We are all addicted to fire. Our energy system and even our entire economy are built upon the fact that we burn stuff: oil, coal, gas, uranium, wood and many other products of nature are consequently incinerated by us humans, all with the intention to fulfill our energy needs. This energy finds its way into our homes, factories and cars through a world wide network of pipelines and cables. We have completely habituated ourselves to burning very valuable goods without asking too many questions, and now our pyromania causes a bit of a problem: we are running out of stuff to burn
We would never have had our economy, our money, if it weren’t for fossil fuels. Oil, coal and gas lay the foundation under the world as we know it. Funny thing is that if we would actually burn money, the FED will come to the rescue and print some more, but as we burn our way through our planet’s savings no oil printing machine will help us. We are systematically undoing a whopping 2 billion years of earth’s meticulous conversion of dead plants and animals and humans into oil and coal and gas. Meanwhile we have yet to find a way to put those fuels back in the ground. It will take a bit more than a few generations to regain this lost balance.
It’s safe to say that we overexploit whatever our planet has to offer. We need 400 years to burn up 2 billion years worth of “savings”, which means we’re going 5 million times too fast. This means that if we would want to reduce fossil fuel consumption until the earth can start to replenish its savings account, the required fossil fuel consumption cut is 99,99998%.
Does that number scare you? It certainly scares me. We won’t be able to tour around in our cars anymore –not even the hybrid ones-, nor can we afford to eat meat, or any veggies grown in greenhouses, we will have no more holidays abroad, we will no longer fly airplanes, have no more internet, no more lighting, not even the nifty LED ones -since the best ones consume only 95% less energy than regular lightbulbs, and worst of all: I will have to give up my love for espresso. This would mark the radical ending of civilization as we know it.
In short: merely cutting back on fossil fuel consumption will not save us. We need something different, something better. The only way to overcome our energy issues, and empower ourselves to create sustainable value, is to radically replace all our fossil fuel consumption by renewable resources. This also means we need a completely new economic model.
Our pyromania was not always there. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution, 150 years ago, that we got hooked on fossil fuels. It took us no longer than a few generations to completely reframe our energy paradigm, until we labeled fossil resources like oil, coal and gas “conventional”, whereas wind, sun and wood –resources that we relied on for thousands of years- suddenly were labeled “alternative energy”. It took us no more than a few decades to get it all wrong.
However scary the previous lines seem, we do not have to go back to the middle ages. That being said, the past could well inspire us: For thousands of years all our main energy resources were renewable. We could only work with whatever the earth provided us with on a continuous basis, and in some cases that inspired us to be pretty ingenious. For instance: during the 17th century the Dutch town of Zaandam thrived thanks to 650 windmills. They enabled the “Zaankanters” to grind wheat, make paint, mustard, saw treetrunks, and even build boats that boasted their reputation all the way to Russia, where Czar Peter decided to travel all the way to Zaandam to see this marvel for himself.
The Zaankanters were even more ingenious: a part of their windmills were used to pump water to higher levels. If the wind would lay low, their watermills would do the job. And when they were low on both wind and water they even had a few mills that were powered by horses. This tells us that as long as 400 years ago people had a double redundant energy system that worked fully on renewable resources. Imagine what we could do right now, with all our current knowledge and technology.
The big question remains:
How can we regain our balance, give earth a chance to replenish its resources, and not lose our comfort, progress and productivity?
The answer is simple if we look into the definition of energy: the ability to do work. Electricity, gas, oil and coal are means by which we can perform tremendous amounts of work very easily, and at very little cost. An amount of energy equivalent to 8 hours of hard manual labour, enough to lift a car up the Eiffel Tower –one kilowatthour-, is now available at 5 cents. Energy has become our cheapest source of labour, so cheap that we forgot about being aware of how much we consume. An average European household consumes enough energy to lift 20.000 cars to the top of the Eiffel Tower just to cool our food, do laundry, light our homes, and heat ourselves in the winter. American households consume even more.
The only thing we need to do is to replace fossil fuels by other resources that enable us to do work without fire. We need to extinguish our urge to burn stuff. In fact, most renewable resources do not require fire at all: wind, water. Our biggest renewable resource does all the burning we need at a safe distance of 150 million kilometers. There is no need to copy that behavior on our own planet. And that’s where the good part comes in: whatever we do not burn can be reused, over and over again. The core quality of renewable resources is the lossless ability to do work.
This brings us to true growth. Growth at no expense of natural resources, humans or the environment. We simply make use of whatever nature already provides in abundance. No more scarcity-based economic models that enrich few at the expense of many others. Everybody is entitled and able to create lasting value. A world where a culture of empowerment, unity and equality support an economy of abundance.
The transition to this economy of abundance will not come easily. It is merely impossible to throw out all our cars, machinery and factories right now. What we could do is utilize the remainder of the earth’s fossil fuel reserves to ensure that we no longer need them. Rather than use them to fulfill our daily needs, we can decide to use this savings account as any smart person would use their savings account: buy ourselves something of lasting value. Turn oil into solar panels for example. Against the backdrop of human history, this transition also will occur in the blink of an eye, like a short and intense dream, after which we will enter a new era of insight and wisdom, and less fire.