21 September 2012
Norman Pagett writes:
Our infrastructure is a dynamic of energy input. Or to be more specific, a dynamic of energy surplus because all forms of energy are essentially the same thing.
10,000 years ago when man decided to stop chasing his food and grow it close to home, the first farmers gradually found they could grow enough food (energy) to support themselves, and as their farming skills improved they found they had a little left over which they could pay people to guard it, or a holy man to pray over it. How the excess was used is irrelevant, it was surplus energy which had unwittingly created the trading medium for exchange of skills and employment; The soldiers needed weapons, the holy man needed a house of worship, neither could be paid for unless there was a surplus of food-energy to do so. In basic terms, the churchbuilder and the weapon maker had jobs and their wages were paid by surplus energy.
After that it was a simple and logical step to tokenise energy with volumes of gold and silver and convert it into money, and a good builder or metalworker or any tradesman could command higher payments for his work if there was enough food energy to support him.
So the primitive economy began the inevitable drive for growth. Food surpluses created more employment, and in no time at all castles and cities appeared, employing everyone from kings to garbage collectors.
Our ancestors locked themselves, and us, into an economic system that could only sustain itself by infinite expansion. The inevitable increases in population demanded more employment, more housing, bigger cities, none of which could be supported without constantly increasing primary sources of food energy.
No matter what the rank or social standing, every job depends on surplus energy somewhere back down the line.
Now fast forward to our present, and we’re still locked into that same trading system, but now it’s on steroids. 250 years ago we learned how to extract the energy from 200 million years worth of fossilised sunlight. We invented the steam engine, and dug coal oil and gas out of the ground as fast as we could, congratulating ourselves on our ingenuity. The more we dug up, the more ‘wealth’ we had, the faster we burned it, so our growth increased. Cheap fossil fuel energy drove our machines, vastly increased our food-energy supplies so that
the original food-energy system we started with now has to sustain a global surplus of about 6 billion people. We can only keep those billions fed by digging up more and more hydrocarbon fuel, and burning it in bigger faster machines. In energy terms we are stripping out our future to keep pace with our present, but our race for more has disconnected humanity from any awareness that ‘wealth’ is a derivative of energy.
Our legacy of oil coal and gas has convinced us instead that money is wealth and wealth is infinite because if we want more we can just print it.
Well, no we can’t; printing money is like trying to print energy. Our economy, despite its apparent complexity and infinite range of jobs, is still dependent on primary energy input. We have only expanded the primitive system of our ancestors by using colossal amounts of hydrocarbon to boost our food supplies, the same constraints still apply: the economy will collapse if energy supplies fail.
Which is where we’re at right now: employment is on a downturn because we built our jobs/energy infrastructure on cheap hydrocarbon energy, we are trying to maintain full employment and a viable economy on expensive energy.