A friend reminded me of this 2011 essay written by the brilliant physicist Tom Murphy.
I read it when Murphy first published it but I had forgotten how good it was so I’ve dusted it off in the hope that it sees more daylight.
Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.
In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!
In the parallel world of economics, an energy decline likely spells deep recession. The substantial financial investment needed to carry out an energy replacement crash program will be hard to scrape together in tough times, especially given that we are unlikely to converge on the “right” solution into which we sink our bucks.
Politically, the Energy Trap is a killer. In my lifetime, I have not witnessed in our political system the adult behavior that would be needed to buckle down for a long-term goal involving short-term sacrifice. Or at least any brief bouts of such maturity have not been politically rewarded. I’m not blaming the politicians. We all scream for ice cream. Politicians simply cater to our demands. We tend to vote for the candidate who promises a bigger, better tomorrow—even if such a path is untenable.
The only way out of the political trap is for a substantial fraction of our population to understand the dimensions of the problem: to understand that we’ve been spoiled by the surplus energy available through fossil fuels, and that we will have to make decade-level sacrifices to put ourselves on a new track. The only way to accomplish this is through sober education, which is what Do the Math is all about. It’s a trap! Spread the word!
Tom Murphy stopped writing in 2013 after (I think) he realized that no amount of education will change the behavior of the majority.