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Humanity’s Energy Choices

First published June-2010
last update 5-April-2016

A collapse of nature is the greatest problem we face today. Some of our ecological problems are mass-extinction, desertification, ocean acidification, rain forest destruction, soil and water table depletion, bio-accumulating pollutants, and climate chaos. These problem are caused by our destruction and disturbance of ecosystems and diversity, which support complex living systems, including humans.

These problems do not simply affect us in some distant future we can ignore but poisons our bodies, impoverishes our surroundings and is the result of a social organization profoundly harmful in its own right to most people.

The root of these ecological and social catastrophes lie in our super-exploitation of nature using centralized processes, a work centuries in the making but recently amplified out of all control and perspective by the incredible energy unleashed by oil, and other fossil fuels.

This problem is not static: as we modify the world we also modify our problems and ourselves, which make matters even more complicated.

One such complicating problem we face is the immanent peak in oil production that may collapse the global mechanized economy, completely changing society as we know it (this peak may already be in the past according to many experts).

Though our dependence on oil is central to our environmental problems, one way to deal with the decline of cheap oil is the rapid expansion of low quality fossil fuels and/or a wholesale conversion of the biological sphere into synthetic bio-fuels.

Both these ongoing strategies have the potential to cause far greater environmental damage than cheap fossil fuels have up to now.

However, peak oil does not force us in any one direction, but rather accelerates the choice we must make between complete destruction of our habitat and living in some other way. The proposition explored here is using solar energy directly. Solar energy is free, abundant, can be concentrated by simple methods for high-efficiency and high-temperature applications, and can be used locally.

However, it is infeasible to simply plug renewable energy to the globalized mechanized economy as we know it.Fossil fuels stored conveniently underground requiring little energy to extract, in particular oil, permitted the modern world to achieve a level of waste that is simply impossible to maintain through renewable energy.

The simple realization that energy is precious and not accessible in infinite quantity, that there is a limit to oil for instance, is incompatible with the entire modern approach to essentially everything.

As such, we have only 4 realistic choices:

1. Fossil-Industrial Subsistence — to the bitter end,
2. Bio-Energy Economy — similar to the Medieval period,
3. Depopulation — such as mass genocide and sterilization,
4. Decentralized Direct Solar Energy Society — based on simple high-power solar concentrators.

This chapter summarizes these choices and concludes that a direct solar energy society is the only choice that is both ethical, feasible, resilient and sustainable.

Choice 1: Fossil-Industrial Subsistence

The most dangerous path the world can take is fossil-industrial subsistence, where the industrial system falls into fossil-fuel entrapment, in which there are only enough resources and fossil-energy to maintain the global infrastructure functioning at a minimum level, and as a consequence no extra energy to build or transition to an alternative system.

Reorganizing society (or deploying a miracle technology if we magically find one), requires energy and resources, and if there is no surplus available then society can do nothing else than attempt to maintain the system as is. An analogy is a boat that is so badly damaged all hands are needed to simply keep it afloat and no hands are available to navigate it, much less repair it or build some life rafts. No matter what ideas or tools the sailors have they have no spare-energy to make use of them; they can only hope to stay afloat long enough to either be rescued or crash into land. Since, every passing moment we become more and more tired (expend the energy we have) and since our vessel deteriorates further all the time, our chances are slim. Though there is always hope to be saved stranded in a boat, for the world as a whole it is far less likely we’ll either be rescued at the last moment or crash into a new habitable earth with new resources.

If we are bailing the planet of her resources to keep civilization afloat there may not be an island to be stranded on.

In other words an industrial subsistence economy will not only cause incredible ecological damage to already fragile life systems, but be highly unstable due to the diminishing volumes of available oil year by year, always necessitating more pressure on life systems and inciting more wars for the remaining cheap oil, all the while mechanized infrastructure will continue to deteriorate with increasingly infrequent maintenance. Since oil is finite, the situation could not possibly last and a far worse collapse is guaranteed sooner or later.

Due to declining oil extraction, the time in which a “renewable” mechanized mega-machine could have hypothetically been constructed is long past. What it look like and whether it could have ever been possible to begin with is of only academic interest.

If the choice of fossil-industrial subsistence is taken, the damage of the fossil fuels age will be extended until the absolute physical limits are reached; there is reason to believe whatever life remains will not be able to support human life. In the worst case scenario civilization embarks on converting as many plants as possible into synthetic fuels, which would be a short and feeble dying breath of industrial civilization before asphyxiation, quite possibly in a literal sense.

Unfortunately, for industrial nations this is the choice of least thought and so represents a real and significant danger to us all. Central governments, for the time being at least, seem to be going down this path as fast as possible.

Fortunately there are other forces at work in the world.

Choice 2: Bio-Energy Economy

The choice of least thought for non-industrial nations is to revert to an economy based on local sources of bio-energy, mostly on fire-wood and draft animals. Such an economy would remind us of life in the Medieval age, though with some important differences.

Though in many places a local bio-energy economy still exists, it is a mistake to underestimate the fossil fuel input into non-industrial societies. For instance, though about half the world’s population cook with firewood, essentially all steel mining, smelting and working is based on fossil fuels (or electricity mostly derived from fossil fuels); to imagine reverting to wood charcoal for even a small percentage of this work would represent a significant amount of energy that could not be sustained. Likewise, 97% of all transportation in the world is based on oil.

For industrial and industrializing nations a fuel-wood draft-animal based system is infeasible without a radical voluntary reduction of activities such as eating meat, metallurgy, pottery and ceramics, concrete, electricity and motorized transport, not to mention electronics and wanton consumption.

For instance, all of Europe’s forests have an estimated annual wood production of 200 kg per person, about 145 Kg equivalent of oil energy, and currently the average European consumes energy roughly 2300 kg of oil equivalent annually. But even with a ten fold decrease in energy consumption it is still debatable whether such a system would be sustainable, as before the coal-industrial revolution Europe is considered to have had reached a maximum biological capacity.

Today Europe not only has 4 times more people but her soil has been steadily degrading since the the Medieval period. Moreover, essentially all primary forests have been destroyed and a significant amount of rivers are dead. Much the same can be said of most of the world.

Though this choice is hypothetically workable it is extremely difficult to put into practice for both social and bio-physical reasons.

The political difficulty in transferring to a local bio-energy system globally is very intense. For, even if developing nations succeed in returning to a bio-energy system (whom may have no other choice), this may be largely irrelevant if industrial nations decided upon continuing business as usual at all costs, consuming as many biological resources in the world as possible through their "assymetric" trade policies already in place.

The bio-physical factors working against such a plan: ecological-energy-amplification and ecological-collateral-damage, are discussed below.

Choice 3: Depopulation (Mass-Genocide)

The certain cataclysm that would be caused by fossil-industrial subsistence, and the extreme political and practical difficulty a bio-energy economy, leads some to propose killing a majority of people, often the poor, under the euphemism of "depopulation".

This genocidal movement, often praised in the main-stream media and ecological circles, lobbies for plans ranging from exacerbating famines, engineering super viruses, forced abortions and sterilizations, to passive justification of the loss of human life due to industrial exploitation of poorer nations (albeit the irrationality of this last position seems to betray a cynical and/or diabolical intent, as it is of course consumerism, based on the over exploitation of poor nations, that causes far more damage.

The problem with this plan is first that it is unethical to kill someone, or let someone die, if it is avoidable. The depopulation lobby confuses the idea that “the potential that something could be necessary in certain situations” with “that thing is actually necessary”.

However, this is clearly untrue, simply imagining something might be necessary under certain circumstances does not mean those circumstances actually exist in the real world. For instance, I can imagine a situation where it would be necessary to kill you in self defence, but my imagining this does not mean you are actually attacking me in the real world.

In the real world depopulation would only be ethical to pursue if all viable alternative options to diminish our impact on nature had been tried and failed in as transparent and democratic a way as possible (not in some report by a handful of people sitting in an office).

This exhaustion of alternatives is currently far from being the case. And even if all these third options were tried — doing away with consumer culture, local solar economies, eating less meat, growing edible algae, putting the subsidies into developing permaculture that is currently put into the ongoing petro-chemical-mass-plant-cloning-experiment on both animal and human subjects, food forests, greening arid land with food-forest-permaculture techniques, to name a few – a depopulation program would only be ethical if it too was democratically adopted and managed.

We should also note it is nearly ethically essential that the main proponents of depopulation be the first to volunteer for the program, otherwise it is difficult to assume their arguments are born from a genuine concern for humanity.

Secondly, if an alternative way of living sustainably is developed, humans may find important ecological roles, and a large population may actually be helpful in replanting trees and detoxifying the world. [1]

However, rather than try to work against people’s tendency to adapt, the alternative option is to work with this tendency and develop ways of living without fossil fuels nor the heavy ecological impact of a medieval-like society.

Choice 4: Direct Solar Energy Society

Serious physical and moral impasses are encountered for essentially every ecological study that assumes only the above three choices exist, usually based on the assumptions: 1) that a non-industrial world must necessarily be similar to a Medieval world, and 2) that no significant improvement to our ecological impact can be made above that of the Medieval period. These assumptions are both false.

There is at least a fourth choice. This fourth choice is based on the observations that nearly all phenomenon on the earth is powered by the sun.

For instance, medieval society exploited all locally accessible natural solar derived energy (bio, wind, hydro) to near, or above, the ecological maximum, save one: direct solar energy. This is a very important fact if one wants to use Medieval-like bio-energy society as a basis for evaluating our own ecological prospects. For, there is more energy available in direct solar energy than all of the natural solar derivatives combined, including wind, bio-mass, hydro and fossil-fuels. [2]

For, not only is there far more energy available in direct sunlight, but the ecological impact per watt of using solar energy directly is far less than for natural derivatives of solar-energy. This is for two main reasons, ecological amplified energy and collateral ecological damage.

A. Ecologically amplified energy
A watt of naturally derived solar energy, from a plant or river, represents a direct piece of the ecosystem. A solar-derived-watt, or ecological-watt, represents many more “phantom watts” that nature required to make the watt we actually use.

For instance, a tree will not absorb all the solar energy that falls on it, will use a significant amount of energy to grow, and not grow when conditions are unfavourable, all of which is energy represented in the small fraction we extract from the tree when we burn it. Every eco-watt we get from a tree actually represents the tip of a sun-burg, since for nature to replace that tip we’ve just burned would require the whole sun-burg. The size of this sun-burg is about a hundred times greater than what we actually extract, sometimes much more, when all factors are considered: at least 90 percent is lost in photosynthesis, energy used by the tree, non-growth hours when too hot or too cold or too dry or insufficient nutrients, energy required to cut and transport the tree, energy lost in burning process, and energy lost to dealing with health affects from smoke.

Likewise, every watt of river power represents hundreds of times more solar energy which was required to evaporate the water and then which was further lost to friction with the air and ground before a drop arrives at a damn. Every watt of fossil-energy represents millions of years of solar energy required to build up those deposits.

Only wind energy does not have this obvious amplification since it is a much more direct transformation of solar energy (not the end of a long cycle and so less ecological damages); but, only two percent of solar energy is transformed into wind, and this wind is only concentrated at some times and some locations. So it is essentially impossible to run a majority of energy tasks on wind.

B. Collateral ecological damage
In order to extract these tips of a natural sun-burg, we have to literally cut into nature to get them, which can cause significant collateral ecological damage.

In the case of trees we have to build roads and cut the whole tree down in order to extract the carbon rich trunk. In the case of river damns we have to cut the river in half. In the case of fossil fuels, we have to unleash chemicals into the biosphere and atmosphere that were previously stored below ground spilling it here and there. These excisions into nature can cause massive, and often completely unforeseen, ecological damage above and beyond the intrinsic amplification of extraction of natural energy discussed above. The collateral damage ranges from desertification to species extinction to dead rivers to climate chaos.

Though we can think of ways to mitigate this collateral impact, it is very difficult with ecologically dependent energy systems because these foray’s into nature to extract energy cost energy, resources and time, so there is significant pressure to make them as energy profitable as possible in the short term — and to support industrial civilization a large energy profit margin is a requirement — which means if we build a damn we want to extract the maximum amount of energy, and not let half the river flow naturally with more complex infrastructure and planning. If we want a fire we want to cut the whole tree down from every tree in the forest and take the energy rich logs in one go, not cut only some trees here and there with greater transportation and organizational costs, trying to leave the forest largely undisturbed. Above all we want cheap crude oil that can be simply pumped out of the ground and into a system of pipes in seemingly indefinite quantities.

The above problems are unavoidable when extracting concentrated energy that is locked up in the ecosystem. But, if we use solar energy directly then we tap the base of the sun-burg, relatively outside the ecosystem, and so for every solar-watt we use a single watt is made unavailable to the ecosystem, and not hundreds or thousands more ecological watts destroyed.

The reason that humanity has not used direct solar energy for most of history is because, without concentrating it artificially, solar energy heats things only mildly and we require higher temperatures for a wide range of tasks, from cooking to metallurgy; thus, we had to find naturally concentrated solar energy to do these kinds of things. However, today we can concentrate solar energy directly using simple but powerful solar concentrators accessible to everyone to create a solar based society.

The practical methods are discussed in the next chapter, but what solar concentration means is that by using direct solar energy our ecological impact is much closer to being directly proportional to the amount of energy we use compared with all available solar energy, and not multiplied many times beyond that as in the case of tree cutting, rivers, and fossil-fuels. We currently use, for non-food energy, 15 terrawatts of energy which is a small fraction of the 174 petawatts of solar energy that hits the planet (174 000 terrawatts); this is 12 000 times more energy than humanity currently consumes. Yet, our current impact on nature is not remotely close to occupying a mere 1/12 000 (0.00008 %) of solar radiation, but is grossly amplified and completely unsustainable: bringing over 25 percent of land species to the brink of extinction, causing the destruction of now over 50 percent of rain forests, collapsing 3 of the 5 major fisheries, destroying 50 percent of corral-reefs from ocean acidification, destabilizing the world’s climate, and these problems are accelerating.

Furthermore, if we use direct solar energy, we can tap into watts anywhere on the surface of the earth without any physical excursion into critical natural structures to do so. Which means we are not forced to re-organized nature in radical ways to extract energy; thus the surface area we may occupy with a solar device to tap a comparable amount of energy represents a radically lower impact on nature, very little collateral ecological damage.

To put this in perspective one square meter of solar concentrator, operating at 50 percent efficiency (easy to attain as we shall see the following chapters), can replace roughly 500 square meters of fuel-wood forest exploitation [3]. Furthermore, even the square meter that is used can be placed somewhere that interferes with the vegetation in a minimal way, and when not operated the light can be either redirected towards plants, or the mirrors places parallel to the sun’s rays allowing the light to fall through to the vegetation bellow.

Though we will delve into the practical details of direct solar energy in the next chapters, it is interesting to note that since there is no feed-stock of fuel, or other petro-products and the resulting waste, nor the need to commute to petroleum conversion centres such as cities — which is all activity that requires constant high volume transportation and large complex infrastructures — in a local solar society, a tiny fraction of the existing transportation infrastructure, equipment and energy input, could easily support trade in solar concentrators, applications and components. So, even though a solar concentrator can be built and maintained locally, which significantly increases the resilience of the technology, this does not exclude complex systems of production and trade. For, once a concentrator and application is put into place all the material transformed – such as water, food, clay, bio-char, metal, etc. — can stay in a relatively local circuit, i.e. walked to and from the solar concentrator, so the energy requirements of moving the solar concentrators and applications is nearly insignificant compared to the energy saved by transforming materials locally.

Now, to gain confidence that a direct solar energy society is a truly sustainable choice, we must do a few things: 1) be sure the energy required to make a solar concentrator is far less than will be provided (a high positive net energy), 2) show that solar concentrators can be built all over the planet, accessible to everyone, in sufficient numbers in a reasonable amount of time (that the practice is scalable before the ecosystems start to collapse), 3) show that if global society was based on solar concentration we won’t destroy the planet (we would be within the carrying capacity of the ecosystems).


[1The ethical problems with depopulation as it is discussed today and the counter possibility of a large population being beneficial are discussed in the third chapter.

[2This is due to the laws of thermodynamics which tell us that energy can never be converted from one form to another with 100 percent efficiency.

[3Solar energy captured by plants is estimated to be 0.1 percent of the incoming sunlight (sources: Revisiting the Fake Fire Brigade Part 2: Biomass - A Panacea?; other sources are also welcome!); thus a solar concentrator operating at 50 percent efficiency (easily achieved for boiling water or any heating task, which represents the majority of energy use) represents 500 times more energy than is captured by plants.

Written by Eerik Wissenz.

Table of Contents

*Chapters in grey are in progress.

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