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Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Transition to Renewable Energy

As the treasure chest of fossil fuels declines and production is increasingly incapable of meeting demand, a viable replacement must be found. There are those with a blind faith in science who assure us that technology will come with an answer in time to avoid much of a fuss. The economists, staunchly rooted in the worship of supply/demand forces, are equally sanguine that all is well in hand.

For both of these camps, there is a fatal flaw in their thinking: Economist Kenneth Boulding is quoted as saying, "Anybody who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist." In 1958 he asked, “Are we to regard the world of nature simply as a storehouse to be robbed for the immediate benefit of man? . . . Does man have any responsibility for the preservation of a decent balance in nature, for the preservation of rare species, or even for the indefinite continuance of his race?”

The cost of energy limited the growth of technology until fossil fuels came into regular use just before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuels contained so much energy that they provided a remarkable return on investment even when used inefficiently. The abundant, cheap energy provided by fossil fuels has made it possible for humans to exploit a staggering variety of resources, effectively expanding their resource base.

From an ecological point of view, when any given species is introduced into a new habitat with abundant resources that accumulated before its arrival, the population expands rapidly until all the resources are used up. For us, this has resulted in a human population growth typical of an introduced species. Humans, having evolved long after the resource base of fossil fuels on which we now rely, are effectively an introduced species on our own planet.

To take over for fossil fuels as their production declines, an alternative energy source would have to be cheap and abundant, and the technology to exploit it would have to be mature and capable of being distributed all over the world in what may turn out to be a rather short time. No known energy source meets these requirements. While no single energy source is ready to take the place of fossil fuels, their diminishing availability may be offset by a regimen of conservation and a combination of alternative energy sources.

This will not solve the problem, however. As long as the population continues to grow, conservation is futile; at the present rate of growth (1.3% per year), even a 25% reduction in per capita resource use today would be obliterated in just over thirteen years. And the use of any combination of resources that permits continued population growth can only postpone the day of reckoning.

But not all agree. Here is a quote from an article by David Frum, a resident fellow at The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

“In this new era of expensive oil, the process of substitution will accelerate. It may reach too into growing markets such as India and China. As it does, oil in the ground may become less valuable. And we will move closer to the day when M.A. Adelman's ultimate prediction comes true: As consumers substitute other energy sources for oil, oil in the ground will gradually become less valuable and producers will gradually lose interest in searching for more. The world will never run out of oil. It will just stop using it. When that happens, the world will never know and never care how much oil remains in the Earth.”

Founded in 1943 and located in Washington, D.C., AEI is one of America's largest and most respected "think tanks."

God helps us all.


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