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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Oil and climate change in the age of energy scarcity

As energy scarcity returns to civilization, we are being forced—often painfully—to become conscious once again of the energy flows in our daily life, Cobb writes. 

By Kurt CobbGuest blogger / January 22, 2013

Claudinice Silva, 30, carries a bucket of water collected from a nearly dried-up well in northeast Brazil, during its worst drought in 40 years in this May 2012 file photo. The degree of certainty about climate change calls out for immediate and drastic action because we understand how large the risks are, Cobb writes.

Ricardo Moraes/Reuters/File

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A professor friend of mine recently asked his freshman writing class what makes civilization possible. The students puzzled for a minute and then someone said, "Cities." Of course, that's really just the definition of civilization. "But what makes those cities possible?" the professor asked. No one could really come up with an answer.

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Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, 'Prelude,' and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. For more of his Resource Insights posts, click here.

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Here were students drawn in many cases from rural areas, some of whom lived on farms; and yet, the most basic energy flow in modern civilization—in any civilization—from farm to city in the form of surplus food was completely opaque to them. My friend remarked to me that a century and half of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels has attenuated our awareness of energy flows so much that we as a society have become essentially unconscious of energy.

That is a state of mind that could only be the product of energy abundance, of an exceptional period in human history when the surplus energy available to society was so great that the average person simply did not have to think about it. And, so as energy scarcity returns to civilization as the norm, we are being forced—often painfully—to become conscious once again of the energy flows in our daily life. As a whole, human societies are only just beginning to wake up to this new era—except, of course, where life has remained close to the land, and failure to understand and create the necessary energy flows (particularly food) has always been tantamount to a death sentence.

The era of abundance which is now coming to an end created a dependence on a technical-corporate-financial energy elite which took over the provisioning of energy for society as that enterprise became ever more complex—advancing light-years beyond the pick ax of the 19th century coal miner. So long as energy remained abundant, the legitimacy and autonomy of this energy elite went largely unchallenged. Even in countries where the government controls energy resource exploitation, a small elite remains in charge of the process, a process thought to be largely technical in nature. 

But the return of energy scarcity in the last decade—in the form of record high oil prices, high and volatile coal prices, wildly volatile natural gas prices in the United States and high prices for liquefied natural gas internationally—all this now threatens to undermine the legitimacy and autonomy of the energy elite. People are beginning to wonder whether it is wise to leave such matters to the putative experts. Should the government take a more active role in directing energy policy? Should communities and households seek to provide their own energy in the form of renewables or even community-owned utilities? Should steps be taken to reduce energy use dramatically to cushion a possible future decline in the availability of energy?

So rattled by these stirrings is the oil and gas industry that it has launched a campaign to convince the public that these hydrocarbons will return to their former abundant state for the long term. This campaign goes by the moniker "energy independence" in the United States. Of course, energy independence for the United States is unlikely unless it is based on radical reductions in energy use and widespread deployment of alternative energy. Naturally, the oil and gas industry does not have this kind of energy independence in mind.

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