This paper comes from the Environmental Ethics Conference held October 29-29 in Tartu, Estonia, and organized by Jakob von Uexkull Center.
Premise I: The number of slaves has reached the maximum and can henceforth only decrease.
Premise II: Humans have yet to find their place in the ecosystem, so they behave as teenagers.
Energy is the force that moves things, that keeps the whole world going. During the past century, the easily obtained, easily moved and easily processed petroleum or crude oil has become the basic source of energy. Among other things, oil has brought engines (above all the combustion engines in cars) into everyday use, and these engines do the work of a thousand people (the corresponding power outputs are 80kW and 80W). Figuratively speaking, oil is like a billion slaves who work incessantly for the good of mankind.
The woes of the oil addicts
The work of these invisible slaves has allowed mankind to grow to over six billion people, to till millions of square kilometres of land, to produce fertilizers, to transport people and goods, to wage global wars and to set up global communication systems. But the number of slaves has reached the maximum and can henceforth only decrease. The time of peak oil has arrived.
One can endlessly argue about the excact moment of peak oil, but not about its causes – geological inevitability (the limited nature of resources) and increased consumption. At the moment, oil consumption is at the record levels of more than 80 million barrels per day. The growth is mainly supported by China with its 10% annual growth in oil consumption. The world’s largest oilfields were discovered already in the 1960s and today’s “large” discoveries or unused reservoirs, such as the one under the Alaskan nature reserve, can each satisfy the world’s consumption needs for only a few months.
In addition, the data about oil reserves is untrustworthy, to say the least. For example, the official oil reserves of the OPEC countries grew by billions of barrels almost overnight in the 1980s, simply because it was useful (OPEC’s internal quotas were distributed according to the declared reserves of these countries). In their recent analysis, the respected BBC calls the existing data on oil reserves “black magic”.
In the developed countries, 1000 GDP dollars include 200 kg of raw oil on the average.
Estimating the dependency of Estonian economy upon the price of raw oil, we get a correlation according to which a five-dollar increase in the price of raw oil will take one billion estonian crowns out of the country. As a political-economic twist of irony, this money is pocketed by Russia and its oil companies, because this is where the fuel in our cars comes from. One should pay attention to the oil addiction in all the different levels – from personal to national to global.
Proof for the oil addiction comes even from the recent news – bus companies need subsidies or must increase ticket prices, ambulance and fire-brigades must decrease the number of calls due to fuel costs, farmers cannot afford to purchase fuel for tractors.
Life strategies at the dusk of the age of energy
At this moment we do not have an energy source that would be as easy to produce and transport as oil. Nuclear power can produce electricity, but the remaining rich uranium ore will also last for decades, not for centuries. Renewable energy can probably never cover the current levels of global energy consumption. Yes, they are constructing a small sun on earth, a nuclear fusion plant in France that will cost 10 billion Euros, but even if it does produce electricity, this experimental device won’t turn on any light bulbs. In theory, if we are successful, we could heat all the oceans, but only in theory. And risks must be diversified, as the investment gurus tell us.
The absence of gasoline in gas stations or its 50 EEK price do not herald the end of the world. On the contrary, with timely thought and action one can downright enjoy the decline. At present, when fuels are relatively cheap, we must deliberately and persistently invest in modes of living that will ensure that our basic needs are covered at an age of less available energy. On the other hand, useful systems from the age of plentiful energy, such as global communications and cooperation, should definitely be preserved. A primary goal would be the establishment of land use that would supply people with food, lodging, heating and other necessities at a local level.
The possibility of such a mode of living in Estonia in the absence of fossil fuels has been convincingly proven during the period from mid-19th century to World War II.
Experiments to find the lifestyle suitable for life after of the age of energy are carried out all over the world, mainly in the form of ecological villages, counties, and bioregional planning. This mostly occurs in culturally marginal regions. But as history has repeatedly demonstrated, the movements that show the way to the future often take place in cultural or geographical periphery. In many places, in New Zealand for example, ecosystemic thinking has reached the mainstream.
Local life awakens
A practical example about the aftermath of the energy decline is Cuba, where sustainable living became the focus after the abrupt termination of the flow of fossil fuel from the Soviet Union. Today, there are thousands of city gardens in Havanna (on rooftops, wastelands, former parking lots), that supply a significant portion of the inhabitants’ food consumption.
Local communes will revive and strengthen at the dusk of the age of energy. Complementary currency will be taken into use (over 4000 in the world today); schooling, healthcare, looking after the elderly and everything else that today is considered to be the duty of the state will be organized collectively.
The dusk of energy means that buildings are constructed out of local materials; they will be sturdy (though at the same time easily dismantled or transported), sustainable, easily maintained and repaired both energy and materials-wise. The energy decline also means using local energy – the sun, wind, growing forests and plants, gravitational waterflow.
Dusk of energy means declaring the internet a human right and a global priority, and a considerable amount of common resources will be contributed for their operation. Having a full and balanced life is more probable in a global commune than as in competing, or even warring regions, cities and villages. Cooperation, recognized to prevail in nature, will outbalance exaggerated competition. The few necessary megasystems, such as the internet, commerce or scientific work and cultural exchange can be established and maintained only in cooperation. However, human-size systems, founded and maintained on a local level, will become the rule.
Life as part of nature
The energy decline will also lead to the rethinking and rephrazing of the purposes of humanity as a whole. Whereas the primary purpose during the past centuries has been growth – both material as well as in numbers – from now on it should be maturation, because humans are a relatively young species who have yet to find their place in the ecosystem (or we have forgotten it), so we behave as teenagers.
The same can be observed in the development of natural ecosystems. After a cataclysm, such as a volcanic eruption, a deluge, an ice age or something similar, the barren land will quickly be colonized by pioneer species, often known as weeds. They utilize nutrients in the ground and start to grow soil with the assistance of solar energy. Thus they prepare the land for those who will follow, and who live longer. Competition will be replaced by cooperation, mutually beneficial relationships are formed, and a relatively stable ecosystem will eventually form. Primeval forests with large clearings are examples of mature ecosystems. Local micro-organisms, fungi, plants and animals are highly dependent on one another and the primeval forest in its entirety uses energy very efficiently.
It would be fruitful to stop arguing whether the climate is changing or not, or whether humans are the rulers and stewards of nature, but we should instead acknowledge that we are a part of nature, with our own place and path of development. We should walk along these ways boldly, because many a discovery and adventure is still waiting for us, and it would be much better to meet them happily, especially now when we have a roadmap in our back pocket leading us towards the dusk of the age of energy.