The threat of energy depletion

For centuries, humans have relied on non-renewable energy for their heat, their light and their material progress –and have worried that they would run out of it. Visiting frozen St Petersburg in 1839, the Marquis de Custine commented ‘In beholding the inroads made upon the forests we may ask, with inquietude, how will the next generation warm themselves?’ The answer was coal, a much more efficient system of heating, a few sackfulls providing as much heat as a constantly coppiced forest.

But people soon worried that we would run out of coal. In 1859, the economist William Stanley Jevons wrote a book on The Coal Question, subtitled ‘the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines’. His thesis, in brief was that in a growing economy, the demand for coal increases much faster than the population; the increasing cost of mining coal will inevitably halt and reverse economic progress.

In a fascinating essay on Jevons, Keynes remarked: ‘His conclusions were influenced, I suspect, by…..a [psychological propensity] to be alarmed and excited by the idea of the exhaustion of resources’. Jevons held similar views about the approaching scarcity of paper, and laid in such large stocks that even his grandchildren had not used it up.

Long before the increasing price of coal put an end to civilization, we had discovered oil, which is a much more efficient source of energy than coal. Now Jevons’s spiritual heirs argue that that oil production has already peaked and will soon decline, because we are producing more oil than we are discovering. Proven reserves will last no more than 40 years. One economist, Matthew Simmons, writes that ‘the twilight may soon descend on oil production in Saudi Arabia’.

The pessimists have another string to their bow. The constant increase in energy demand threatens not just the exhaustion of energy supplies, but also environmental catastrophe through rising CO2 emissions. Human life will then become as scarce as fossil fuels.

The fact is that we have only the haziest idea of how much oil OPEC or Russia has buried in the ground. But it doesn’t really matter. One thing we can be sure about is that oil production will decline long before we literally run out, not only because we will use it more efficiently, but because it will become more expensive than available substitutes. Humanity is gradually entering the ‘gas and hydrogen age’. Gas and hydrogen based fuels will gradually make oil a secondary fuel in the same way that oil has replaced wood and coal.

The deeper issue between the bears and bulls is more difficult to resolve. Pessimists believe that modern civilization destroys the natural harmony between human beings and their ecology, and that planet Earth will have the last say by inflicting catastrophe on man’s presumption. Religion and science combine in this millennial prophecy of doom.

Optimists believe that disequilibrium is the condition of human life. We cannot live without challenges, complications. Man is a problem-creating animal. We set ourselves problems in order to solve them. There will never be a final solution, because we are born with a divine dissatisfaction. If catastrophe is the price of our hubris, so be it, because equilibrium is a form of death.

The contrast is, perhaps, between the eastern and the western philosophies. ‘The exemplary man’, writes Confucius, ‘pursues harmony’. Harmony is accepting the situation as it is, not trying to transcend it. Western man is ‘Faustian’ man, always striving for some impossible ideal. Currently, China is the world’s biggest energy guzzler. But in the longer run our attitude to the use of energy, and much else, will depend on how we balance these two conceptions of life.