• Energy & New Materialism: the Other Side of a Mass Extinction Event

    This post is part of a Homebrewed Christianity blog tour on Crockett and Robbins’ Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism.


    I’ve written previously on what is new about the New Materialism, but the politics of energy by Kevin Mequet was a most fascinating explanation of a energy catastrophe waiting on the horizon.

    It’s Not Just the Mass-Extinction Event...

    It is not simply an environmental problem.  The 5-8 degree Fahrenheit change will issue a mass extinction event, but the severity is difficult to frame because 1) most of these effects will not be evident for two generations, 2) most of these effects will not be catastrophic for first world states, and 3) these projections rely on hard science which is - as we all know - effectively dissolved by the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine. Mequet’s chapter is about a whole different crisis on the horizon - one which can be communicated in math that has not (yet) been politicized by capital.

    “In its most basic sense, life is energy conversion.  In a way, being or reality itself is also energy.”  - Mequet, Religion, Politics, & the Earth, 87

    Energy Conversion

    Capitalism rose on cheap energy over the past two centuries.  First, we have to understand that capitalism is only capable of rewarding continuous expansion.  By definition, capitalism only rewards surplus which can be extracted and reallocated up a corporate hierarchy.  If the earth has limited resources, then the capital=energy-conversion metric bumps up against real limits.  Not just environmental limits or carbon limits or mass extinction limits.  Mequet is talking about absolute physical limits in the form of EROEI.  And these limits involve very simple, predictable numbers that plot like a bell curve.

    History of EROEI

    Homo sapiens hunted and gathered for 200 millennia, and then 10,000 years ago we had an agricultural revolution on the backs of domesticated animals and burned wood.  For 9,800 years, burning wood was the only energy resource available.  It was plentiful, but even the Roman Empire bumped up against energy limits as it faced a deforestation crisis (in other words, we’ve seen a milder version of all this before).  Wood has an energy return on energy investment (EROEI) of 4:1.  We get 4 BTUs of energy for every BTU of energy we put into its production.  

    The EROEI of coal is 10:1.  The 2.5x uptick in power output and ease of transport allowed coal to fuel an industrial revolution that could not have happened without a new energy source.  That sentence was important, because economy is energy conversion.  We exploit new sources of energy not only because of the power output but because the new resource solves alternative problems.  Coal allowed mechanization which cut down on the animal needs still associated with wood use.

    “Although natural petroleum and tar deposits were well known in the world before 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, it was at this propitious moment that alternatives to coal were being widely sought... Natural gas, while significantly cleaner than coal, was unfortunately far more difficult to transport for consumption... Petroleum was waiting for the right confluence of innovation and diffusion to propel human technological prowess and advancement to new dizzying heights... The amazing outcome was that petroleum performed initially 15 times better than coal at 150:1 EROEI.” - Mequet, Religion, Politics, & the Earth, 95

    Nothing Competes with Petroleum

    150:1 is the reason there is simply nothing like oil.  But there is a catch: EROEI decreases over time as a resource becomes more difficult to extract.  By the mid-20th century, petro EROEI stood at 100:1.  Even at that rate it was still able to fuel the rise of American economic supremacy along with globalization.  It is extremely difficult to pin precisely, but petro EROEI is now floating between 100:1 and 50:1 (probably closer to the latter).  Part of the reason we have not and cannot recover from the current recession is that the mortgage/derivatives crisis hit in what was likely the peak year for oil extraction.

    By the way, tar sands have an EROEI of between 7 and 10 to 1.  Yes, tar sands are less efficient than coal two centuries back.

    This is the Way the World Ends

    EROEI eventually falls below 1:1 for a non-renewable resource like petroleum.  Now that we are likely just a few years after peak oil, 1:1 is only a matter of time.  Reaching this point would be so unimaginably catastrophic (not just economic collapse beyond recovery, but the collapse of entire civilizations) that energy wars will continue to be fought leaving millions and millions dead in its wake (no doubt under the guise of “war on terror”).  This is not speculation.  This is simple math, and the wars are already happening.  This is what your grandkids will be dealing with.

    There is No Hope (Yet)

    So what about renewable alternatives?  Whether we are measuring solar, wind, hydro, or nuclear fission, none have an EROEI much better than 4:1.  Mequet has all these numbers cited from government regulatory sites for those interested.  Yes, not even nuclear. Nuclear fusion consumes so much energy in construction, maintenance, base power, and disposal that it performs at the same EROEI as wood.  If we converted all power usage to nuclear at todays rate of use (which is not realistic since usage will actually double over the next two decades), our fissile material reserves would deplete in 10-20 years.  And most alternatives use petroleum in some form, so their EROEI will fluctuate.

    What can be done?  First and most unfortunately, it is not at all sensational to claim we are looking at a mass extinction event around the end of the 21st century.  The change in climate guarantees this much.  But whether humankind will be able to avoid a Hollywoodesque dystopian future will depend on how we address our very serious energy problem.  One possibility is the mass scaling of low EROEI alternatives, but there are geometric limits involved.  Another possibility is the “always twenty years away” option of nuclear fusion:

    “David Goodstein, a physicist at Caltech, suggests that even inside a heat-dependent point of view, nuclear fusion is humankind’s best long-term hope for the future whereby 1 gallon of water if converted by nuclear fusion would equal the current exploitation of 3000 gallons of gasoline.  At petroleum’s 100:1 EROEI that would be a phenomenal increase to 30,000 EROEI... It is reasonable to speculate that the expected jump for athermal nuclear technology could be in the range of 25-30 times the petroleum EROEI.” -Mequet, Religion, Politics, & the Earth, 98

    Athermal Nuclear

    Athermal nuclear power generation is Mequet’s proposal.  Our current nuclear fission (and fusion if it ever happens) technology still treats nuclear reactions as a byproduct, a means to an end which is heat.  Heat converts water to steam to turn a turbine.  The turbine interacts with a magnetic coil and produces a current.  But Mequet argues we can model a reactor on the para-magnetism created by the earth and learn to harvest nuclear energy directly from magnetism created by atom-splitting.  The proposal is the topic of the next chapter.  Mequet recently delivered a TED Talk on his athermal nuclear energy proposal, and I will link to it when the video goes online.

    Religion & Apocalypse

    Here is why energy matters in a book about religion.  Theology is largely a product of economy.  Economy is energy conversion.  Religion is energy conversion.  Religion is about money.  Religion, particularly American Evangelicalism, is a powerful tool which is being wielded by capitalism.  Capitalism is structurally incapable of thinking long-term because of the high reward for short term investment yields, and thus capital deploys its legion of Evangelicals to parrot propaganda that calls science into question.  However, there is an opening provided by the EROEI concept.

    While capital interests have focused Evangelicals on climate science denial, EROEI is an entirely ignored flank.  Climate science and EROEI might be based on the same basic math, but the numbers are (forgive the patronizing tone) too simple to obscure.  Unless you don’t particularly care about the welfare of your progeny, you don’t have the option of saying “Drill baby, drill!”

    Religion can be redirected to address energy conversion.  Religion is and always has been about energy conversion.  Religion has been, can be, and should be about material reality.  No god is going to save us from what we are about to do to ourselves.

    “As Homo carbonicus goes extinct what can we do? Exactly what we’ve been doing- evolve... again.” -Mequet, Religion, Politics, & the Earth, 96.

    The meek will inherit the earth.  We just hope that’s not because a catastrophic collapse extinguishes everyone else.