Understanding this essay will not make you happy. It will challenge our beliefs and lifestyles. Energy, so intricate to our survival, does not simply appear at the gas pump or the flip of a switch. The gas pump, the power lines, the grocery store are deceptive teats that we blissfully suck with infantile expectations. If we choose to remain ignorant of energy’s pervasiveness in human affairs our future is threatened. I will briefly examine the role of energy in population growth and pollution; energy’s physical laws; and some of the psychological, moral and spiritual factors blocking the changes facing us.
Energy is food; is home heating; is driving your car; is your car; is making widgets in the factory; is the widget; is toilet paper; is the soil at your feet; is the carrot in the soil; is the sun driven hydrologic cycle; is safe drinking water; is the stage where fashion models strut; is the lives of the many organisms and of the millions of years that creates petroleum; is the top of every jar in your house; is the heat, pressure and time of the earth concentrating the minerals for the aluminum in your pop can; is the wind turning the generator that makes my electricity; is the generator; is the ink on this page; is the sun and material formed in the trees that heat my house; is the shirts on our backs.
Human history subtly and not so subtly is the story of energy. Each major energy transformation has been driven by resources and population. Each ecological crisis brings a new technology. Each new social and physical technological development modifies no matter how slightly the original human condition.
For the first 100 thousand years of human existence we were gatherers and hunters. We would locate and gather energy from diverse and wide spread sources of fruits, nuts, and roots. A wild carrot used the sun, water and soil nutrients to grow. Some of that growth resulted in energy being stored in the root. As gatherer and hunters we came along and ate that stored energy. Sometimes we would take energy from an animal who had gathered its energy from other sources. Our other sources of stored energy were trees and water.
Resilient and resourceful our numbers grew. Ten thousand years ago population pressures, climatic shifts and resource stresses brought on a tremendous revolution in energy use (Cohen, 1977; McCorriston, J. & Hole, F. 1991). We cleared land by hand and fire. Using the stored energy in the soil and water we grew our food in a defined area. When the soil’s energy became depleted or irrigation salted the land, new land was brought into service. The Agriculture Revolution was born and human populations continued to grow.
The human species evolved in the physical environment of gathering and hunting. For over 90% of the time we have been on the face of the earth this was how we lived. This was also the social environment on which human adaptation is based. It is this social and physical environment that has been changing for the last ten thousand years.
With the movement from gathering and hunting to agriculture, changes in the time and space as well as the spiritual and social orientation and organization of human societies occurred (Torrance, 1994). If the !Kung of the Kalahari desert are any example life originally for us was quite different. They spend about 15 hours a week getting what they need for sustenance. The rest of the time is spent in play. Their children are nursed on demand as the composition of mother’s milk would seem to indicate. Release of pleasure producing hormones in both mother and child during nursing promote bonding. This natural nursing deters conception until the child is weaned at 4 years of age.
"It is now well established that human milk supplies the infant with its full complement of nutritional requirements. . . . Fat content, an important component of breast milk, is indirectly related to mammalian feeding schedules (frequency of nursing bouts) and directly related to mammalian sucking frequency (frequency of sucking within a nursing bout). For example, lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) have very high fat content in their milk and feed every 12-24 hours. In contrast, most primates that carry their infants have low fat content in their milk and feed on demand. Humans, following this primate pattern, have low fat content in their milk. . . . These data support the constant contact model by arguing that the human infant is a rather continuous feeder requiring rather continuous caretaking. (Tronick, E.; Winn, S.; and Morelli, G. 1985. p, 299)
Children are cared for by a wide age range of people freeing the parents from the stress of constant care and providing multiple role models for the developing child. Children learn toilet training in a natural way and have no chores until into their teen years. People live intimately with their organic environment as a part of the web. Individuals, families, clans are all embedded in the greater natural family of their particular piece of the earth.
All energy comes from the immediate environment with the only stored energy coming from trees and water pools. It takes about 4 square miles to support one person. For the prairie indians of the United States it took some 10 square miles and for the Eskimo approximately 54 square miles.
This is likely very much how our ancestors lived until some 10,000 years ago when population pressures, climatic shifts and resource stresses brought on a tremendous revolution in energy use. Using the energy stored in the soil that took years to build, agriculture allowed the continued growth of human populations. When the soil’s energy became depleted new land was brought into service.
The agricultural revolution occurring in a short span of time worldwide allowed the compression of time and space. Square miles for living were reduced to a few acres across a growing season. This is what technology does; it compresses time and space.
The new agricultural technology by adding human labor to the energy of the sun, soil and water changed human communities. Women did not nurse as long, children were born closer together, permanent housing arose putting walls between people, toilet training within walls was more demanding, and very importantly, children at a young age became an important source of energy. Agriculture not only allowed population growth; it became a necessity.
The Agricultural Revolution worked to feed people nearly up to the present. There were major inventions both social and physical during this time. Writing, the horse collar, cities, plumbing, three world religions; these and many more are used as the criteria for progress and civilization. Our wonderful creativeness is surely a product of the energy of human nature. Without the energy from mining the soil and controlling water these and many other developments would have been far fewer if not unnecessary.
Population, fueled by agriculture, rose in an upward moving curve. In a repeating ecological pattern, our growing numbers exhausted the land, strained and polluted the water, depleted the forests, and crowded people into unhealthy conditions. Under these pressures, some people relocated using their feet, the wheel and domesticated energy in the form of animals. Or they died of starvation or pestilence or killed each other off.
One of the early Church Fathers, Tertullian (c. A.D. 160 - 240), commented on the effects of human enterprise on the earth: “Farms have replaced wastelands, cultivated land has subdued the forests, cattle have put to flight the wild beast, barren lands have become fertile, rocks have become soil, swamps have been drained, and the number of cities exceeds the number of poor huts found in former times . . . Everywhere there are people, communities - everywhere there is human life!” To such a point that “the world is full. The elements scarcely suffice us. Our needs press . . . Pestilence, famine, wars, [earthquakes] are intended, indeed, as remedies, as prunings, against the growth of the human race.” (Gies and Gies.1994, p. 6.)
Various technologies evolved during the Middle Ages (500 A. D. to 1500 A.D.) to support these growing populations. These developments were simply extensions to the primary energy base of sun, land and water. Among the inventions were the heavy plow, the horse collar, the horse shoe, better forges making iron tools more available, better wind machines, better water wheels, and different forms of human organization. One-third of the land under cultivation went to feeding horses. Heat for homes and the various industries was fueled by trees. We did not find another source of energy; we simply used bigger hammers.
The end of the Middle Ages heralded another energy and social transformation as illuminated in The Silent Countdown (Brimblecombe and Pfister, C. editors, 1995) and A Distant Mirror (Tuchman, 1978). The technological inventiveness and social transformations that culminated in the Industrial Revolution was prompted again by population growth, ecological pressures and a climatic shift (the “little ice age”). There was a desperate search for a fuel other than wood because of forest depletion. The steam engine was developed to pump water from coal mines. Coal began the Industrial Revolution. This initiated an unprecedented surge in population growth and a demand for new social adaptations.
The evolution of better sailing technologies allowed the dispersal of ecologically stressed populations beginning in the 1500’s. Large numbers migrated from Europe to Asia, Africa, South America, and North America.
Adapted from McEvedy, Colin and Jones, Richard. 1978. Atlas of World Population History.
Although narrow in its geographic scope, Tertullian’s observation is still relevant today. There have been only 50 generations since his statement. This is a short time in biology. Without the Americas and fossil fuels our population numbers and even consumption patterns would have been highly constrained.
At the beginning of the agricultural revolution, 10,000 years ago, the world’s population is estimated to have been 4 million people - a number that took perhaps 100,000 years to reach. In year one of the present era, the energy impetus of the Agricultural Revolution had brought the world population to 170 million. A mere five hundred years later - in 1500, the world population was approximately 425 million. This was after a loss of some 10,000,000 people during the Black Plague. Underwritten by fossil fuels for 500 years, we are now nearly 6 billion; 6,000,000,000.
“It is estimated . . . that every hour, more than eleven thousand newborns cry out. . . . At current birth and death rates, the world is adding a Los Angeles every three weeks” (Tobias, 1994, p.395). This continued growth is supported by stored energy in the soil, in fossil fuels, in ores, in the hydrologic cycle, and in the information passed from generation to generation.
Fossil fuels powered industry for several centuries before becoming a prime factor in agriculture. Many inventions brought greater production to agriculture yet the horse and the human fueled by the land, water and sun remained the basic sources of energy.
Only within the last hundred years have tractors and electric motors replace the horse and human to begin the present era of industrial agriculture. Many people in the world are, albeit indirectly, eating oil in the form of fuel for machines, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and electric generation (Green,1978). Industrial agriculture uses 10 units of energy (mostly fossil fuels) to generate one unit of energy for the table. Traditional rice paddy agriculture (which because of its magnitude has its own environmental drawbacks) uses one calorie to produce ten (Pimental, 1984).
Industrial Agriculture may not be around as long as traditional agriculture. The first productive oil well was drilled in 1860. In less then 200 years we will have exhausted most of the world’s easily accessible petroleum reserves. Each year the International Energy Agency puts out estimates of global petroleum reserves and a compilation of world petroleum consumption. Using consumption data from 1996 and the most optimistic estimate of remaining reserves and hoped for additional finds, simple division gives us 50 years remaining of easily accessible petroleum.
This number, however, does not recognized increased use from economic or population growth. Factoring in a 2.3% yearly growth in consumption which is the historic figure for the last decade there are approximately forty years remaining starting from 1996. The figures for worldwide natural gas are of the same magnitude. For those of us past this number in age, we know that 40 years is not very long.
Land available for food production must be considered. Using the world record food harvest of 1985, if we were all vegetarian we could provide adequate diets for 6 million people or 4 million, if we ate 15% animals or 2.5 million, if we ate a U. S. diet of 30% animal (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1991). These estimates are based on fossil fuel supported agriculture. Land needs before fossil fuels are estimated in Europe at 4 acres per person (Braudel, 1979. p. 61). The total estimated available arable land is10448 million acres (Revelle,1976). With the probable diminishing availability of fossil fuels for fuel, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides and given this area and prefossil fuel acreage needs, 2.5 billion people appears to be the maximum sustainable level. And this leaves scant flexibility for any changes brought on by climate or war.
We need air, water and food. Heat would also be nice for some of the places we live. These are the very basics. For 100,000 years our sources of energy were gathered by an individual from the immediate environment. The development of agriculture, reduced the space necessary to support one person and allowed one person to support many others. Our sources of energy remained renewable within a human life time.
Fossils fuels brought a new dimension to stored energy. They are highly concentrated and portable. They are also nonrenewable. Fossil fuels are a non-increasing bank account. And we are withdrawing at ever increasing rates to keep up with population and to stimulate the commercial economy. This is the energy foundation of our present population numbers and continued growth.
Our population is certainly a product of improved hygiene, medicine, nutrition and various factors of quality of life - a plethora of things and thoughts from our prehistoric beginnings to the present. These very bright lights are fascinating, fabulous and entrancing. It can not be forgotten that the continual and indisputable underpinnings of our present population numbers is the sun, water, limited land and at present fossil fuels.
With each technological shift, the new sources and kinds of energy have brought relief from the pressures of population. They also brought with them the seeds of their own destructiveness and ultimate insufficiency (Ponting, 1992). The geometric spiral of population growth and ecological demands amplifies the environmental affect of each evolving energy technology. Being geometric, this process shows an increasing tendency towards social disruptions of greater magnitude and greater frequency. And we have no where else to sail.
Population growth has been supported by two primary energy developments: Agriculture and Fossil Fuels. There have been many other inventions and knowledges that have developed from these bases that have further supported increasing human numbers. Understanding energy’s sources, availability and influence on our history are one dimension of the knowledge necessary for the future.
No matter how inventive we are, there are laws of energy that underwrite the realities of the possible. Because of their basic importance I may err on the side of too much information concerning them. Intelligent, life giving decisions can not be made without awareness of these laws.
"There are several natural laws of energy that apparently have no exception on earth. These laws give us an understanding of the limits to human life and nature on our planet. We must learn these laws of energy in order to develop common sense about our future, about plans and propositions we are offered and about how energy affects our money." (Odum and Odum. 1976 p. 37)
These are the laws of thermodynamics - thermo meaning heat like in thermometer and dynamics meaning action. These laws tell us the ways that energy acts. First law - ENERGY CAN NOT BE CREATED NOR DESTROYED. If you use a gallon of gas to drive to the store, some of the energy goes into moving you, some goes into heat in the engine, some into friction on the road and in the air, some goes out the exhaust pipe. All of the energy used to get to the store if measured would be the same amount of energy in the gas you started with.
Second law - ALTHOUGH ENERGY IS NEITHER CREATED NOR DESTROYED, EVERY TIME ENERGY IS USED TO DO WORK SOME OF THAT ENERGY IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE TO DO WORK AGAIN.
"The first law is the conservation law. It says that while energy can never be created or destroyed it can be transformed from one form to another." (Rifkin. 1989. p. 34). When we burn that gallon of gas in our car, the gallon of gas is gone. It is dispersed as heat of friction in the engine, where the tires meet the road, and in the air blowing against the car and in doing work by moving the car. The energy has not been destroyed only changed to the forms of heat and motion. A bowl of cereal will help us to play a game of tennis or weed the garden or hammer a nail. The cereal and milk energy will be dispersed as heat, sweat, waste and work pulling that weed. It has changed form.
The first law is like paying for the loan on your car. Some of the money goes to pay off the actual loan; some goes to pay off the interest on the loan. Unfortunately in nature and technology, interest rates are very high - from 40 to 97 percent. A corn plant is about 3% efficient; a wind generator has an upper limit efficiency of about 60%. That means when you send in a payment of 100 dollars you might be only paying 30 dollars to pay off the original loan (getting work done). If your car uses 30 percent of the energy to accomplish the goal of moving you around; then 70 percent is not being used. It is going into the environment as heat and residue (pollution). What goes in, comes out in one form or another.
“Oh boy,” you say, “improve the amount of the energy actually used to do work and then we have much more energy available.” Yes and NO. NO! There are natural limits to the actual energy any tool or organism (us or a corn plant) can use. No system (our body is an energy using system) is 100 percent efficient. "You got to pay the piper." There is always interest.
Here comes the second law of energy. There is an even greater constraint than just paying the interest. Remember back where we were paying for the loan on our car, 30 dollars went to pay for the loan and 70 dollars went to interest. Well these bankers are crazy. They tear up and burn 40 of the 70 dollars. That 40 dollars is no longer available to pay for anything. ". . . every time energy is transformed from one state to another a certain penalty is exacted.' That penalty is a loss in the amount of available energy to perform work of some kind in the future. There is a term for this; it's called entropy." (Rifkin. 1989. p. 34).
The second law (of thermodynamics) is the Entropy Law. The entropy law could just as well be called the "Humpty Dumpty" law or the "there ain't no free lunch" law. It is critical for understanding energy and the constraints put upon us by the universe.
"Entropy is a measure of the amount of energy no longer capable of conversion into work. Work occurs when energy moves from a higher level of concentration to a lower level . . . More important still, every time energy goes from one level to another, it means that less energy is available to perform work the next time around. For example, water going over a dam falls into a lake. As it falls, it can be used to generate electricity or turn a water wheel or perform some other useful function. Once it reaches the bottom, however, the water is no longer in a state to perform work. Water on a flat plane can't be used to turn even the smallest water wheel." (Rifkin. 1989. p. 35)
"Every time something occurs in the natural world, some amount of energy ends up being unavailable for future work. That unavailable energy is what pollution is all about. Many people think that pollution is a by-product of production. In fact pollution is the sum total of all of the available energy in the world that has been transformed into unavailable energy." (Rifkin. 1989. p. 35)
". . . The second law is the law of degradation of energy : In all processes some of the energy loses its ability to do work and is degraded in quality. . . . Energy that has the ability to do work is called potential energy and is useful; energy that has done work is degraded and is no longer useful. When most people refer to the energy supply - gasoline - for the work of an automobile, they really are referring to potential energy. When people say energy has been 'used up,' they mean that potential energy capable of doing work has been converted into a degraded form of energy, usually dispersed heat. . . . Thus the second law of energy is a familiar idea to most people. We are used to the idea that foods and fuels cannot be used more than once." (Odum and Odum. 1976, p. 38)
I have purposely given you several approaches to the second law - the entropy law. Only some of the energy in that bowl of cereal will go into pulling that weed. The rest, the majority of the energy, is lost to us.
A second aspect of the entropy law has to do with systems. Entropy is a measure of disorder within a system. Consider a teenager who has a very messy room - his room (the system) has high entropy; a lot of disorder. Another teen has a very neat room - this is low entropy; a lot of order. The teenager with the neat room had to eat his cereal for energy to make that room neat. If we want him to keep that room neat, we need to keep feeding him that cereal. (We don't know what the teenager with the messy room is doing with his cereal energy. Let's hope having fun.)
The amount of disorder in these rooms will either stay the same or increase. Order in a system will never increase without an input of energy from outside the system. A broken cup will not simply go back together. Said the other way around, the amount of order in a system either stays the same or decreases. It NEVER increases unless energy is brought in from the outside - gotta eat that cereal.
". . . it is destined that 'we can't break even.' It's impossible to turn around and redo something that has been undone with the same energy that was used to do it in the first place. Once an act is accomplished, the energy required to accomplish it has degraded to a lower level. The entropy law describes the existence of a great natural law - a sort of 'energy gravity' of the universe: Energy is constantly moving from a higher level to a lower level. In the same way that gravity influences water flow, energy can't be made to run uphill (Clark.1975. p. 13).
So the entropy law tells us that when a gallon of gas is used that some of the energy becomes unavailable for further use. It also tells us that the more complicated or complex a system is the more energy you need to keep order - keeping clean a one room cabin compared to a mansion; or a village compared to a megalopolis. And that every act of using energy creates disorder outside the system - where do you throw the trash either from the cabin or the mansion or the city of 20 million people?
The entropy law tells us that an important aspect of our energy use is pollution. The more we use the more we create. It is an illusion to think we are outside the bounds of nature. With our adding the stored energy of fossil fuels and concentrated minerals, more importantly with us adding new, human-made substances to the environment, it all has to fit in somewhere.
Much of what we now add to the environment is toxic either by virtue of the quantity (too much carbon dioxide) or the quality of its newness to the environment (human-made exotic chemicals) or by its destruction of natural barriers (ozone). No matter how toxic our additions are they become a part of the flow. Yeast in a petri dish will grow until their own alcoholic wastes poison them. Then given the voracious nature of life something else will grow, feeding on the dead yeast and its particular pollution. The odds are we will not destroy life through pollution, only ourselves by failing to use our accumulated knowledge for adaptation.
A third aspect of the entropy law is that there is a quality or concentration to a source of energy. The heat from a piece of coal or a piece of oak firewood has the same origin, the sun's energy concentrated in plant tissue. The coal also has layered generations of plant growth and decay coupled with tens of thousands of years of geologic energy in the form of pressure and heat. With this energy gift from the earth, one pound of coal has two times the energy as one pound of oak wood. A pound of petroleum has two and one half times the energy in a pound of wood.
The increase in concentration of the energy sources that support humans connects directly to the pollution side of the equation - the richer the source the higher the impact and more enduring the result of its exhaust. When the soil was depleted in primitive agriculture it could be left to regenerate naturally for a few years. Ozone depletion and greenhouse gases will take decades if not centuries to return to earlier levels. Nuclear waste, the most concentrated of our energy sources, takes many thousands of years to become safe.
We are familiar with the concept of energy quality from the idea of the food chain. The grass uses the sun's energy directly to make food for the cow. We eat the cow. Each movement in the food chain is a concentration of energy. Each step up the chain requires multiple inputs of energy from the preceding step. And some will be loss from use because of entropy. There is the need for many deer to support one wolf. One deer needs many acres of land for support. And in a natural setting humans need square miles for survival.
An ecological system will be as rich in variety as available energy allows. Life generates many forms to tap this available energy. Often the variations are mirrors to each other. The cow grazes the field, the aphid the leaf, the whale the ocean, the dragonfly the air. The sun, water, and air are the force and the fluids.
At each level of the food chain there must be a thermodynamic balance. There can not be more wolves than deer. Their can be no more sheep on an acre then that acre can carry. Only by adding the condensed energy of fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and large machinery can humans live as we now do.
Our "culturing" competes with and replaces the energy eaters of nature with our own energy eaters - cars, hair dryers, toothpaste. With too many of us and too many of us too high up on the energy ladder, there is a grave and real danger our system will collapse just like any other ecological system. And so it goes. Energy defining how life will continue.
Every product of our lifestyle that surrounds us has energy as a gift from the earth. We take the concentrated energy in bauxite, use energy from fossil fuels to convert it into aluminum, more energy to make a can, more energy to fill the can, more energy to bring the can to the store, more energy to bring that can home, more energy to take the heat out of it so that it is cold, more energy to drink it and finally more energy to dispose of the can. The kicker is that in many of these cans there is very little nutrition (meaning energy). At each step there is an accumulation of entropy.
Energy has laws that can not be changed or beaten. These laws work in the Arctic, the Sahara Desert, the wheat fields of Kansas, and downtown Chicago. These laws and the amount of energy available determine the diversity, level of sophistication, and continuity of life in each of these places. And finally the use of energy slowly or not so slowly creates entropy - pollution that must be remove or that habitat will no longer be usable.
Odum (1976) has noted that in a system money moves in one direction and energy in the other. Money buys power - the energy to do something. We can not expect to maintain the unnatural accumulations of millions of people in our megacities without an input of large amounts of money. This is a fact missed by many politicians and tax-weary citizens alike.
The influences of energy in our history and the underlying laws governing energy use can seem abstract and distant. They are not. They are immediate and continually present.
The key to our future lies only partially in understanding energy’s physical laws and influence in our history. In simplistic and quite unrealistic terms one child per couple would in one generation reduce our numbers by half. Our inventiveness and present technological knowledge could generate tools that would make our lives far from brutish and yet gentler on the earth. Over population and over consumption are the results of particularly human issues. Our views of ourselves and our relationships with the rest of nature are the primary stumbling blocks. Here it is the psychological, moral and spiritual that come into the script.
We have no natural enemies to keep us in ecological balance except for ourselves and perhaps microbes. This is a powerfully important concept. One major form of the evolution of human consciousness both ontogenetically and hopefully historically requires the setting of personal and human species limits. This means limits in our numbers and in our per capita energy use. This will not be an easy task.
Limits go against the natural proclivity of life. Consider the making of beer. Beer is made from barley, hops, water, yeast and sugar. The yeast will eat the sugar until it runs out of room or sugar. As it eats, the yeast is reproducing itself as well as making alcohol. Adding more water to the container gives the yeast more room and is analogous to the improved sailing ships of the 15th and 16th centuries. Adding a more concentrated, hyper sugar, is similar to the shift from wood to coal, then petroleum and finally nuclear. The yeast will reproduce itself willy nilly as long as there is sugar or no predator enemy (microbe) or no fatal concentration of alcohol. The waste product of alcohol, although our goal in the fermentation process, poisons the environment for the yeast. Here is the crux of the uneasy task. Yeast can not make self reflective choices; we, no matter how reluctantly, can.
No one individual or species in a naturally occurring ecological system uses more energy than is within the budget of its particular ecosystem; at least not for long. We have imposed "our culturing" on nature. We as an animal with a certain biological mass are using far more energy then would naturally be our allotment. This is possible only because of the bank accounts of fossil fuels and concentrated minerals.
There is a measure of energy consumption called a Human Energy Equivalent (HEE) (Odum and Odum, 1976). This is the yearly energy necessary for basic survival. Gatherers and hunters with fire used about two HEE’s. We in the United States use 100 plus HEE’s. Two thirds of the people in the world use considerably less. If there was an animal outside your door consuming the biologically disproportionate amount of energy used by the average U.S. citizen, that animal would end up on your dining room table. It would be war. In fact for thousands of years it has been war on plants and animals.
Using appropriate technology, we need to achieve an individual HEE level of consumption at somewhere between 10 and 30 units. We need not live brutishly given all our accumulated knowledge. We run our economics as if the energy of natural resources was limitless and unaccountable. Information on the true energy content of the continual flow of materials we use is sorely missing. As U.S. food products have calorie labels, we need the same information for each products and services we use each day. We must be accountable.
Setting and maintaining boundaries for a two year old or an adolescent is a challenge known to all parents. Setting personal and species limits is an equivalent challenge and a primary process in our maturing development. These are limits to our numbers and consumption. There are many exciting dimensions to our humanity that are not constrained by these mature guidelines. Accepting and living each person’s life and the history of the species as an unfolding development of self awareness and an exploring of our many dimensions will create a spiritual revolution in the human community.
Historically in much of the western world as well as in many more advanced agricultural societies, there has been attitude of dominance and regency over the earth and its denizens. From this perspective: we will control and dictate the processes of the environment. It is by divine decree that nature will subordinately accommodate and adjust to humanity. I am chosen; I am at the top of the evolutionary tree; the earth is mine to use in any manner and in any intensity I may choose; it is my birthright to do with the earth as I please.
This attitude is blind to ecological energetics and discloses the hubris found in humanities’ greatest tragedies. We have only bought time with the use of petroleum and other fossil fuels. It has artificially and with great illusion extended the earth’s carrying capacity for the human species (Catton,1980).
In order to move toward a world of peace, issues of social justice will highlight energy questions no matter how we fulfill our future needs. Energy for whom? We in the United States use a total of 25 barrels of petroleum a day personally, commercially, and industrially. Over three billion people in the world use 4 or less barrels of petroleum each day; this is over 60% of world’s population. Over three billion people in the world use 4 Kilowatts or less a day. In the United States we use some 30 Kilowatts of electricity a day. In 1970 just 25 years ago, the population of the whole world was approximately 3,500,000,000 people.
We know that much energy use directly causes pollution. We know that fossil fuels were the reason for a war and that most wars are resource issues. We know that many countries and people in those countries are being exploited for their natural resources. We know that rising greenhouse oceans will flood the homes of millions of “third world” peoples. We know that the ill effects of ozone depletion will impact millions of people who received no benefit from the technologies, do not know there is a problem and if they did know, could not afford sun glasses or #25 sunscreen. We know that ecologically there are too many humans. We know that too many of us using too much means too few of other life forms and too little for them. We who have know that there is a huge disparity between the haves and the have nots worldwide. We know that each of our life styles is making the world minute by minute less livable. We know that petroleum reserves are measured in decades. We know that our great, great grandchildren will inherit our nuclear waste. We know this information and much, much more.
If we saw any other animal that was dying from worldwide epidemics, starvation, violence within families and communities as well as between communities; if this highly social animal was abusing and neglecting its young, raping its females, poisoning its nests, and sickening its members from stresses of modern adaptation demands; we would know we were seeing an animal in an ecological crisis. This is us and this is where we stand.
Ecology is not a spectator sport. We may think that we can sit, watch and shake our head at the way they are depleting fossil fuels or degrading our environment or warring for fuel and non-fuel minerals or raping our sisters and our children. We are they and we can be no less than involved. And we must bear witness.
If you are reading this then you are at least somewhat conversant with the many considerations presented in the last three paragraphs. How do the many people actively involved in spiritual endeavors and espousing a need for gentleness with the earth fly to multiple conferences with its high energy uses and pollution consequences? I believe there are biological and psychological considerations that inhibit us from making these choices for change. These blocks can be adapted and modified if we choose.
A need for stimulation is a core attribute of the mammalian brain. If we consider pleasure/pain experiments performed by Olds or the pay of entertainers compared to teachers or the material purchases of the world’s poor, this motivation can be seen in all its power.
This demand has an addictive quality that is encouraged and magnified by the ease of immediate satisfaction available through technology. Technology seductively satisfies our drive for stimulation and takes the place of spiritual and interrelational excitations that require more personal effort and involvement. We must find new ways to satisfy the incessant and driving need for stimulation. Stepping away from high energy consumption to satisfy this most wonderful need will be one of the most difficult stumbling blocks on the path to realizing and accepting a more gentle place in the family of earth.
Making mature and humane changes that alter our perspectives of dominance, that promote more equitable distribution of energy forms and that balance our ecological situation are deterred in the immediate by two other factors. One is the powerful and necessary faculty of psychological defense mechanisms and the other is the present global economic system.
Defense mechanism protect us from the inconsistencies and contradictions that endanger the mental order necessary for a being a functional human and that challenge our learned perspective of the world. Among the many defense mechanisms several are especially important in our present discussion.
“Denial: The individual deals with emotional conflicts, or internal or external stressors by refusing to acknowledge some aspect of external reality that would be apparent to others.
Displacement: The individual deals with emotional conflicts, or internal or external stressors, by generalizing or redirecting a feeling about or a response to an object onto another, usually less threatening, object.
Intellectualization: The individual deals with emotional conflicts, or internal or external stressors, by the excessive use of abstract thinking to avoid experiencing disturbing feelings.
Rationalization: The individual deals with emotional conflicts, or internal or external stressors, by devising reassuring or self-serving but incorrect explanations for his or her own or others’ behavior.
Suppression: The individual deals with emotional conflicts, or internal or external stressors, by intentional avoiding thinking about disturbing problems, wishes, feelings, or experiences” (Vaillant, 1986, p. 104-105).
Each of these defense mechanisms stands in the way of realizing our need to honor and control our biological power. They inhibit our acknowledging the suffering our inequitable uses of resources causes among other humans. They deter us from accepting our position in the ecological scheme of the earth and the vital importance of other life forms. They block us from recognizing the contradictions between our words and our deeds.
During the coming transition an appreciation of the grieving process and human defense mechanisms is critically important. For many the changes ahead will be a great mourning for the lost dreams fostered by our culture, the perspectives defined by our religions, the myths spawned by our economics. . This will be a dangerous time. The mechanism of displacement scares me. Many of us will search for a place to put our anger instead of accepting our own involvement, responsibility and need for mature constraints. Where will our anger be directed? Who will catch this anger: Arabs, blacks, women, Jews, our children? Or how about the earth in mistaken rage that she does not provide? Or the messengers with the bad news?
Another factor impeding the shift to a more balanced ecological situation in our numbers and consumption is the present economic engine whether called capitalism, market economy or more rightfully consumerism. It is based on the continual growth of goods and services to more and more people. This perspective is the ‘yeast growing willy nilly’ approach to resources and population.
Having an addictive and frantic feel to it, the ways of the global economy are coupled especially through advertising with our self images, our defense mechanisms, and our need for stimulation. There is a rapacious and bulimic quality to this view of the world which is inherently short sighted and on a treadmill of ever increasing speed.
A great illusion and deep wound to ecology was initiated the week of October 14, 1995 on the Chicago Board of Trade. TRASH became a commodity to be sold and traded but most importantly to make big money. There will be no incentive to reduce energy and material at the head waters of the consuming stream. Recycling at our level of consumption is a cruel hoax. The lament of the trash traders was that there was not enough. The advertisements and jingles are sure to come.
I have great concern for the men and women who sincerely and diligently work long and hard to make the unneeded so they can consume the unnecessary. The energy for their activities is based on diminishing and polluting fossil fuels and dangerous and truly costly nuclear power. And this does not even consider the necessary base of land and water for the fundamental energy of food.
There is yet one more impediment to an ecologically sane future and it is the sum total of the specifically human aspects of this discussion. Our chief survival tool is our wonderful adaptability. I propose that the test of our species is learning to handle this powerful outcome of biological evolution. I further suggest that we have pushed our adaptability both to its ecological limits and to its psychological boundaries.
We have adapted to the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, to human communities growing in a short hundred years to megasizes, to access to sources of energy that emulate the sun itself. Each time we have modified our interaction with the environment and that change has modified us. The children of the change inherit the confusions and pains of their pioneering parents.
Consider it this way. If humanity is seen as a person who is 100 years old, the first 99 years of her life would have been spent as gatherer and hunter. She would have only one year to adapt to the changes in family structure, living arrangements, child rearing and all the other pressures and stresses that the shift to agriculture brought. This same 100 year old person would have five or six days to adapt to the enormous changes brought about by the industrial revolution. And less than a day to adapt to the mass of information made available by electronics.
Each adaptation moves us further away from the original social and physical environment of our emergence. Is it bad or wrong? This is not the criteria. There is no fault. Each accommodation comes from necessity and is the best we know at the time. At the leading edge of human history is an accumulation that expands and deepens the knowledge of our travels.
Our adaptation is a formidable and powerful tool for survival. There is, however, a caution to be heeded:
"That adaptability, unfortunately, is also a source of dangers. We are extremely sensitive to the legendary 'boiled frog' syndrome. Frogs placed in a pan of water that is slowly heated will be unable to detect the gradual but deadly trend; they will sit still until they die. Like the frogs, many people seem unable to detect the gradual but lethal trend in which population and economic growth threaten to boil civilization. They keep working to turn up the heat, because they can't detect its rise. . . . When was the last time you went out in the rain and tasted its acidity? In a few places, including some Chinese cities, it is possible to find rain so acid that you can taste it." (Ornstein and Ehrlich. 1989. 74-75)
I am not suggesting that we should return to the days of yesteryear. Obviously, returning to hunting and gathering is not an option even if it was desirable. What is important is to consider the social and physical setting in which we developed as a species, the influence of unrestrained population growth and ecological pressures. Perhaps an understanding of this milieu can guide us through the ecological and social stresses that we now face. Perhaps it can help us understand the health care crisis and massive ingestion of medicinal drugs.
Energy and our place in ecology will be major issues in our future. It will determine if we eat and stay warm. It will determine how we move about, how quickly and how far. It will determine how many of us there are. It has always and will continue to be a major factor in how we treat each other. I believe a knowledge of systems and processes are imperative. I believe the serious challenges for the future are psychological, sociological and spiritual.
We know All things are bound together.
that the White Man All things connect.
does not understand What happens to the Earth
our way of life. happens to children of the Earth.
To him, one piece of land Man has not woven the web of life.
is much like the other. He is but one thread.
He is a stranger coming in the night Whatever he does to the web,
taking from the land he does to himself.
what he needs.
The earth is not his brother
but his enemy
and when he has conquered it,
he moves on.
He cares nothing for the land,
he forgets his father's grave
and his children's heritage.
He treats his mother the Earth
and his Brother the Sky
His hunger will eat
the earth bare
and leave only a desert.
I do not understand -
our ways are different from yours.
If we should sell our land
then you must know
that the air is valuable to us,
that the air passes its breath
over all life that it maintains.
The wind that gave
my grandfather his first breath How can one sell the air? The
also received his last sigh. Manifesto of an Indian Chief.
And the wind also Book Publishing Co.
breathes life into our children. Sunnertown, TN. 1980
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