Uses the metaphor of an energy fabric in order to discuss the perspective of viewing our lives, actions and the things in our lives from an energy point of view. The centrality of energy in our lives is explored through this metaphor and the importance for us to begin thinking more closely about our energy habits and how our lives depend on energy is examined. Energy and how we get it and how we use it is going to become a subject of increasing importance as the era of easy energy that has characterized the past century and a half draws to a close.
Our lives are clothed by a largely unnoticed energy fabric. Naturally this is a metaphor, but it is a useful one that can help us think about ourselves; about our place in the larger scheme of things; and about what we do and the consequences of our actions, from a new and important perspective. Far too many people have been seduced by this passing era of cheap oil into discounting the central importance of energy in every aspect of existence. But this era of easy energy is coming to a close; so we need to begin once again to understand energy and learn how it affects our existence.
Everything we do and everything we own has energy deeply woven into it… and energy is woven into this fabric at every stage from the initial upstream sourcing or growing of raw stuff, through the many steps of refining and fabrication to marketing, to sales and distribution, useful working life and disposal. What we use and what we do has an energy fabric all through its life, the maintenance and care, and finally on to end of service life energy costs.
If you let your minds wander just a little for a minute or two and look around at the things surrounding you and at how you spend your days and nights and imagine superimposed on all of these objects and activities a kind of shimmering energy fabric that is embodied within and that becomes bound to these objects and activities, and in a deep sense characterizes them, you will view the world and your place in it with a different and powerful perspective. Looking at the world in this way helps us to understand the invisible yet central role played by energy in everything we use, enjoy, see, own, visit, taste, work with, employ… and even and perhaps especially in our own selves.
Imagine how dense the tightly compacted woven threads of energy become within each of us, especially those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the wealthy parts and classes of this earth… we are veritable energy hotspots, glowing nexuses of highly concentrated energy; the energy fabric is in fact highly dense in ourselves, highly accumulated and concentrated by all that we have consumed over time and all the many things we do each and every day.
The Dimension of Time
This brings us to the dimension of time. There is also a time aspect to this metaphorical energy fabric. Take an object, in fact any object large or small will do… look at it, examine it and if you can try to imagine its energy history, imagine threads of energy being spun together and woven progressively into the thing you are holding in focus. Imagine its current moment now as it is used and the energy that this aggregates into this time graphed virtual image… now project forward in time… see how even after it is no longer used, after it is disposed of, junked, tossed or re-cycled hopefully… energy is still being added to this sequentially spun meta-fabric.
Now try this mental exercise with some routine thing you do during the day, say taking a lunch break. If you let your imagination roll with this and visualize this meta-fabric overlaid onto some daily routine you will see the things you do in a different way. You will see the tendrils of energy that are involved with everyday activities; and you will see how in a profound sense we are energy beings.
Looking at the woven energy fabric in the things we possess and use and in the things we do also helps us to grasp the concept of an energy history that is embodies in these items and in our own selves. I believe it is going to become increasingly important to grasp the concept of energy history (and energy future) that is inherent and inseparable from these things and activities (and self). Understanding how energy becomes aggregated into our lives over time is a necessary precursor, in my opinion, to truly understanding how we can go about becoming more efficient and frugal.
Why Is It Even Important Anyways?
Of course, this analogy can be taken too far; in fact all life exploits energy and needs an energy gradient in order to survive… all life increases entropy by concentrating energy and organization within itself at the expense of a larger increase in the wider system entropy. But modern humans, especially those in the industrialized world and in the well to do classes in the rest of the world have gone far beyond the natural world’s levels of energy consumption and are in a realm that is far removed from it. We consume energy at a scale that has never been seen before on our planet; both in our aggregate human population and especially for the materially well off amongst our numbers at an individual level as well.
It is just a perspective, perhaps, but the energy fabric and woven energy history viewpoints are vital in our times because we are now leaving the era of easy energy. Our existence, our lives, at least for those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the rich parts of the world or born rich anywhere have coasted along in stupendous energy ease. We have grown accustomed to this easy supply of endless energy and have become profoundly dependent upon it in so many ways, some obvious others less so. In fact we even see it as our birthright, and many become incensed when faced with the prospect that our ride down easy street may be coming to a rather abrupt end.
Our energy future is different from the era of oil plenty we are now leaving, no matter what energy choices we make. It’s not that oil is running out, but the easy oil is becoming less and that which is left is the harder to get, more marginal stuff. The recent upswing in the price of gas is hitting this home. Part of this upswing is speculative, and many believe that it is purely speculative, but I am not one of those folks. There are underlying fundamentals that are at work that are triggering these successive rounds of price peaks, invariably followed by price collapses as the economic pain causes all economic activity to contract. I cover this destructive dynamic more extensively in my post, “Unpredictable Oil Prices are Hurting Everyone”.
Remember that energy is woven into every activity, including – and this is an important point to grasp – including in the activity of getting energy itself. In fact, it is taking increasing amounts of energy in order to get energy. I am hoping that this will plateau, but looking at things from a long view the EROI (also EROEI) or energy returned on energy invested of liquid fuels has been on a historical trend toward increasingly marginal rates of return. For further reading on this concept see our post “Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) And Why It Matters”. The huge mega gusher fields that produced fantastic EROI values well above fifty to one are a thing of the past. Oil is still out there, of course, but it is becoming harder to get and to get it is taking an increasingly large bite out of the eventual energy that the source will produce. For example the EROEI of Canadian tar sand is less than six to one.
The End of an Era is Rarely Seen Ahead of Time
Face it we humans are not all that good at predicting the future. We roll out the future in our minds based on our past experience. Usually this serves us very well and precisely because it does this mode of thought becomes ingrained in us and we find it exceedingly difficult to conceive of possible futures that are not extensions and extrapolations of our recent past experiences.
History is littered with examples of this surprising lack of foresight in human culture after human culture. It seems that we just try to keep plodding along in the “old” ways; trying to preserve a way of life, long after it is no longer profitable or even tenable until a culture simply collapses, leaving only ruins behind for others to marvel at and wonder.
We like to think of our own culture as better than those that came and vanished before us. We like to think of ourselves as smarter and more ingenious, but are we?
Look at our culture’s intense energy fabric and wonder… are we truly prepared for and preparing ourselves for the energy future that is in our very near future?
Perhaps I’m Wrong… I Certainly Hope I Am
Perhaps some unforeseen technological breakthrough will open up a future of plentiful and easy energy, once again… perhaps a fusion breakthrough say, and in that case I will happily eat humble pie. I do not wish hardship upon anyone, and I wish our energy future was an unbroken continuation of our easy energy past.
But, as is said: hope for the best; prepare for the worst. I hope as much as the next guy (or gal), but I am not basing all my contingency plans on something that has proven to be stubbornly elusive. I do not think it is wise to go forward assuming that somehow we will just work it out; that some breakthrough technology or an endless supply of hypothetically recoverable hydrocarbons (like the Bakken formation) will solve our impending energy woes.
There are many reasons, beyond just energy use itself why we need to begin looking very carefully at our energy habits. Our energy habits are choking the world’s ecosystems in numerous ways, as environmentalists, biologists, ecologists and scientists in general have been trying to point out. But we need to begin looking at our energy beings; at this energy fabric we enmesh ourselves in out of pure self-interest. It behooves us to begin trying to break out of the prevailing mindset and begin searching for mindsets and habits that are better suited to survival in the kind of world that is going to be upon us whether or not we like it.
Barring some unforeseen energy miracle, which I hope for as much as you or anyone does, but which I do not think we should be basing their future plans on. In order not to close this on a completely depressing note here are a few related posts that hopefully point out some possible energy solutions that may help us to weave our future energy fabric.
In 12 Synthetic Biology Biofuel & Biochemical Companies to Watch, I examine this exciting energy supply, based on synthetic biology producing highly efficient microbial energy factories. Algal biofuels interest me, primarily because of their very high potential yields; ability to be produced using industrial waste CO2, desert land and water that is too salty for agricultural use. In, “Waste to Energy Is Taking Off Around The World“, Javier Herrero y Sáenz de Cabezón, CEO of Bauhaus Capital Partners. examines how new technologies are being developed to process, recycle and reuse waste, some combining waste treatment processes in the same plant to produce a variety of useful products such as electrical energy, diesel, heat, carbon black and other recyclable materials. In “12 Clean Energy Trends to Watch in 2011 and Beyond“, Tracey, examines developments in the renewable cleantech energy space and how they will impact development going forward. And in “Fifteen Grid Scale Energy Storage Solutions to Watch“, takes a look at the dimension of electric energy storage and at various technologies that are being developed (or already are widely used). As you can see we spend a lot of time thinking about energy here at the Green Economy Post; mostly about ways in which we can develop a sustainable energy future.
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