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Energy Problems

First published May-2010
last update 12-May-2016

Today, our energy system is based on extracting highly concentrated forms of energy we find in nature, such as fossil fuels, large rivers and waterfalls, burning trees and splitting uranium.

Unfortunately, our energy system is dysfunctional because highly concentrated forms of energy are both in short supply and play critical roles in the ecosystem.

Because energy is the basis of all activity this dysfunction propagates throughout all of our activity and interactions with nature, manifesting as problems essentially everywhere: deforestation, ocean acidification, mass poverty, pollution of all sorts, diseases, malnutrition, water table depletion, suburban sprawl, corruption, to name a few in no particular order.

Many of these problems are caused directly by our energy exploitation, such as air pollution, but even those problems that seem on the order of pure choice, such as over-fishing or clear-cut logging, if we dig deeper we find that it is not only highly concentrated natural energy that makes this highly concentrated destruction possible, but it’s also the centralized infrastructural-cultural system built around these energy sources that applies an immense pressure to over-exploit all resources everywhere.

Short Energy History

The energy history of humanity is one of using ever greater concentrated sources of energy found in nature. Each form of concentrated energy we master has allowed us to access the next.

However, more concentrated forms of energy are not necessarily high in absolute abundance nor low in negative health or environmental impacts, in fact the opposite has been the case. This is to be expected given the laws of thermodynamics, but we need not go into "theoretical expectations" when the practical examples are in front of us and we can summarize them succinctly.

In the very beginning, humans ate mostly fruits, nuts, vegetables and probably some roots, insects and water creatures. We did not eat grass and leaves, at least for energy, as we cannot digest the energy found in the cellulose of this sort of plant matter. The plant matter we can digest is all in concentrated forms, and all creatures we might eat are by definition a concentration of the energy they in turn ate during their life, resting always ultimately on plant energy.

Though we can only digest relatively concentrated forms of energy [1], there is more energy in total in the less concentrated forms of plant energy.

For instance, though the sugar in a fruit or protein in a nut is a concentrated source of easily accessible energy, there is more total energy in the leaves, branches and roots of the tree, but all this other plant matter is in a less concentrated molecular form, or more precisely has a low net energy when the energy needed to digest it is taken into account. The biological advantage of relying on high net-energy plant and animal energy is that we can spend far less time eating and digesting. The disadvantage is that our total base of energy is far smaller. We cannot digest the molecules in a lower energy state, such as the cellulose in leaves, but if we could and did rely on eating grass and leaves we’d have to spend a lot more time eating, since there is not only less energy we can extract in every gram of leaf but it takes more energy to break it down and absorb it than a fruit.

Again, it’s worth repeating we’re measuring energy concentration for food in terms of "digestible value" not simply "joules", and I trust the reader is intuitively aware that fruits, nuts, fish, etc. is more "concentrated food value".

The result, is that already our natural predisposition to concentrated forms of energy allowed us to spend less time eating. So we are can imagine that the free time this provided allowed us to work on tools and discover things like fire.

Though we can’t digest all that non-fruit energy stored in a tree, we can light it on fire. With the fire, we can warm ourselves directly, meaning we not only need to eat less to stay warm but can stay warm in climates that are so cold our own metabolism and paltry fur would not suffice. Fire also allowed us to break down organisms that we normally couldn’t eat, as well as make better tools.

This free time and fire allowed us to hunt and eat larger creatures, which represented an even larger concentration of energy.

But our hunting activity also allowed us to take advantage of the energy concentrated in a large creature by controlling it’s movement directly. For instance, it is thought dogs where domesticated when wolves started to follow bands of human hunters that would leave them scraps, and horses domesticated when it was discovered they could be captured and eaten later. In any case, it was certainly through tool making and hunting that allowed the domestication of animals.

With fire and the help of domesticated animals, humans were able to make the tools to tap even larger concentrations of energy, such as building boats with sails to hunt whales and fish on a large scale, making all the tools needed for agriculture, and inventing the water and wind mills for grinding grain, which evolved from draft animal powered mills.

Finally, this tool system became sophisticated enough to mine coal (when the wood started to run out) and transform it into mechanical energy for ships and machines. This mechanical sophistication gave birth to the tools to pump, pipe and crack oil into it’s component chemical parts

However, though natural gas in more concentrated energy source than oil, it is oil that has the advantage of being a liquid and easy to manipulate and store. With the gasoline, diesel, and kerosene derived from oil motorized transport on a mass scale became possible, and an explosion of technical sophistication such as the construction of roads, made from asphalt also derived from oil, construction of mega-damns, acceleration of mining of all things, and the piping technology to move natural gas long distances.

With mining, chemical and mechanical sophistication it became possible to tap nuclear power, which is the most concentrated energy source humanity currently uses.

This history has been brief as more details are not really required. Looking around the modern world, it is clear humanity can bring huge concentrations of energy to bare on moving planes, mega-tankers and hundreds of millions of trucks and cars, build sky scrapers, high-ways and damns, and that these "big" activities require equally large amounts of energy to accomplish that our ancestors could not fathom. Increasing in tool sophistication and tapping into more concentrated forms of energy has been the physical requirement to achieve "modern economy".

This modern economy is praised by its supporters as being "efficient", but, whenever we hear this word we must ask: efficient at what? And if we bother to answer to this question we find that the modern economy is very efficient at moving concentrated energy, stored underground or in the built up complexity of living systems, to an even more concentrated hub of transformation and distribution to final end point where the energy-product is consumed, over a global scale infrastructure that takes a lot of energy to build, maintain and run.

If this isn’t our goal, then this concentrated energy consumption paradigm creates a lot of problems.

Energy Problems

Energy is the basis of all activity. Without energy, nothing moves nor transforms; and so a sustainable society can only exist based on a sustainable energy system.

Though highly concentrated forms of energy found in nature allow the free time to make ever more sophisticated tools quickly (and or win wars), their use is not sustainable.

In general, the practice of extracting naturally concentrated energy causes 4 interrelated fundamental problems: Disrupting natural energy flows, Depletion, Centralization, and Resource wars. [2]

Disruption of natural energy flows

Nature concentrates these energy flows for her own purposes, and when we disrupt or divert them we cause extreme havoc within natural systems – from clear cutting whole forests, to damning rivers, to unleashing a chemical cocktail hitherto stored safely bellow ground.

This disturbance shouldn’t surprise us as as energy is required for all living activity, and concentrated energy flows have critical functions: Forests form critical organs of life that clean the air and water, draw moisture from deep underground, and provide habitat for most land-based species. Rivers are the arteries that circulate the water essential for life. Fossil fuels represent huge amounts of carbon that when dug up and burned disturb the thermal balance of the entire globe.

These concentrated energy sources are the summit of a vast energy pyramid/network and form the key stones of the entire web of life; by removing or disrupting them we risk collapsing the whole structure we stand upon. This is the root of the ecological crisis.

Depletion and unsustainability

Inherent in the first problem is that there is relatively little of these naturally concentrated stores of energy around.

This is because it takes energy to concentrate energy and far larger amounts of energy are needed to make large stores of concentrated energy. All energy sources discussed above are derived from solar processes, and so by definition there is less energy present in all solar-derived energy sources than the primary solar energy hitting the earth. Though an immense amount of solar energy is at the beginning of most natural processes, there are relatively few high quality stores of energy generated at the end.

For instance, it has taken hundreds of millions of years for fossil fuels to form, and yet the sun provides more energy in a single year than humanity will ever extract from fossil fuels. Likewise, 43 percent of solar energy hitting the planet is turned into water vapour, but after friction with the air and ground, absorption by the soil and plants, and re-evaporation, there is little of the energy left in the form of large rivers; it’s estimated that the maximum river energy humanity could possibly extract is a mere 7 terrawatts, less than half humanity currently uses – and that’s assuming the ecological destruction that would be cause massive droughts, reducing both the river energy extracted and life’s ability to survive. About a percent of the solar energy is absorbed by plants by photosynthesis, but plants require this energy to grow, defend themselves and create off spring; only a small fraction of this energy it’s estimated we could extract, and again that’s ignoring the ecological destruction that would not erode the forest nutrient base and eventually turn them to deserts.

The general rule is that there’s far less energy in natural solar derivatives than direct solar energy. This is also true for wind energy, which although in more abundant, especially at some locations, than some of the above energy sources, only a small fraction of the original solar energy is converted to wind and only a small fraction of this energy we could ever extract – short of building windmills as tall as the atmosphere.

As for the non-sun derivatives, such as geothermal, tidal and nuclear, we find that they simply don’t compare to the giant hydrogen furnace we call the sun.

A complete exhaustive critique of every energy source other than direct solar, but if it is the case that humanity has survived for great majority on natural solar energy derivatives, then it is certain that humanity would have far more energy access, and far less ecological impact, by concentrating solar energy directly, as there is by definition far more solar energy available than all we could ever extract from SED’s combined.


But as long as there where always more pockets of high density energy to be found, humanity was content to hunt them down.


Over-exploitation of biomass causes a rapid erosion of the land and far less biomass production in the future. Fossil fuels form over hundreds of millions of years and so essentially any rate of extraction is unsustainable. Even river damns, which seem a steady constant source of power, will eventually fill with sediment requiring a new damn to be built. And that’s assuming … As for geothermal and nuclear.


Not only does exploiting naturally concentrated forms of energy cause immense environmental and social problems mentioned above, it transforms the structure of society itself.

The resulting social structure not only amplifies these problems but makes even understanding them exceedingly difficult.

The transformation that has occurred is from a decentralized society to a to a centralized society, to 90 percent of people living rurally to 90 percent of people living in cities.

When energy is effectively extracted in relatively few centralized locations, such as oil refineries and large electric power stations, the material society needs to transform is found far away. Either the energy must be brought to the material or the material brought to the energy. Our actual system employs a combination of both, distributing energy to extract resources and then transporting them to centralized locations for transformation (then to other centralized locations to be consumed, and finally dumped as waste in other centralized locations).

Though other configurations are physically possible this method is probably the most efficient way to transform oil, the industrial worlds primary energy source as well as major material input.

Since it takes energy to transport energy, the majority of human activity must lie within the physical bound of where this energy can be efficiently transported. Energy can be expended to run some activity outside this bound, for instance transport propane by helicopter to a mountain refuge, but the majority of the activity, building and maintaining the helicopter, must be closer to the energy source, where it does not take more energy to transport the energy than the energy is worth, and the majority of all activity within the energy bound.

In practice some energy can be spent creating highly efficient energy corridors such as pipelines, train tracks, high voltage electric cables, large ports, canals and super tankers, and highways. But since creating this infrastructure requires energy and material, it cannot be spread everywhere. At some point it takes more energy to build and maintain the infrastructure than there is energy available. And since it is even more efficient, by reducing infrastructure, to group activity in infrastructure hubs at points in the energy corridor network, this is what society has done though we normally call them cities.

Cities amplify our problems both physically and psychologically.


Physical problems caused by centralization

The structure of a centralized society itself caused further environmental problems beyond the over-extraction of naturally concentrated energy needed to maintain it.

In a centralized society transportation between fossil fuel hubs becomes so great that ecosystems are broken up between our energy corridors, and centralized land use will exclude essentially the entire native ecological system.

In a decentralized system both the transportation network and human dwellings can co-exist within natural habitat.

Perhaps most significant, is that for the decentralized resources society requires, such as food and wood, there is immense pressure in a centralized society to attempt to exploit all resources in a centralized way. This leads to mega-farms and clear cut logging in the name of higher extraction per hectare. However, such maximum extraction per hectare in the short term, caused ecological destruction in the long term. After the top soil is eroded, either nutrients must be brought in (or manufactured) from outside to attempt to sustain the extraction rates or the land is abandoned and the same process begun on another parcel.

Decentralized resource extraction, on the other hand, can reduce impact to a level where the native ecosystem can continue to function. A few carefully selected trees and branches felled per hectare, at specific moments of the years, will not increase erosion and deforestation. Likewise, forest garden agriculture, where the native forest ecosystem is simply guided to produce more edible plants, maintains the native ecosystem intact. Though in both cases extraction per hectare in the short term is less than centralized methods, more hectares can be used. However, reducing impact over more area is only really possible when people are decentralized as well, as otherwise the cost and impact of transportation to centralize a decentralized resource to the cities is much higher.

To make things worse, all these centralized structures themselves require far more resources to build and maintain than the comparable structures that would support the same amount of people in a decentralized society.

The very nature of centralization, bringing resources from distant places to be consumed in cities, requires, as a minimum, far more infrastructure than if resources were consumed close to location. But the centralization of infrastructure requires even more resources and energy than each considered individually, as infrastructure must be constructed above or below other infrastructure. The energy and material required to build a very tall building is far greater than building the same volume in many smaller hobbit dwellings; which is why suburban sprawl is an unstoppable force in our societies as it is cheap to build. However, though suburban sprawl is cheap to build, it is very energy inefficient in the long term and destroys vast areas of productive ecosystem for little to no benefit.

Finally, waste in a centralized society is an intractable problem, as not only are far more energy and resources consumed, and so waste and pollution generated, but this waste cannot be easily returned to the natural cycles the material was borrowed from. Whereas a decentralized society, force of living within the ecosystem they depend on, almost cannot avoid returning resources to their natural habitat [and have an obvious advantage of recycling any material that is not found locally], a centralized society would require whole new complex systems, and the infrastructure and energy to run them, to do the same. In the short term it is far easier to simply centralize waste into dumps where precious nutrients are mixed with toxins and the long term viability of society is significantly reduced.

Though decentralization will reduce the energy, resources and ecological impact society needs to survive, it is only a precondition, not a guarantee, for sustainability.

Specifically, a decentralized society that uses a significant amount of wood combustion would degrade their environment in the long run directly by destroying to many trees, but it seems also the case of indirectly by moving towards the trap of annual crops and wood parcels grown only for fuel, and excluding a forest based agricultural system.

Direct solar energy however can reduce the reliance on tree-fuel to a sustainable level. Direct solar energy can convert solar radiation to human thermal purposes at 50 to 80 percent efficiency, with rudimentary techniques, whereas a tree converts solar radiation to human thermal purposes at less than 1 percent efficiency, largely because photosynthesis is only 10 percent efficient to begin with and the tree will not photosynthesis when it is too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, or a nutrient is missing; but even then, the tree uses much of this energy to live and the moisture in the tree decreases combustion efficiency. So, trees are not an efficient solar thermal technology, but luckily efficient solar thermal technology does exist.

[indeed, many anthropologists and archaeologists are beginning to conclude that humanity has been unsustainable since ].

Psychological problems caused by centralization

But the impact on society is also psychological. In a centralized society where energy and material are simply inputs, taken for granted, coming from outside, people live outside the natural systems they depend on and it becomes exceedingly difficult to understand these natural systems in even a basic way, and impossible to understand in a profound way – just as it is difficult to understand another culture from a distance, and impossible to profoundly understand without living among them). This renders problems out of sight and out of mind ... for as long as the system can be maintained.

So the capacity for denial in a centralized society is augmented since sensory contact with the ecosystem is diminished, but the capacity to adapt (even when the problem is recognized) is also diminished.

When activity is centralized, transportation between the population is diminished, which makes super-specialization possible. Whereas normal specialization is when every person in a community can do a variety of artisan crafts, but each person will be better at some crafts than others, super-specialization is where each person does a single task. Though super-specialization increases the efficiency at which oil can be transformed, as centralized transformations require large mechanical structures requiring regular and predictable gestures to run and maintain, it radically decreases the adaptability of society.

Mastering a particular art or craft will aid in mastering any other craft, since craftsmanship requires an understanding of the underlying nature of the material and natural principles in question, since due to a certain homogeneity of nature’s workings, a deep understanding of one subject will lend to an accelerated understanding of another. Craftsmanship is also a very creative activity as previous experience is applied to new problems and situations. Furthermore, in a decentralized society things must always be adapted to the organic structure of the ecosystem; localities cannot simply be levelled to attain standard preconditions for a standard mechanized process. Due to this need of understanding and creativity a society of artisans can more easily adapt to new problems. [6]

In a centralized mechanized society on the other hand, memorizing a series of predetermined gestures, requires only repetition and little, if any, understanding of the material or natural principles at work. Moreover, interacting with a predetermined machine is a very uncreative process. For these reasons each “functional agent” has a hard time adapting to even new predetermined tasks, a much more difficult time if required to learn a craft, and an extremely difficulty time in understanding the workings and state of society as a whole. So, a society of regular gestures has a very difficult time seeing and adapting to new situations and problems.

Beyond this, centralization is now also suspected to cause many psychological and social dysfunctions, as humans are adapted to live in small communities and the organic structures of nature.



Resource wars

Inherent in the second problem that these energy sources are limited is pressure to secure these sources by violent means, and once controlled, to exploit them at the fastest rate possible.

For, as soon as an energy problem occurs the immediate response is to simply put more pressure on these resources rather than less, depleting them still faster.

In the short term this can keep the machine working, for a while. In the long term however the problem becomes more and more chronic, wars more and more destructive, and there is less and less energy available to build an alternative system.


[1Though this should not be measured by weight but in terms of the type of molecules; we are able to break down relatively short chains of sugar complexes (carbohydrates) and cannot break down long sugar complexes (cellulose), though in a fruit these molecules might be diluted in water and so by weight the fruit may have less energy than the tree trunk or leafs with less water, what matters to our metabolism is the molecules.

[2I write at these problems from first principles below, but in our real society these problems are largely contained in the peak oil phenomenon and analyzed in detail by the peak oil community. However, since there is already an immense amount of literature on this issue, I point the readers to further resources in Appendix (such as the The Energy Bulletin, the Oil Drum and LATOC), and will strive in this text to provide a theoretical framework for understanding the impact of exploiting any naturally concentrated energy, not just oil, has on the ecosystem and society, and if the case the inevitability of peak oil type events*.

[3In particular, most of the naturally concentrated energy we find is derived from the sun, and though the 1.3 pettawatts (1.3 million trillion watts) of solar energy hitting the planet is extremely large, there is relatively little easy to access, dense energy to be found in the biological and water cycles.

[4Our over-exploiting these energy sources, not only disrupts critical natural energy flows, but leads to the exhaustion of these sources.

[5When energy is concentrated and extracted from relatively few locations, to be efficient society must group the majority of human activity around these relatively few energy hot spots or along relatively few energy outlets (indeed, it is physically impossible to do anything different).

Only a network with concentrated hubs can efficiently use a concentrated energy source such as fossil fuels, and indeed this is what we observe. For instance, it is estimated that over half the worlds GDP is produced in three mega regions.

So the physical structure of society changes, and must change, depending on the energy system employed, as it becomes physically impossible or physically inefficient to do otherwise.

Though highly centralized societies are efficient at transforming highly concentrated energy sources, they are very inefficient at transforming a dispersed energy source, such as solar energy

[6and due to the necessity to understand the subject each artisan can not only more easily adapt to requiring new skills but also more easily understand society as a whole.

[7Centralization of populations also cause diseases and a host.

[8Though abundant petroleum can be efficiently … material and energy infrastructure becomes exponentially exponentially greater

Written by Eerik Wissenz.

2 Forum posts

  • Energy Problems 12 February 2015 17:26, by Regeling Niels

    Depletion and unsustainability


    Over-exploitation of biomass causes a rapid erosion of the land and far less biomass production in the future. Fossil fuels form over hundreds of millions of years and so essentially any rate of extraction is unsustainable. Even river damns, which seem a steady constant source of power, will eventually fill with sediment requiring a new damn to be built. And that’s assuming … As for geothermal and nuclear.

    You wrote "a new damn". Shouldnt it be "a new dam" ?

    repondre message

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