A key concept in understanding where we’ve been and where we’re headed, and one which unfortunately very few people are even aware of, is the ratio of energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI. This is basically the amount of net energy you get from a particular source. When people first started poking holes in the ground and the black gold just shot out, the ratio was somewhere around 100:1. This means that for every unit of energy you put into your effort, you got back 100 times that amount. Pretty good return, and that’s why most of the twentieth century was booming economically. Technology was a huge, huge factor in this as well. Energy and technology exist in a virtuous and symbiotic feedback loop. Gains in one translate to advances in the other. But the trend throughout the 20th century and into the 21st has been a steady erosion of this ratio. The Tar Sands will give you something like 5:1 (the number ranges from 3 to 7, depending on the technology, and the source of the information), and it poisons our life support systems in the process. Corn-based ethanol is a wash, not much better than 1:1, so it’s a really stupid idea; the government is basically paying farmers to spin their wheels while taking resources away from food production in the process.
Undoubtedly this erosion of net energy has much to do with the economic crises we face today. When Republicans pine for America’s Golden Age, which I suppose might look something like a Thomas Kinkade painting, they are longing for the more favorable EROEI of yore. Morning in America is the mythological return to the glory days of low hanging fruit.
Why do we continue to face a decline in net energy, and can we reverse the trend? Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking, deepwater and Arctic drilling believe that the magic of new technologies can be a game changer. There is no doubt that advances in technology allow us to get at previously inaccessible energy, and that helps with net energy. This explains the current shale oil and gas boom, especially in places like North Dakota. But there comes a point when the sane person must step back and really consider the big picture. Given our global energy situation today, and given the stark reality of the data, it is unlikely that the net energy decline will reverse, and that we can return to the economy of the fossil fuel bonanza of the past.
Most people extend technology’s past exponential trajectory out into the future without understanding that energy is actually the scaffolding that makes it possible. There are certainly technologies out there, in theory, that will provide us with the energy our society needs to keep running “normally”. Unfortunately as a society we have done a very, very poor job of planning ahead. The fossil fuel industry has imposed system-lock on us all. And government has been utterly negligent (thank you Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and the rest of the gang).
Using thorium instead of uranium in nuclear reactors is an example of a possible savior technology. Questions of safety and costs aside, it will probably take at least another decade just to pass the testing phase. As with everything else, the Chinese seem to be taking the lead on this. I’ve never heard Obama utter the word thorium, have you? Why are we so fixated on a pipeline to suck out some toxic brew that will send global temperatures skyrocketing, and yet the President can’t educate us about any alternatives?
If this technology does work, it looks like it would give us an EROEI ratio of 50:1, more than enough to give the economy the growth fix it needs. Questions of cost, timing and safety remain, and it’s very hard for the average citizen to get answers. If the technology does work, however, our civilization will still need to learn to live within planetary limits with respect to food, topsoil erosion, water, and many other concerns. I doubt a return to an EROEI of 50:1 will stop the massive species extinction currently underway.
We must learn to tame the beast of our growth-based economic system, and to avoid the dangers of the Jevons Paradox. This should be the project of our civilization.