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Power Down: Why We Need To Completely Redesign Our Use of Energy

Energy is at the core of our global challenges, and we can't rely on tech alone to solve the problem.


More than just a bill we hate to pay every month, energy is at the very core of our global challenges. Extracting fossil fuels poisons landscapes, while burning those fuels accelerates climate change. As conventional oil and gas deplete, energy companies spend more to search for new supplies. Fuel prices rise, imperiling not just our after work drink budgets, but the economies and security of entire nations.
It’s tempting just to look for ways to target each of our energy problems with a technical fix. Can’t we improve the energy efficiency of vehicles, develop renewable energy sources, and sequester carbon? Yes, of course. But two problems remain.
First: we have exceeded global levels of energy consumption that are sustainable. The sheer scale of our energy use today is fantastic when compared with that in any era of history. And still we want more.
Second: we have created an energy infrastructure that has overpowered natural ecosystems. Ocean trawlers overwhelm the ability of fish species to rebound. Diesel-powered shovels rip apart mountains for coal. Chainsaws and bulldozers level 13 million hectares of forest every year, while paving machines render agricultural land and natural habitat into highways and parking lots for box stores.


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While choices about the sources of energy we use are important, every option has costs. Even energy efficiency has costs: it is subject to the law of diminishing returns (each further increase in efficiency tends to cost more than the previous one). And the costs of increasing our energy production are, in more and more instances, exceeding the benefits.
Here’s the rub: We’ve reached a point of crisis with regard to energy, where the contradictions of our growth-based energy system are irreconcilable, and where its deferred costs are coming due. The essential problem is not just that we’re tapping the wrong energy sources (though we are), or that we are wasteful and inefficient (though we are), but that we are over-powered, and we are overpowering nature.
For the already-industrialized world, energy consumption is at such high levels that substantial reductions would still leave plenty of room for the enjoyment of modern conveniences. For less-industrialized countries, where hundreds of millions live with little electricity or liquid fuel, it is essential that “development” be redefined in terms of sufficiency and quality of life, instead of numbers of cars and highways, or tons of exports.
In short, our task is to redesign the human enterprise so it can be supported with levels of power that can be sustainably supplied, and so it no longer overwhelms ecosystems. As we power down, we can find ways to make the inevitable energy decline feel like progress. But make no mistake: we must power down.
Take a good look at what it takes to power society. Think about the tens of millions of years’ worth of fossil fuels burned in mere decades; about the billions of tons of geologically-stored carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere; about the landscapes we ravage, the water we foul, the air we pollute, and the species we drive into extinction in order to power our industrial mega-machine.
Then ask yourself: Is this really necessary? Couldn’t we just use less?
Richard Heinberg is the senior fellow in residence at Post Carbon Institute. PCI's new book Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth is the centerpiece of their new Energy Reality campaign.\n
This month, challenge a neighbor to GOOD's energy smackdown. Find a neighbor with a household of roughly the same square footage and see who can trim their power bill the most. Throughout February, we'll share ideas and resources for shrinking your household carbon footprint, so join the conversation at good.is/energy.\n
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Original top image via Post Carbon Institute; second image courtesy of Harry Walker.\n
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