We hear all the time that we are at the tipping point of a long history of increasing energy consumption. Unfettered energy use is eating up finite fuels, increasing planetary temperatures, releasing stored methane and other emissions into the atmosphere, and raising ocean temperatures to levels that threaten the world’s fisheries. Carbon emissions are now heating up the planet at a rate equivalent to the detonation of six atomic bombs per second. At this rate, we are told, the Earth may become uninhabitable for humans by the end of the century.
This is more or less the prevailing environmental wisdom of our times, but we have got the cause of our current dilemma upside down. Big issues like this, however, have a habit of being much stranger than they first appear. The problem, in fact, is not that our planet cannot handle too much energy consumption but that it cannot handle too little. This is an extremely counter-intuitive idea but one that needs examining.
This history of runaway energy consumption began slowly with the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago, increasing only slightly with the rise of civilization around three thousand years ago, and then picking up sharply after industrialization in the late 19th century. The really big spike in energy use, however, began relatively recently. In just the last thirty years humans (some more than others) have come to consume vastly more energy than at any other point in history—twenty-four times as much as our hunter-gatherer ancestors to be precise. The lesson seems clear: we are consuming far too much energy for our planet to keep supporting human life. We must renounce our impulse to consume and instead live more simply and conserve our resources more wisely.
The difficulty lies in the starting assumptions about the nature of energy. The first assumption is that it is only the impact of human energy use that has an effect on the planet and is worth calculating. The standard critique about the effects of increasing human energy consumption over time is not untrue. It represents, however, only a tiny fraction of the total planetary energy use. Trying to understand planetary energetics by looking only at human energy use is like trying to understand the world economy by looking only at the economy of Maine.
For starters, all matter is made of, or rather is, energy. This is the brilliant insight of Albert Einstein’s famous equation: energy equals mass times the speed of light squared (E=Mc2). When matter moves (as it all does) it releases some amount of energy, which in turn releases more energy and so on until, theoretically, all matter has been converted into energy and is dispersed. Energy itself is neither created nor destroyed, only dispersed faster or slower. Energy dispersal is energy consumption.
Humans naturally tend to focus on themselves, but if we take a step back from human history to consider planetary energy usage more broadly a very different picture emerges. The rate of energy consumption by the entire web of organisms and processes on Earth has been increasing, in fits and starts, over the entire course of its history. Each new development in the evolution of our planet (the emergence of the lithosphere, then atmosphere, then biosphere) has increased the rate of energy dispersal. If we take an even bigger step back we can see that the entire cosmos has also been increasing its rate of energy consumption/dispersal through fast-moving dissipative systems like galaxies and black holes. Throughout it’s 13.7 billion year-long history, our universe has evolved to increase its rate of energy use not to conserve or reduce it. This is the bigger picture we are failing to consider. In fact, the history of human energy use is absolutely dwarfed, by several orders of magnitude, by total planetary energy usage. Super volcanos, lightning strikes, animal migration, and plant processes all increase the rate of energy dissipation on earth with an ever-accelerating motion. For example, the average tree consumes several times more energy, through the transpiration of hundreds of tons of water per year, than most people do by burning fossil fuels over the same period. Thanks to recent light imaging technologies (LIDAR) we now know there are over three trillion trees on Earth. That adds up to a lot of energy consumption.
More astonishing still is that trees only conserve a mere 1% of all that energy in their own cells. Mature and diverse forest ecosystems around the world consume virtually all the solar energy that they are exposed to yet the vast majority of it is radiated back out as water and heat. But even the mere 1% that trees conserve as biomass dwarfs any level of energy use that humans could ever possibly produce. Specifically, the total amount of all current human energy consumption today is less than 1/1000th of the energy consumed by trees alone. What is more, every time something eats something else in the food chain, it only uses about 1/10 of its available energy to survive. The rest is burned off as heat and waste. All living things live by destroying energy bonds, using a tiny portion of them, wasting the rest, and eventually dying. In short, excess consumption, waste, death, and decay are built-in features of nature not bugs or inefficiencies. The Earth (and Cosmos) evolved to increase dissipation and death not decrease it.
The second assumption of current environmental wisdom is that increased energy consumption is necessarily linked to ecological destruction. It is true that our methods of energy extraction and consumption have historically come at the cost of human lives and environmental blight, but it did not have to be this way, nor does all energy usage require this kind of ecocide. All of our planetary systems thrive on massive energy use, “waste,” and dissipation but do not result in environmental devastation. The fittest for survival are those who maximize planetary dissipation. For example, organisms like lichens and trees are still around because they help increase the rate of planetary energy consumption by dissipating or breaking down 99% of the energy they take in, not conserving it. Evolution favors efficient energy dissipators not conservers.
Our problem today is not that the Earth’s systems and inhabitants are consuming too much energy, but rather not using enough. From this perspective, it is not energy consumption as such; but that certain groups of people on this planet, over the course of human history, have destroyed a large portion of the Earth’s energy-consuming or dissipative processes. In particular, increased CO2 and methane are main reasons why net planetary energy use is down. Fossil fuel-based energy and industrial agricultural practices need to be changed so that the planetary energy can increase and we can all survive. Humans are currently .01% of global biomass and yet since the rise of civilization certain humans have killed off 85% of wild land animals, 80% of marine mammals, 14% of fish, and 41% of all insect species. At the start of the most recent post-glacial period (the Holocene) there were six trillion trees on the planet. Some humans groups are responsible for destroying half the Earth’s forests, which make up 80% of total planetary biomass.
Contrarian as it sounds, humans have actually decreased total planetary energy use by more than half. They have literally conserved the Earth’s energy, resulting in a planet that is hotter and less diverse. When the Earth’s capacity to expend energy, to move into the cool, is damaged, the whole process goes haywire.
We tend to think of the world in terms of stasis and not process. And in our zeal to halt our runaway energy consumption, we act as if the goal was to conserve, accumulate, and stabilize energy use when in fact humans, as part of nature, evolved and exist alongside other life forms in a way that is designed to maximize collective energy use, flow, and movement. It has got to the point now that we won’t even let our trash degrade. We make things from plastics that last for tens of thousands of years and then bury them underground where nothing can break them down. Vast islands of plastic are floating in our oceans, nearly immortal. The net effect of all this is that planetary energy consumption is actually slowing down, with disastrous consequences.
How we respond depends a great deal on how we frame the problem. First, we need to change the way we understand natural processes. Nature is in a state of constant flux—always looking for new ways to use more energy and dissipate it faster. If we want to survive as a species, our best chance is to go with the flow: to contribute to this grand project of collective planetary energy use, and not sabotage it with fossil fuels. The conservationist logic of reducing carbon emissions and consumption alone will not save us. We need to increase the activity of the largest consumers of energy on the planet; not humans, but biodiverse forest ecosystems. Planting and preserving more trees will not only reverse the effects of climate change and increase biodiversity it will also increase planetary energy use.
We also need to find new and creative ways of consuming excess planetary energy, for example by composting everything. Think of how much more energy would be dissipated if even our waste was consumed by armies of insects, fungus, animals, and bacteria, and broken down into raw materials, energy, that fueled the growth of more plants and animals, in a literal “feedback loop” of rapid dissipation. If the more ways energy is consumed the better, then maximizing human and ecological diversity is also key to increasing planetary dissipation.
Even as our planet gets ever hotter, less stable, and less diverse, energy consumption is not the problem, it is the solution.
1. A Guardian calculation found the average heating across that 150-year period was equivalent to about 1.5 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs per second. But the heating has accelerated over that time as carbon emissions have risen, and was now the equivalent of between three and six atomic bombs per second. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/07/global-warming-of-oceans-equivalent-to-an-atomic-bomb-per-second ↑
2. John R. Schramski, David K. Gattie, and James H. Brown, “Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind,” PNAS August 4, 2015 112 (31) 9511-9517; first published July 15, 2015 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1508353112 ↑
3. The transpiration of water through trees requires about 580 calories per gram of water transpired. A single tree transpiring 100 kilograms of water a day will use nearly 60 million (5.8 x 10^7) calories. If the average tree evaporates 151,600 kilograms of water a year that is nearly 88 billion calories per tree per year (368 billion joules) times 3 trillion trees currently on the planet results in an incredible 1.1 x 10^24 joules a year. See Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan, Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 136.