Energy: recognizing how much isn’t there

by Robert Jensen

This article is Part 3 of a 3 part collection of essays by University of Texas at Austin Professor Robert Jensen on important issues that should be highlighted during this year’s US mid-term election campaigns.

Robert Jensen

Will America’s energy crisis be solved by more aggressive pursuit of fossil fuels or by more vigorous development of renewables?

In this campaign season, there are politicians on all sides. Chants of “drill, baby, drill” ring out, while others sing the praises of wind and solar, and some argue we must try everything.

Unfortunately, politicians don’t seem willing to face a more difficult reality: There is no solution, if by “solution” we mean producing enough energy to maintain our current levels of consumption indefinitely.

To deal with the energy crisis we must deal with a consumption crisis, but politicians are reluctant to run a campaign based on a call for “less” — the American Dream, after all, is always “more.” But, whether the public and politicians like it or not, our future is about learning to live with less, starting with a lot less energy.

In the United States, we have been living with the abundance produced by an industrial economy, all made possible by the concentrated energy of fossil fuels. We tell ourselves this is the product of our hard work, but our life of plenty was made possible by the incredible energy stored in coal, oil, and natural gas. How long can that continue?

It’s true that there’s a lot of coal in the ground, but burning all that coal means an acceleration of global warming and climate disruption. Easily accessible reserves of oil and gas are quickly being exhausted, and while geologists can’t tell us for sure when the wells will run dry, we should be thinking in decades, not centuries.

High-tech schemes for extracting oil from tar sands or “fracking” — hydraulic fracturing, a process of injecting water and chemicals deep underground to force out pockets of gas — are so ecologically destructive that they should be abandoned immediately. The same for most deep-water drilling; the Gulf disaster of the past year is a reminder that no matter how sophisticated the technology, we cannot control these processes. Nuclear energy presents the same trade-offs, magnified by our inability to dispose of the deadly waste safely.

There are more reasons to be positive about renewable energy sources, and intensifying research funding for wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy is the sensible move. But the reality to face there also is one of limits: None of those technologies, alone or in combination, will ever replace the energy stored in fossil fuels. The belief that because we want that energy we will create ways to produce it is the most naïve technological fundamentalism.

The most important step in dealing with our energy crisis is to realize just how much isn’t there. Either approach — believing that we can drill our way or invent our way out of the predicament — is magical thinking. Instead of fantasies of endless abundance, we have to recognize that a radical shift in the way our lives are arranged is necessary for survival. The most obvious of these arrangements we need to change is our car-based culture, but it doesn’t stop there. If there is to be a livable future, we need to commit in the present to major changes in our entire infrastructure.

The solution to the energy crisis can be stated simply: We must move around less and consume less. That means the solution is not only about where we get our energy, but how we define ourselves.

– Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity(South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005);Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen can be reached here:rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, click here.

3 thoughts on “Energy: recognizing how much isn’t there”

  1. This mantra of ‘energy scarcity’ is a recurring meme. Every 25 – 30 years since the wide spread use of oil began this fear mongering nonsense is trotted out. Each time the fears prove to be baseless as the public becomes aware that oil and gas are actually far more abundant than previously proven.

    The fact is that proven oil reserves have increased by over 30% over the past decade alone. The scarcity alarmists are basing their fear mongering on ??? NOTHING AT ALL.

    By presenting this phony “crisis” as threat to our “survival” the think tanks that push this deception are actually creating a paradigm in which the public will acquiesce to wars of aggression regardless of how they may couch their “solution” as asking us to “consume less”.

    I recommend reading the analysis of an actual economist on the topic:

    The Recurring Myth of Peak Oil

    By ISMAEL HOSSEIN-ZADEH | October 1, 2008

    http://alethonews.wordpress.com/2009/12/03/the-recurring-myth-of-peak-oil/

    Since Ismael wrote the piece above scientists at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweeden have proven that the ‘fossil fuel’ theory is unfounded:

    Researchers at KTH have been able to prove that the fossils of animals and plants are not necessary to generate raw oil and natural gas. This result is extremely radical as it means that it will be much easier to find these energy sources and that they may be located all over the world.

    “With the help of our research we even know where oil could be found in Sweden!” says Vladimir Kutcherov, Professor at the KTH Department of Energy Technology in Stockholm.

    Together with two research colleagues, Professor Kutcherov has simulated the process of pressure and heat that occurs naturally in the inner strata of the earth’s crust. This process generates hydrocarbons, the primary elements of oil and natural gas.

    According to Vladimir Kutcherov, these results are a clear indication that oil supplies are not drying up, which has long been feared by researchers and experts in the field.

    He adds that there is no chance that fossil oils, with the help of gravity or other forces, would have been able to seep down to a depth of 10.5 kilometres in, for example the US state of Texas, which is rich in oil deposits. This is, according to Vladimir Kutcherov, in addition to his own research results, further evidence that this energy sources can occur other than via fossils – something which will cause a lively discussion among researchers for a considerable period of time.

    “There is no doubt that our research has shown that raw oil and natural gas occur without the inclusion of fossils. All types of rock formations can act as hosts for oil deposits,” asserts Vladimir and adds that this applies to areas of land that have previously remained unexplored as possible sources of this type of energy.

    http://alethonewsa.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/easier-to-find-oil-2/

    The scarcity myth that Robert is disseminating here can only serve the interests of those who profit from high oil prices or those who wish to fool us into supporting their wars for territorial conquest for Eretz Ysrael. Shame on him. If he wishes to consume less he can easily start by doing so himself, preaching such tripe has no possible positive outcome.

  2. Several problems about this article. Like most platitudes instructing us to “behave better”, it provides little advice on how to better behave. The author appears to be lessening the impact renewables could have, right now. It’s really not practical for many americans to “move around less”, as the author demands, due to the way the usa is now set up. I also disagree with his somewhat “peak oil” views, that we are running out of these fuels. But that disagreement is rather irrelevant because whether the carbon fuels will run out or not, we need to reduce our use of them for environmental reasons. As used now, they are too destructive.

    Note, I agree with his appraisal of the damage caused by extracting these carbon fuels and the use of nuclear energy. I also agree that many americans need to change their attitudes about energy use, but putting the onus to change on a people dominated by corporate ziofascism/fascism rather than the oligarchs dominating them is misplaced and rather useless. The people don’t have the power or the wherewithall as organised now.

    Rather than restrict movement, it would be better to reduce the energy cost of such movement and the impact on the environment. Probably half of americans use massive gas guzzling vehicles for prestige or are stuck with rotting old clunkers because they are too poor to buy a newer, more ecologically friendly auto. We also need to build/rebuild the mass transit systems in the country. A lot of vehicle use is due to a lack of a reasonable alternative in most of the usa. Half of the petrol americans use is right there.

    Another energy drain is the massive trucking industry. Much of what trucks carry used to be carried by rail. Going back to rail and getting rid of this bloated trucking is another way to help the environment, reduce energy usage and make the roads a lot safer.

    Most american homes (and buildings in general) are extremely energy inefficient. Making them efficient would save an enormous amount of energy. And while we are at it, we can stop suburban sprawl and rebuild the dilapidated cities instead. Suburban sprawl probably causes more destruction to the natural environment than most industrial pollution does. It also greatly increases energy use as people have to travel further than they should have to for basic needs.

    We can do all those things, and much more now, though it will require a revolution in how politics work in the usa and how the guv operates. Renewables are getting better and with increased R&D, they will eventually, or other ideas not yet practical, will replace most or maybe all the carbon fuel uses. It’s also possible better processing of these fuels may improve their environmental impact for the amount we still need to use in the near to middle future.

    For these things to happen, though, the guv will have to stop being a gofer of the ziofascist/fascist oligarchy and become a tool and servant of the people, instead. Unfortunately, the author also ignored this aspect of the problem in his piece, as well, and this is the worst of the problems facing us, and by far, the most difficult to correct.

  3. Hayate,

    Your point that the problems we face are primarily political are well placed.

    Given market economics, any regime which restricts access to energy by taxation , cap and trade or other mechanisms will simply be furthering the supremacist agenda of genocide on the world’s least advantaged.

    That Robert and his ilk choose to ignore this fundamental reality exposes them for the elitists that they are.

    This position that he puts forth here at Pulse is morally reprehensible. We have already seen tens of millions starve in recent years due to the criminal ethanol mandates in the US and EU which, when coupled with the effect of speculation, caused the prices of basic foods to more than double. Eugenics has reared its ugly head again. Pure evil.

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