This I Believe

Charles - Jamesville, New York
Entered on October 25, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
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I believe in the importance and pervasiveness of energy in all of nature and all that we as a species and civilizations have done. I gained my initial understanding of the importance of energy from my great teacher Howard Odum. He taught me to open my eyes, to see that all of nature around me was about organisms undergoing natural selection mostly in terms of energy costs and energy gains for each thing they did. I found in my doctoral work that migrating fish and their progeny could gain more energy by exploiting food energy resources that varied over space and time, and came up with the idea of energy return on energy investment. Later we applied these ideas to drilling for oil. The energy returned from energy invested for oil in the United States declined from 100 to one in the 1930s to 30 to one in 1970 to 10 or 15 to one now. The time will come in a few decades when it takes a barrel of oil to find and extract a new barrel of oil. I believe that energetics will trump economics as a determinant of our future!

When I spend a dollar, I do not think about the dollar bill leaving my wallet. Rather, I think that about 8,300 KJ of energy (equal to roughly a coffee cup’s worth of oil) must be extracted from the Earth, and turned into roughly 2 KG worth of carbon dioxide, to allow that transaction. Take the money out of the economy and it can continue through barter. Take the energy out and it stops immediately. We are wealthy as a nation not simply because we have good systems of incentives, economics, business and government but because we had a huge ratio of energy available relative to the number of people who use it. Most of the economic expansion of the past century was based on technological change that increased the use of fossil energy. Cheap tractor fuels, fertilizers and machines, all using or made from petroleum, have allowed each farmer and worker to produce more and more for each hour worked.

I believe that what we will be able to do in the future will be seriously constrained and then dominated by the exhaustion of cheap oil and gas. I see three possible futures: 1) that the end of cheap oil and gas will hit society so hard that it will never recover or 2) that we will burn every ton of coal and every stick of biomass to limp along at a huge expense to the environment and our own health or 3) that we will be able to somehow transition to a future of windmills, solar collectors and a vastly lowered-energy lifestyle. The third approach is the only one that is attractive to me, but it cannot be reached with conventional economics. Thus I believe that we must create a new way to do economics based on the biological and physical realities of our world. I am now devoting my life to that idea, which I call Biophysical Economics.