Energy is something that we “moderns” have put to incredible use to create the grand complex systems that have served us in many ways. But are likely to be our undoing. We have created and become accustomed to an abundance of products, comforts, and conveniences unprecedented before the last century or two. Cheap virtually unlimited energy has become a given in advanced industrial economies and the goal of every developing nation. At the same time, waste is pervasive mostly because it has been so cheap and accessible.
We tend to waste what we believe is bountiful. It makes us feel powerful. But the times are now shifting from expansion and abundance to contraction and scarcity. The financial, corporate, and political elites are mostly in denial about resource depletion. We retain our illusions of unlimited energy access – whether conventional or renewable. We believe in seeking an endless widespread (conventionally defined) affluence at our peril. Yet our “consumer lifestyle” is about to change radically, like it or not. The only real question is how we deal with the changes that have already begun.
The Energy Transition will be a Social Transformation
We are headed for a New Great Transformation. It will happen; that is certain. Only its form and outcome are unknown. It will take us in one of two directions: 1) catastrophic climate chaos causing societal collapse and likely species extinction, or 2) unprecedented human creativity leading us through an extremely difficult struggle to survive and adapt to extreme environmental conditions. That creativity, if we allow it to flourish, will potentially enable us to achieve a new ecological society. It may even allow the climate to slowly re-stabilize, but that cannot be predicted at this point. The human response to climate destabilization will determine which direction our path follows: catastrophic collapse or creative revitalization.
Both paths will involve great hardship, but only the second offers any hope. The first will likely propel Homo sapiens to join countless other species in the sixth great mass extinction. The second path, if followed, may permit human survival and may even enable an unparalleled leap in human development. The character of the New Great Transformation – extinction or renaissance – will be determined by our ability to rapidly respond to the crisis we now face.
The energy-climate crisis gradually emerged into my consciousness over the past few decades. The scientific evidence of impending catastrophic climate change has steadily grown and is as overwhelming as it is definitive. As the crisis became noticeably acute, its urgency became undeniable – except for the likes of Senator “Snowball Inhofe” and other propagandists of Exxon Mobil. In that context, the myriad ways energy is wasted in the conduct of our everyday lives, work, and industry, became profoundly important if not much acknowledged.
For the most part, consumers of mass media content are not aware of the central role of fossil fuels in the various ways energy drives the way we live. Electricity, for example, energizes so many of the household to industrial tools and toys we use, that it pervades almost every aspect of our lives. Yet we barely notice, if at all – as we recharge our smart phones and laptops – that it is only available in such unbounded quantity because it is generated by burning fossil fuel.
Energy Production, Over-use, and Waste
Energy waste reduction is as important as clean energy production in seeking to reduce carbon emissions. Sure, we can replace much of electrical generation by solar and wind powered systems. And we must. But they too take huge quantities of energy to manufacture and install. By the time the process of replacement is near complete, we may well have passed the tipping point of climate destabilization. Not much acknowledged is the fact that much more is needed than renewable energy sources. It is not really about national “energy independence,” as some would have us believe. It is about a much bigger problem: energy over-use and waste by continuing the culture of consumerism.
Energy over-use can be attacked in two basic ways. First, energy-wasting practices and technology must be curtailed. It is important, however, to understand that this is not merely a “personal problem” of individuals not turning out the lights or not recycling everything we can. It runs much deeper than that. If every head of lettuce you buy at Whole Foods is sold in a plastic clam-shell container, the energy wasted cannot be recycled with the plastic. It is gone, dissipated into the entropic haze. Of course, plastic packaging is now so pervasive that most of us cannot even remember how we got along just fine a few decades ago without any of it.
Most systems for maintaining our comfort and sheltering us waste a great deal of energy. Homes and offices can be constructed to be “net-zero” energy users because the right designs capture as much energy from sun and wind as is used in the building. But we cannot simply design and construct all new buildings. Even if new building codes suddenly permitted only net-zero construction, the resulting energy savings would be quite small compared to the total energy waste in the larger “built environment.”
We must retro-fit existing structures with energy conserving technologies to minimize energy waste. One of the most important ways to do this is to insulate and weather-strip all existing buildings, now. That is a major societal undertaking that incidentally would provide a great source of new employment. Such energy efficiency projects should be at the top of the priority list for the often touted national need for infrastructure modernization. To accomplish this multi-benefit mission will require putting enough pressure on the political process to enact legislation enabling the mobilization of an entire industry, training many workers, and providing financial support. Numerous other energy saving practices and technologies could be listed. All of it constitutes a major societal mobilization not unlike that executed at the entry of the U.S. into World War II. It can be done, but will it?
The second way to attack energy over-use and waste is to change what and how we consume. Current levels of consumerism in the industrial nations cannot be sustained. Nor can western consumerism be sustainably adopted by the developing nations. Yet, the biggest – India and China – are rapidly ramping up their own versions of the culture of consumption. That is not at all surprising, given how addictive consumerism is.
Consumerism as we know it, must be abandoned if we are to reduce carbon emissions to levels that will not be catastrophic for climate, ecology, and humanity. At the level of individual and family consumption, we must replace carbon intensive products with carbon neutral ones, as those of the parallel strategy, while constraining total consumption. At the level of economic production, we must both abandon wasteful production processes and stop producing trivial and unimportant consumer products. Here, I’m talking about the myriad products that are the result of marketing strategies to generate desires, not product development to respond to genuine needs.
The consumerism that is driven by the corporate economic growth imperative is very different from production that responds to actual human needs. Many of what we now consider essential products needed for our “consumer lifestyles” are directly detrimental to our survival. They were not “needed” until they were created and marketed to drive ever expanding consumption of industrial production for the purposes of assuring high return on capital investment.
All this requires a comprehensive overhaul of the politics of the economic system, something our politicians mostly just don’t get. That is why the burgeoning social movements for climate action and social justice are the most likely source of human survival. Small cities, such as Santa Fe, NewMexico, are so far leading the way in developing new policies of carbon neutrality and climate justice. The most likely sources of pressure on the larger political economy to radically change its ways are the small local grass-roots efforts to shift economic power to the localities where we live. It will not be easy.
 Karl Polyani, The Great Transformation (1944) delineated the major transformation of society that the industrial revolution and the concomitant rise of corporate capitalism was already having. He explained some of the damaging effects of this unbridled system of economic growth on humanity and the world as it generated a degree of affluence and inequality on a scale the world had never before seen.
 Plenty of evidence has already been documented revealing that the sixth great mass extinction is already well underway. Details of the currently accelerating mass extinction and previous such events can be found in The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals by Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Paul R. Ehrlich (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Picador, 2015) by Elizabeth Kolbert.