… is the emergent result of humans burning fossil carbon.
This one-time burst of energy will soon be gone.
The open question is what will also be gone.
We have used this energy with little thought, in ways that “feel good” to our brains in the short term. It has made possible the “green revolution” which spiked the human population to 7 billion on its way to 10+ billion. Most of humanity is living a more lavish life than the kings of old. And we have naively concluded that the real resource is our own cleverness.
But perhaps we have not been wise. The net energy available to do work has been increasing for two hundred years, yet now it has leveled off and will soon start a permanent decline. Future humans will have to work with natural steady-state flows of energy. But they’ll have to do it without the intact ecosystems, good soils, reliable rains, and resources of wild nature which were formerly available. The earth’s carrying capacity has been degraded.
At the same time, we are turning the oceans into an acidic home for bacterial slime, increasingly becoming devoid of high-energy food resources like pelagic fish. We are cutting down and drying up the rainforests. We are enthusiastically pursuing the earth’s sixth major planetary extinction event, with species being erased daily.
We have used up the easy-to-get energy resources and metal ores while filling landfills. Those natural endowments won’t come back. Elements like phosphorus we use to grow our food are likewise getting scarce. In order to keep humanity from crashing into dieoff, we need to expend more energy each year chasing more expensive raw materials. Yet each year there will be less net energy available, at increasingly higher cost.
This, then, is the bottleneck. A converging set of dire circumstances through which humanity, and any surviving species, must pass to reach a stable future.
What that future looks like – what knowledge, what ethic, what infrastructure, what goals and aspirations we will need to arrive there – are very important questions, not ones usually considered when responding to the needs of the day.
It’s a very different way of looking at the world. A more realistic way. And it frames the issues of planetary survival and the future in an important new way.