Energy and Civilization

An early experiment with solar energy by Southern California EdisonNow that it is generally accepted that global warming is happening and is at least in part the result of burning fossil fuels, the question is: what do we do about it? One answer is energy sacrifice — that we try to use as little energy as possible, each of us, everywhere, forever. In my view, that’s unrealistic — consider how unsuccessful we are at depriving ourselves, even for a little while, of anything we greatly want or need. But more important, it’s not a good idea for human societies, civilization, or humanity.

Why? The answer lies in a story about whales, whaling, and people, a long time ago. Put yourself back to about 500 A.D. or a few centuries later, and think of yourself as part of a small group of Eskimo struggling northeastward near the Bering Strait and crossing into what is now Alaska. Life for you and your ancestors has been a struggle — living at the margin, barely enough food, hard to keep warm, often without enough energy left over to do much more than think about the next meal. This was the life of most of the Canadian Eskimo at that time, a struggle for existence.

But this particular migrating Eskimo group coming across the Bering Strait recently learned how to catch whales, and developed a technology that made them very successful at it. They invented a clever device, a toggling harpoon made of bone and antlers combined with an inflatable seal skin drag float. The harpoon, like a modern whaling harpoon, slid closed into the flesh of the whale but locked in an open position when the whale tried to pull away from it.

Today, of course, we oppose the hunting of whales. But back then, successful whale hunting led to a fundamental change in the lives of hunters in the cold North. Whale meat gave these Eskimo so much more energy than their neighbors that they were able to do much more than simply hunt and think about their next meal. The successful Eskimo whale hunters used their excess energy supply to conquer other Eskimo — that is, to wage war.

Excess energy allows us to do all kinds of things. Over the centuries, people with an ample energy supply, not needing to use all their energy searching for their next meal and shelter, have, like the whale hunters, used it to conquer other peoples. But they have also used it to paint, to sing, to tell stories, to build monumental edifices.

Modern society has come to rely on easily available energy; we have taken it for granted as we used it all the time for all kinds of things. Today, however, with rising alarm about global warming and the burning of fossil fuels, along with the growing awareness that the supply of fossil fuels is running out, we are casting about for solutions. One widespread view is that we must all scale back our energy use and learn to use as little energy as possible — in effect, go on a long-term, even permanent, energy diet.

As we know all too well, people are not good about sticking to prolonged diets. And in any case, as an ecologist who has done research for years about how animals and plants and ecosystems garner energy, I see the problem differently. Life with a minimum amount of energy is a life on the margin. One of the ways that species have “won” in the struggle for existence — managing to persist while other species went extinct — was by gathering more energy than other species could and using it more efficiently.

In the midst of all the debate over fossil fuels, we seem to have forgotten this fundamental role of energy in life. We think that all we need energy for is to drive our cars, fly around the world, run our electrical gadgets. But more important is that abundant energy is necessary for our way of life, for our civilization. If that energy were to vanish, we would find ourselves once again living at the margin, and might well see the end of many things that we don't associate with an energy supply, including democracy and the freedom and creativity that leisure makes possible. Thus the search for alternative sources of energy is not simply an environmentalist's thing, not simply a pet goal of a narrow interest group in our society.

Democracy has existed rarely in the history of civilization — mainly in ancient Greece; then, later, in the Roman Republic; and in our own time, when democracy exists, such as it is, in some of the nations of the world. In each case, these have been periods of abundant energy — for the Greeks and Romans, in the form of slaves, servants, and beasts of burden who provided the energy for a small elite who shared democracy within their limited group.

My fear is that when energy becomes very limited, we will see an end to democracy and to many other aspects of life that we enjoy and take for granted. In short, while some fear that civilization will collapse because of global warming, I maintain that it will collapse if we don’t have abundant energy.

What’s the solution? The answer lies in a farm field in Bavaria, Germany. There, sheep graze beneath an unusual crop: an array of black rectangles mounted on long metal tubes that rotate slowly during the day, following the sun like mechanical sunflowers. This is the world’s largest solar-electric installation, generating 10 megawatts on 62 acres. Scaled up, just 3.5% of Germany’s land area could provide enough solar energy to supply all of Germany’s energy needs — for cars, trucks, trains, manufacturing, everything! And this would not have to be on otherwise empty land; it could be on rooftops, above parking lots, and integrated with certain kinds of pasture and cropland.

The sun may seem an undependable energy source in a climate like Germany’s, and especially in Bavaria, famous not for sunshine but for high mountains and winter sports. In Munich, Bavaria’s major city, about one-third of the days are rainy all year long, the average January daytime temperature is 34o F, and the average August daytime temperature a mild 73o. No matter — the fact is, it works, and it’s been working for several years.

So why aren’t nations rushing to install solar power facilities? Are costs prohibitive? In 2002 Con Edison built New York City’s largest commercial rooftop solar energy system for $900,000, providing energy for 100 houses. At an average of four people per home, the installed cost is $2,250 per person. For the 300 million United States residents, the installation cost would be $675 billion.

The U.S. balance of trade is in the red by about $60 billion a month, or $720 billion a year, and much of this trade imbalance is due to the cost of foreign oil. So, for the equivalent of one year’s trade imbalance, the United States could pay the cost of installing solar energy facilities for all domestic electrical consumption.

The war in Iraq — justified, many say, in part to protect our sources of oil — has cost, in addition to thousands of young lives, an official federal allocation of more than $506 billion. In January, a report by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the total true costs of the Iraq war could be between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. For the cost of the Iraq war, or perhaps just one-half or one-quarter of that amount, solar energy systems could have been installed to provide domestic electricity for all the people in the United States forever! The numbers become even more amazing for the dry, sunny climate of Arizona. Based on facilities already installed there, covering just 1% of Arizona’s land with solar collectors would produce electricity for 275 million houses — considerably more houses than exist in the United States.

Solar energy, of course, has many other benefits; primarily independence from foreign suppliers and greatly reduced air and water pollution, including less greenhouse gas. It also offers the option of decentralized energy production, which would reduce the risk to our energy supply from terrorist attacks.

There are those who favor nuclear energy over solar. I can only point out that with solar energy we do not need to worry about deadly “solar leaks” seeping into the ground and water, and we do not need to figure out how to protect the planet from “solar waste” that will remain lethal for thousands of years.

Time grows short. We must turn to new, plentiful, nonpolluting sources of energy, and we must do this quickly, while we still have enough fossil fuels to power the tools necessary to build solar and wind machines. By doing this, we are not just fulfilling some ideological goal of environmentalists, we are sustaining civilization and one of its finest products, democracy.

Copyright © 2007 Daniel B. Botkin

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  1. says

    Very nice recent additions to your website!

    You state the challenge perfectly when you say “we must do this quickly, while we still have enough fossil fuels to power the tools necessary to build solar and wind machines.” I would add “and before the warming we will not be able to stop grows to where it threatens the good life we want for our descendants.”

    Hopefully the day will come when clean energy abounds, but until it does, energy efficiency and energy reductions through reduced consumption are going to matter, to buy time for the transition to wind/solar. We can redirect the money saved by buying less gasoline and less “stuff” towards buying green energy, expanding energy research, creating green buildings, rain gardens, charitable giving, and for a host of new investment opportunities. The more hedonistic can spend the saved money on better bicycles, more time off work, longer summer camp for the kids, more theater and arts (just don’t jet to distance places to do it) and hired help for the tasks they don’t like to do. It’s unbelievable what we can do when we start thinking about the possibilities.

    • says

      Thanks for asking. The information about Eskimos is from Historian/ethnologist John Bockstoce, a long term colleague. We have published a number of scientific papers together about the history of bowhead whaling and bowhead whales, and about 19th century changes in Arctic Sea Ice. Among John’s books that you might find interesting are: Bockstoce, J. High Latitude, North Atlantic. 30,000 Miles Through Cold Seas and History; and Bockstoce, J. (2010). Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade (The Lamar Series in Western History) New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.

      The information about modern energy sources is from my book, Powering the Future: A Scientist’s Guide to Energy Independence.


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