October 22, 2021

Peak Everything #1: Why 'Peak Everything'?

What will being past Peak Easy Energy, having consumed all the easy and cheap-to-extract fossil fuels available on Earth, means for our transition to a carbon absorbing economy within the next couple of decades?

I mentioned the climate in my first post because I have to think about it as a genuine seasonal risk here. However I have what I think are reasonable plans to manage the near-term climate related risks to my Nannup life. The problem is however, the other issues currently knocking on all our doors, no matter where we live.

In simple terms, the problem is us. We have come in and cleaned the 'the place' out of the best and easiest resources just like every earlier civilisation on earth has done previously and in doing so, overshot the sustainable level of use of those resources by at least a factor of 10 and are now staring at some fairly serious consequences - just like all the civilisational 'us'es before us. Unfortunately, 'the place' we have used for our crack at civilisation is the entire planet. Not enough for us to denude a single island of all trees or render some of the most fertile flood plains of Mesopotamia salt affected through suboptimal irrigation, we have scoped out and over-consumed every useful and easy to access resource on Earth. And we are starting to run out of them.

The cheap and hardworking servant of the 20th century - high quality, easy to extract crude oil - has been used up. Unconventional oil is expensive and does less work for us (source)

This is what I mean by Peak Everything. I'm not the first to use this term but it came to me anyway from reading a diverse range of information about fossil fuel and hard mineral extraction, environmental and agricultural land degradation, the depletion of fishing stocks and any number of other ecologically vital resources we have overused or wasted with no thought of replenishment or sustainability.

Perhaps the most fundamentally important peak we have to come to terms with is Peak Easy Energy. By this, I don't mean we are hitting a peak in the total amount of energy we can obtain from all the sources of energy available to us; be they fossil fuel, renewable, nuclear or yet to be discovered/invented alternatives. But we are already past the peak of production or availability of the cheap and easy to extract, light, portable, concentrated energy that has powered our lives over the last century - of which just one barrel substitutes 10 years of human labour.

I am of course talking about oil and particularly the kind of oil that is obtained simply by drilling a shallow hole in Texas or the deserts of the Middle East which, in the early days, for every unit of energy employed to extract it, returned a bounty of about hundred units of light, transportable, concentrated energy.

The best guess now (2021) is that on average it takes about 15 units of energy to extract 100 units from the range of energy sources used today. Although there is quite a bit of debate, a typical number quoted for renewable energy is around 20 units are required to deliver 100 units of useful energy.

And as much as we wish to transition to renewables to tackle the climate crisis, with every passing day, the amount of energy it takes to extract spare energy to assist the transition is relentlessly increasing. The chart below illustrates this point with disappointing clarity. By 2030, 20 units are needed and by 2040 over 30 units of energy are needed to deliver 100 units of useful energy. By 2050 only half the energy created is left over to use for things other than extracting more energy.

More and more energy is needed each year just to extract energy to live (sources 1 , 2)

BUT.... if we going to have a world that sustainable and reasonable to live in by 2030 or 2040 or 2050, there are three things we need to do at the same time. Firstly, we need to extract the energy we need to extract the energy to do the other two things on an ongoing basis (you may want to read that again). Secondly, we need to supply our lifestyle needs (clean water, adequate food and shelter for everyone would be a start). Thirdly, we need to have some energy left over to dig up the materials, manufacture the renewal energy machines / batteries / whatever and provide the "labour" needed to transition our entire energy infrastructure from fossil fuel distribution and consumption, that powers our current carbon emitting economy, to an entirely different energy distribution and consumption model powering a net carbon absorbing economy in no more than a couple of decades.

The slight problem we have however is that the universe is governed by several immutable physical laws, one of which is the laws of thermodynamics. As the entire northern hemisphere is discovering entering winter 2021/2022, you can't just print energy sources (natural gas is front and centre at present) like you can print money.

Now we are past Peak Easy Energy, there simply isn't enough cheap and easy energy available anymore to do all three things at the same time. That is, extract more energy, maintain our living standards and build out the infrastructure needed to transition to a carbon absorbing economy at anything like the pace we need to mitigate global heating. That is, we are in an 'Energy Trap' to borrow the term from Tom Murphy (see below).

As I hinted in my Greetings post to this blog, there is a lot to unpack here. The impact of Peak Easy Energy upon our apparent 'prosperity' and so-called 'economic growth' are just two lines of enquiry I will be exploring. In the meantime, perhaps it is time to think seriously about which options will assist us conserve rather than accelerate finite resource depletion...

Suggested reading

Tim Morgan's Surplus Energy Economics absolutely nails the consequences of Peak Easy Energy. Excellent analysis. It would be great if mainstream economists read and understood Tim's work.

Tom Murphy's Energy Trap. Some decent maths understanding needed.

Phosphate is non-substitutable and an essential for life and growing food. As good an illustration of what 'us' has been doing to clean out the place of this irreplaceable resource is highlighted here. You might never feel the same way again about what happens to your number 1s or 2s upon pressing the flush button after reading this.


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