is a blurry one. The danger in thinking about our use of oil as an ‘addiction’ is that it hides the real requirement we need as a species to use energy. It’s just unhealthy that we overuse energy, and especially because of the type of energy we tend to consume most often.

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