The End of Fossil Fuel: Crisis and Opportunity

The End of Fossil Fuel: Crisis and Opportunity

This article, The End of Fossil Fuel: Crisis and Opportunity, takes the position that our current energy crisis offers an opportunity for a shift in consciousness which goes beyond changes in energy policies to a solution that is grounded in Neohumanism- a global spirit that maintains the balance of all beings in nature. This article speaks to a palpable problem everyone is feeling at the gas tank today and encourages us to think beyond the tank.

Next issue we will explore how today’s problems of social justice, climate change, food shortages and energy utilization might be approached as we apply the integrative model of Prout (Progressive Utilization Theory) to the development of the service communities in Ananda Marga called Master Units (MU). These MUs serve the surrounding community by offering a model that is based on a four part bottom line – economic, environmental, social, and spiritual.

By Roar Ramesh Bjonnes

According to PROUT, an alternative energy society will thus consist of both high and low technology, both personal lifestyle/worldview changes as well as radical structural changes to the economy: non-polluting hydrogen cars and public transportation, walking and bicycling to work and for shopping, computer and machine parts that are 100 percent recyclable, locally produced food (even in urban areas), energy efficient houses made of local raw materials (wood, straw, sand, clay, glass) that produce more renewable energy than they use, a cooperative economy with less working hours, a dramatic reduction in consumerism, frugality and self-sufficiency, and more time for recreation, family, friends, spirituality, and fun.
Remember the old gasoline commercial, “I’ve got a tiger in my tank?” Remember the old novelty tiger tails that were available from Esso stations during that commercial’s heydays in the 1960s? If some of the world’s geological experts are right, the fuel tigers in our tanks of the future will soon be completely extinct. Just as extinct as dinosaurs. Just as extinct as that old gasoline commercial. 

Deep down, we all know that. Even those driving expensive, gas guzzling SUVs know that fossil fuels are a limited commodity. Nevertheless, most of us behave as if this nonrenewable resource will always be with us. No further away than the next Shell or Arco station. But, according to some experts, it’s time to reconsider. There’s a fuel crisis looming on the earth’s smoggy horizon. The most pessimistic of them, such as geologist Colin Campbell, estimate that soon there will be no more oil. The experts do agree on one thing. The grand peak of oil production is going to occur when about half of the estimated ultimately recoverable reserves (EUR) of oil in the world have been produced. According to the World Resources Institute’s Program on Climate, Energy and Pollution the “great majority of these studies reflect a consensus among oil experts that the EUR for oil lie within the range of 1800 to 2,200 billion barrels.” And, writes, Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Hydrogen Economy, “the world has already consumed more than 875 billion barrels of the total.” So, put on your seatbelts. The Battle for Oil’s Armageddon may soon be upon us. 

Oil and Corporate Capitalism
The oil industry, like any other corporate enterprise, is made up of special interest groups whose main goal is to maximize profit, often at the expense of long term planning and of the environment. Therefore, we cannot plan for an alternative energy future unless we understand the political manipulation of the present. 

The maximization of short term profit at the expense of long term planning is a fundamental aspect of capitalist society. Sure, some long term planning takes place, but this mainly occurs when it is perceived that the future may affect market share today. Thus the market may soon favor those corporations that are beginning to acknowledge the problem of an upcoming oil crisis. But because it is thus far less profitable to utilize alternative energy than fossil fuels, the corporations continue to favor the use of oil and coal. 

Business, like government, is a servant of the citizen, of the polity – it is not a citizen in its own right. Citizens must therefore create mechanisms to ensure that the business community act for the common good– including the adoption of green technology. In the words of Australian Green Party activist Ray Harris: “Self-regulation is a bogus concept. Recent revelations of the self-regulation of Tasmanian forests have shown that it is, in practice, no regulation. There has been rampant abuse. Tasmania’s largest tree, which was supposed to be protected, has died at the hands of the self-regulated forestry industry. The essential problem is that unenforced regulations are ignored because of the cost and effort of compliance. Doing nothing costs nothing and must therefore minimize cost and increase profit.” 

Harris also contends that unchecked capital is not only rapacious in regard to natural resources — it is also rapacious in regard to social resources. Capitalism treats everything as a resource to be converted into capital, he claims. Harris, writes: “The checks and balances that exist in other systems as a counterbalance, such as human derived values–are themselves ‘things’ to be converted into useable resources. Capitalism is actually now in the process of converting and commodifying all human values. It will marginalize any value that cannot be harvested for profit.” Hence, the very political and economic system that is now so dependent on greasing its wheels with crude oil must radically change before a large scale, sustainable energy grid can be constructed. 

The Ethics of Energy
Even though it is late, and the stakes are higher than ever before in human history, we have, perhaps, because of these insights, some advantages that people before us did not have. For the ancient Romans, the end-time came at around 500 AD. The slow but brutal force of entropy, in the form of deforested land, eroded soil, and impoverished urban and rural areas played a large role in crushing this mighty empire into environmental, economic, and political defeat. Many experts believe that the Mayans experienced severe environmental limitations when their empire fell as well. And, during the Middle Ages, Europe suffered greatly due to lack of timber for fuel and for construction. However, our forefathers did not know what we know today—that the earth, our precious Gaia, is a small green island with limited physical resources. Neither did they have the eco-scientific insights and the eco-ethical values that, as Hazel Henderson predicted more than 30 years ago, are becoming more and more global in scope today. Thus, as the Chinese would say, this crisis is also an opportunity. A great opportunity for change. 

A New Energy Economy
In designing a new energy economy, we must first look at what went wrong. A) The most common criticism against classical capitalist economics is that natural resources are looked upon as a free lunch. B) The air and much of the commons are looked upon as a place to dump or release toxic waste, also largely for free. C) The law of entropy is not properly accounted for in economics or political planning. D) Progress has been measured in an increase in material welfare and profit, while the side-effects of such “progress” are often ignored. 

A) If we look at the fossil fuel economy, the oil (natural resources) has been virtually free for the taking by those who could profit from its exploitation. In some instances, such as in Venezuela, Norway and Mexico, oil production is mostly owned and operated by the government, however much of the oil production in the world is run by wealthy corporations with GNPs larger than many countries. The profit made by the sale of oil by corporations or states often do not reflect the social and environmental costs offset by pollution. So, in the new energy economy, polluters must pay for the cost of pollution by cleaning up after themselves. 

B) Fossil fuels are released into the air every time we drive our cars, fly an airplane or heat our houses. The social, environmental, health and economic costs of this pollution is not accounted for in economics. But, there is no free lunch; pollution costs. These costs must become part of a society’s economic accounting. 

D) The law of entropy teaches us that many natural resources decrease with use over time. We must therefore create a low entropy economy, one that is based on maximum utilization and recycling of all resources in closed loop systems, and one that emphasizes an increase in non-material (low entropy) resources and activities, such as spirituality, sports, arts, literature, community and family gatherings, etc. As Hazel Henderson puts it, we need more software, not hardware. 

E) All material progress has certain side-effects. Even the production of solar energy produces toxins such as arsenic. All of these side-effects must be considered and solved through recycling or other means before releasing these new inventions into the market place. As environmentalist David Brower used to say: “All new inventions are guilty until proven innocent.” Thus all new inventions should be environmentally approved by a government body on the local, state or national level before entering the market. 

One of PROUT theorist P.R. Sarkar’s great contributions to the energy debate is his emphasis on true progress as being that which increases inner, spiritual well-being, and on future society’s balanced use of material and non-material resources. In contrast, modern society’s concept of progress has been that which increases material well-being. However, as Sarkar notes, all material progress creates certain side-effects, or an increase in entropy. Thus one of the foundations of a new energy economy must also be a change of values, a new concept of progress. Secondly, the new energy economy must reorient itself by not just creating material welfare but by creating a balance between inner welfare and material welfare. 

The Real Cause of the Energy Crisis
The Roman Empire did not fall simply because of lack of fuel or tillable land. There were political, military, economic and other reasons for the collapse. Likewise, the real cause of the upcoming energy crisis will not be lack of fossil fuels only. It will not be, as many alarmist experts claim, overpopulation. Neither will it be overconsumption. These are all symptoms of an imbalanced socioeconomic system. The real causes of these symptoms are more complex, more systemic. In large part, the main cause is due to a highly centralized economy and civilization not acting in accordance with the principles of ecology. In the words of Lester Brown: “Unfortunately, by failing to reflect the full costs of goods and services, the market provides misleading information to economic decision makers at all levels. This has created a distorted economy that is out of sync with the earth’s eco-system – an economy that is destroying its natural support systems.” (The Ecologist) 

If we go deeper, we will realize that the energy crisis has not just objective causes. It also has subjective causes that reside within the human spirit itself. Our current predicament is deeply rooted in a failed vision, a failed worldview—one that favors short-term profit over long term planning, competition over cooperation, conspicuous consumption over spiritual contentment, and exploitation of the earth rather than balanced utilization. 

The real solution to the energy crisis is not simply alternative energy: huge forests of windmills, solar panels on every roof top, and hydrogen cells in every basement. The real solution certainly includes alternative energy, but can better be summed up as a “whole systems solution.” We need a whole new systems approach to economics, politics, culture, values, ethics, science, and yes, energy. Ted Trainer, author of The Simpler Way, writes that “the alternative is about ensuring a very high quality of life for all without anywhere near as much production, consumption, exporting, investment, resource use, environmental damage, work etc. as our present society involves.” 

Designing the New Energy Society
How our society is structured and designed effects how we live, what type of transportation we use, how much energy we consume, it even effects the amount of pollution that spills into water ways and floats into the air. The design of modern society is highly centralized. The energy grid is centralized around a few power plants. People are centralized in overcrowded cities. The economy is centralized in large corporations. Even farming is centralized on large, highly specialized industrial farms, often thousands of miles away from where we, the consumers, live. 

In times of crisis, such as the power grid failure in the Eastern United States a few years ago, or, more importantly, we realize how inflexible, fragile, and energy inefficient such centralized systems are. However, modern society creates other disturbing, even absurd, trends often overlooked by the average consumer: It is estimated that 47 million pounds of butter is imported into the U.K. every year, while 49 million is exported. About as many millions of kilos of pork products leave Australia as enter. Not surprisingly, per capita use of fossil energy in North America–where thousands of gas guzzling trucks transports food thousands of miles back and forth across this vast continent–is five times the world average. 

Thus, economist and PROUT writer Ravi Batra notes in his book, The Myth of Free Trade, that one of the most important contributions of a decentralized economy would be huge reductions in both pollution and the use of energy. A prominent feature of an alternative energy society will therefore be its decentralized energy and transportation grid, a feature mimicking how nature’s bio-diverse web itself is organized. Indeed, alternative energy promoters stress the fact that alternative energy by design is decentralized. However, they often overlook the need to also restructure the entire economy in a decentralized fashion. This is of crucial importance.

Otherwise, profiteering by a few huge, largely Western, corporations will again dominate the entire world economy, including energy. At best, the rich in the North will have solar powered homes and drive BMW’s with hydrogen cells, but the people in the South will still be congested, polluted, poor, and exploited. At worst, we will fail to change our energy grid in time. Millions will starve to death. The rest will be at war over dwindling resources like water, food, and left over fossil fuels. Not a pretty scenario. 

A decentralized (read: localized), largely cooperative economy is thus crucial in a new energy world. Jeremy Rifkin, a strong proponent of a hydrogen-based energy economy, writes: “Power companies are going to have to come to grips with the reality that millions of local entrepreneurs, generating electricity from fuel cells on-site, can produce more power more cheaply than can today’s giant power plants.” When users become producers of their own energy, Rifkin holds, the only remaining role for the power companies would be in the form of “virtual power plants” that manufacture and market fuel cells and coordinate the flow of energy. On a global scale, Rifkin believes that cooperatives are “the best organizational vehicles” for establishing the new grid of renewable energy. “With 730 million members in 100 countries, cooperatives could help lead the way into a hydrogen era by establishing distribution generation associations in thousands of communities,” Rifkin writes. 

What emerges, then, is an alternative economic structure in which large and small, localized, worker-owned cooperatives serve as the cornerstone of the economy. At the bottom of this three-tiered pyramid, there are small, privately owned enterprises, while at the top there are key-industries owned by the local or state government and run on a no-profit-no-loss principle. Envision a future energy grid in which key industries produce fuel cells at very low cost and distribute the flow of energy where needed. Local cooperative enterprises will make everything from wind mills to solar panels to bio-diesel generators, and cooperatively and privately owned stores will sell alternative energy components to home owners. 

Beyond Energy
The energy problem is not just a problem of energy; it is a problem endemic to our wasteful way of life, to corporate capitalism, to our reductionist and materialist worldview, to our lack of an ecological ethics, and, most importantly, lack of political leaders guided by perennial ethics and wisdom. 

For some renewable energy experts, though, the goal is simple: create an abundance of cheap and clean energy from renewable sources to replace fossil fuel. Jeremy Rifkin claims that the hydrogen economy is the answer, and that it is “within sight.” Hydrogen, he writes, is abundant, it will soon be cheap to produce, and it will, by its very nature, decentralize and democratize the energy web and help shape a whole new society formed around bioregions. Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins, authors of Natural Capitalism, claims we need a new industrial revolution based on more energy efficient products, the elimination of waste, and on investing in natural capital. 

For others, the changes needed are much more complex and far-reaching: produce cheap and clean energy, yes, but, more importantly, to reorganize our whole economy and dramatically change our lifestyle and our worldview. Trainer, an advocate of this school of thought, claims there is no scientific, quick fix to this global problem. He promotes a dramatically new economy based on The Simpler Way: less luxury consumption, self-sufficient regions, local economic independence and cooperatives. Otherwise, we are likely to end up with a hybrid system of haves and have-nots: a few rich countries and corporations will own and profit from the renewable energy grid, while the poor are still poor and polluted, fighting over the dirty crumbs from the fossil fuel age. 

P.R. Sarkar’s PROUT (Progressive Utilization Theory) outlines such an emerging economy in more detail: a three-tiered, decentralized structure, global political cooperation, a guaranteed minimum living standard and a maximum income, an economy driven not by profit but by production for human needs, dynamic balance between economic output and environmental needs, maximum utilization of resources (closed loop industries, “cradle to cradle” industrial designs), international barter trade, and much more. In addition, Sarkar extends the spiritual perspective of traditional peoples, and the world’s mystical traditions, by maintaining that we all belong to Nature. Moreover, that Nature and the Pure Consciousness that created Her are inseparable. Thus, he declares, the Earth is the common inheritance of all: people, plants and animals. Energy, water, soil, sun light, therefore, does not belong to anyone—especially not to the rich, nor to the corporations. Thus a fundamental tenet of the new energy economy, according to Sarkar’s principles, is that these resources must be respectfully shared and appropriately utilized by all. 

The ideas promoted by Rifkin, Sarkar, Trainer, Hawken and Lovins, although very different, are quite complimentary. We need a new environmental ethics; hydrogen must undoubtedly be part of the new economy; industrial innovation and investing in natural capital is important in order to keep the biosphere intact; a simpler lifestyle is vital in order to reduce consumption and waste, but, as Sarkar’s PROUT theory maintains, without a new economic model beyond the greed of capitalism, we cannot create real change. In order to implement a more earth-and-human-friendly economy, we need, says Sarkar, a three-tiered restructuring of the economy as a radical new way to balance the ingenuity of individual enterprise with cooperation and collective human needs. Finally, he claims, all this must be balanced with neo-humanism, a global spirit that maintains the balance of all beings in nature.

All things considered, there is no quick fix. No amount of conspiratorial agitation will scare us into economic equity, environmental balance, and spiritual equanimity. But, with a possible future without gas in our tanks, we must start thinking and acting outside the tank. We must turn inward and heed the wisdom and examples of those who advocate and already live the radical and systemic changes that must take place in our economy, our lifestyle, and our energy consumption. The current energy crisis may thus be our planet’s greatest opportunity for change.

Roar Ramesh Bjonnes is a freelance writer, contributing editor of New Renaissance journal (www.ru.org), newspaper columnist and co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat and seminar center.www.pramainstitute.org