The Fossil Fuel Age and After

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The Fossil Fuel Age and After

If a future historian were to map out the great expanse of human history over thousands of years, the fossil fuel age will have occupied a relatively small blip of time. During just several hundred years, humans will have squandered much of the fossil fuels formed over half a billion years. Yet, however brief this era we currently live in will be, many of us consider its way of life to be normal. Almost all aspects of modern life currently depend on fossil fuels: food production, transportation, electricity, heating, medicine, communication and information technologies, construction, manufacturing, and most consumer products.

How do we make sense of this age and cope with its decline? What kinds of human societies might emerge after the fossil fuel age has passed into history's dustbin? The following books insightfully explore these important questions.

The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude by Andrew Nikiforuk

Looking at history through the lens of energy, Nikiforuk casts light on the extravagance and impermanence of the fossil fuel age. In the early 19th century, the slave trade was one of the most profitable enterprises worldwide, its defenders saying it was necessary for progress. The abolition of slavery, he argues, had an invisible ally: coal and oil. Fossil fuels replaced human energy and transformed much of the modern world into an absurdly extravagant way of life. The average North American depends on the energy equivalent of 300 slaves, but these "slaves" are depleting, becoming more difficult to extract, increasing inequality, and contributing to many ecological crises. Current justifications for our oil-dependent lifestyles are similar to defenses of slavery in the past. Nikiforuk calls for a new emancipation movement to use energy on a moral, just, and truly human scale.

The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies by Richard Heinberg

Heinberg outlines the crucial role of fossil fuels in the rise of industrialism, and how the decline in both availability and net energy of oil will likely impact various areas of society: economy, food, transportation, heating and cooling, information storage, public health, the environment, and geopolitics. He discusses the extent to which energy alternatives can compensate for oil and how families, communities, and nations might transition to a low-energy, sustainable future.

While this book provides a thorough discussion of fossil fuel depletion, because he wrote it a decade ago, I also recommend reading some of his subsequent writing that add additional insight on recent events related to energy and economics: The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future, and Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels and many essays and articles.

The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age by John Michael Greer

Global industrial society, Greer argues, had the opportunity to effectively respond to challenges such as fossil fuel and resource depletion, climate change, and other limits to growth by charting a sustainable path in the 1970s. Sadly, by all significant measures, industrial society has followed the "overshoot and collapse" path during the subsequent four decades. At this point, the current crisis is not a problem to be solved; it is instead a predicament to be lived with.

In his analysis, Greer explores how cultural stories shape our visions of the future. The myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse are dominant narratives in today's popular culture. Neither, however, likely describe our future. Drawing on comparative historical studies of how past civilizations have declined, he argues that the collapse of industrial civilization is likely to be a fractal, staircase-like descent over one to three centuries, a process of which we're already in the early stages. Not without hope, he offers suggestions on how individuals and communities can mitigate the challenges ahead.

The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World by John Michael Greer

Following up on The Long Descent, Greer offers an inspiring vision of the post-fossil fuel world rooted in principles of environmental science. Applying the ecological concept of succession to human societies, he shows how the industrial system is a vastly inefficient, fast-growing but short-lived form of human ecology, while a truly advanced "ecotechnic" civilization of the far future will use very modest amounts of energy and be relatively stable, similar to a climax community. Avoiding prediction on the exact shape of the future, he muses on likely characteristics of basic elements of life in ecotechnic societies: agriculture, home, work, energy, community, culture and science.

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change by William R. Catton, Jr.

Using ecological principles to look at the past two million years, Catton first outlines the ways humans have enlarged their carrying capacity by the use of fire, hand tools, metallurgy, agriculture, and colonial expansion. He then shows how very recent industrial dependence on the temporary abundance of fossil fuels and other resources have enabled humans to far exceed their long-term carrying capacity. The myth of limitless resources that pervades industrial society is a dangerous delusion, he asserts, as is the belief that technology can save us from the limits to growth. Boom-bust cycles, well-known to biologists, apply to humans no less than any other species. Providing a sober overview of our predicament, Catton nevertheless expresses a cautious hope that future descendents who have survived the coming bottleneck might have gained ecological wisdom that our age lacks.