OPINION: Why we need to make changes before we're doomed

I AM currently listening to the book 'Against', by American academic Tad Delay.

It has one very frightening chapter in which he explores the factors that discourage people to take seriously predictable future problems.

Delay uses as an example the impending end of modern civilisation, through our approach to energy usage.

First Delay introduces the idea of energy cost for energy return, by talking about one of the older forms of energy, wood. In wood we get back about four units of energy for every unit of energy we need to invest in the product.

Next Delay moves onto Coal. Good quality coal apparently provides forty units of energy for ever unit invested, you can see why it has been so popular.

The next energy source is oil. Oil, when it was first being used was providing roughly 150 units for every unit expended, and this massively boosted the industrial revolution. However, and this is where it gets scary, the energy cost of extracting oil has increased significantly, despite improvements in technology and deregulation.

Oil is now just about at parity with coal. When it is laid out like this we can see that Oil and Coal can only go in one direction globally, their energy return on energy investment will just keep getting worse.

The next scary thing to realise is that this in no way takes into consideration the environmental impact of extraction or the burning of oil and coal.

Delay then moves onto renewables, which he points out are resisted, most often by those with a capital investment in fossil fuels and an ideological disavowal of the future.

The energy return on investment for renewables are roughly 40 units for hydroelectric where it can be installed correctly, 20 units for wind and 6 or 7 for solar.

Hydro then is a sensible solution as it relies on the water cycle we all learned about in school, which is powered primarily by the sun, across vast expanses of the earth. Wind is the next most reasonable followed by solar.

The important thing is that without a technological and cultural shift solar is not enough, our civilisation would be on an energy starvation diet at that point.

The thing with renewables is that, unlike the fossil fuels, they do not get more expensive over time, and in fact if we invest in them may become cheaper.

I am assuming that the numbers he provides are accurate, and even if he is out by 20% that merely delays the problem.

Those numbers point to a significant problem if nothing changes, which leads to the point of the book, that we need to make some changes.


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