The bad I will keep short as 6. The Ugly is plenty bad all on its own. But don’t get me wrong, the bad is bad. Like I said earlier, if we do not change our ways, we will run into some serious problems. Not “$10 per gallon of gas” problems, but like the end of civilized life as we know it problems. We have experienced financial addictions before, and most of them have not ended well. Actually, anytime there seems to be free money to be made, things tend to end badly. Money is nothing. Ask an economist. Ok, maybe not nothing, but it is just a piece of paper or metal. It is the idea of what it represents that is something. Money is supposed to be a simple and more easily exchangeable representation of goods. Today, most money isn’t that. It is just numbers in computers. People make silly amounts of money just be rearranging where their money is in the cyber world. How the heck can that be? How can money, which should be a way to more easily represent the worth of actual goods, be simply created without creating the goods it should represent? What then does that new money mean? Well it means nothing. It means, at least if you try to make sense of it, that all the old money, plus the new money that was just made up, is now representative of the goods available. This is inflation. More money is worth less. If there are $100 dollars in our economy and the only goods we have that that money represents are 100 apples, each apple is worth a dollar (assuming all properties of the apples are equal). If we decide to make up another $100 dollars, the $200 dollars has not magically made 100 more apples appear; we are just representing the worth of the 100 apples with $200, consequently making each apple $2. It is a relatively simple idea, but it becomes much more complicated when there are trillions of dollars and millions of things which those dollars represent. And, to complicate things further, there are many forms of dollars which have the ability to be inflated and deflated independently of each other. As is often the case though, we don’t have to think about the massively complicated scenario to understand the problem here. The basic principle holds true no matter what, simply creating more money does not create more goods.
Energy is a good and like other good, it can only be collected so quickly. More money can not make more energy appear out of thin air. We have built a massive global economic system based on the idea that the limiting factor in our growth is anything besides energy. Sometimes it is time, usually it is money, but never energy. This is a fundamental and devastating mistake. Energy enters our small world and leaves our small world through short and long wave radiation at relatively fixed rates. Once it leaves our system and enters the abyss of space, there is little chance that energy will ever come back into our neck of the woods. An example: if we receive 10 “energies” per day, we may be able to harvest 2 of them for use. Whatever we use those energies for are then generally converted in some way to another energy form which is more disperse and less useful. This is the second law of thermodynamics, the concept of entropy. Disorder increases. Of the 8 other energies that entered our atmosphere, 3 may be reflected, and 5 may his the surface and be changed into heat energy. Over time, this heat energy is remitted back into space in the form of long wave radiation. Anything that holds heat energy emits radiation. What we receive from the sun is short wave radiation, what we emit is long wave radiation. Here are two different ways of showing our energy budget. By latitude, we can see that there is actually a deficit near the poles and a surplus near the equator. As you would expect though, the net radiation over time is about 0, otherwise our planet would rapidly heat up or rapidly cool. A breakdown of how the energy from the sun interacts with our planet and then leaves (note: 100% in, 100% out) is shown in the next figure, “Earth’s Energy Budget.”
Hopefully this help to drive home my point – we are spending our energy foolishly. Energy is a limiting factor. To be more thorough, I want to at least mention 2 other energy sources that I have skipped or glazed over. 1) geothermal heat. Earth to has nuclear reactions occurring in its core which produce heat. Unfortunately, this energy is deep below our feet and we have been not been able to access anything more than a quite diffuse level of heat that reaches near the crust on which we dwell. 2) Nuclear reactors. We have found a way to drive our very own nuclear reactions on the surface. The energy stored in just a few molecules is astonishing. The major problems with nuclear energy on the surface are that it can be extremely dangerous and we have no idea what to do with the lethal nuclear waste it produces. We have yet to find a safe permanent storage place for the nuclear waste we have already created. Dangerous amount of the waste are already piling up at some nuclear reactors. Until this problem is solved, nuclear power stands very little chance of powering our world as it is. So, getting back on track, once we finish burning through the bits of stored energy from the last couple millions of years, we will again be confined to the energy that comes into our planet on a daily basis which drives all energetic processes on our planet. Do not get me wrong, this is quite a bit. More than enough to power all of our modern technology if we could harness it all. Unfortunately, we can not do such a thing. Currently, the most efficient solar panels take in about 50% of sunlight’s energy. This is amazing. Absolutely awesome. Unfortunately, they are anything but cheap to produce and cost quite a bit of energy themselves to make, not to mention their holding structures, wires that move the electricity they generate, and the battery that is needed to hold the energy. Imagine powering the machines that create the metal scaffolding that hold the panel, the wires, and the battery with the power from a solar panel. It would take a whole lot of solar panels to do this. So put these factors into the overall energy budget and the efficiency drops dramatically. We need to face it, we have been living a more extravagant life than we can afford and as far as energy goes, we are far in the red. We may have got some pretty generous energy inheritance from the plants of the past, but it has been burning a hole in our pocket and we have found millions of ways to use it up as quick as possible. We are in over our heads. It is bad indeed. And possibly the worst part is, we have become so reliant on this energy that we have stumbled upon that we don’t even know how to do without it anymore. We can not even imagine a life without concentrated energy. We would call it barbaric and third world and we superior humans will not lower ourselves to that standard.
Well, I for one, having recognized that our easy lives are not just the result of our own hard work, but the result of consuming energy we didn’t collect, have refused to share fairly, and which will ultimately push life as we know it to the very edge (if not over), am ready to admit we have been greedy, and simply put, barbaric. We, now meaning the USA and other industrial nations, have sucked up (and continue to suck up) something we had no specific claim to, used it all up ourselves without sharing it with the rest of the world, and forced them (and ourselves) to face the future challenges our spending spree has caused. The only consolation I see is that for most of the time we have been spoiling ourselves rotton, we had no idea about the true consequences what we were doing. Most of us still have no idea what exactly we are doing. The illusion of progress that generations of humans have created has become so ingrained in our minds that we can just not see past it. Even when we are handed the facts of what we are doing, we brush them off and head back to work on “progress” so we can consume more. I am certainly guilty of this. I work in the field of Earth Sciences and it has taken me 7 years to put the puzzle pieces together, to see pass the societal illusion, to see us as we really are. We all need something to do with our lives to make them fulfilling, so we have assigned an arbitrary destination and headed full speed in that direction, never stopping to ask why we are headed there. I now see a better way. A path towards sustainability and a better life. A life where we can find true meaning in our work, escape the unstable structure of society as we know it, and begin to enjoy work, each other, and our planet in a healthy and sustainable way. But, if nothing yet has had any effect on you, I will make my last attempt to scare you straight in 6. The Ugly. I will then make a final short point about what type of life may be possible in a future without concentrated energy and why I do not think it has to be as bad as we may think in the final section, 7. Slowly but surely.