Fossil Fuels

In the understanding of the material world provided by physics, energy is defined as the ability to do work. Work in this sense means the displacement of an object (“mass”) in the direction of a force applied to the object. In everyday life, we use the word energy more generally to indicate vitality, vigor, or power. Here, we focus on another definition of energy: a source of usable power. Our homes, our industries, and our commercial establishments from the supermarket to the stock exchange can work because they are provided with sources of usable power. The same is true for hospitals and medical services, schools, fire and police services, and recreational centers. Without usable energy, TVs, the Internet, computers, radios, automobiles and trucks, construction equipment, and schools would not work. To put it transparently and simply, energy is important because doing anything requires energy.


I. Alternative Fuels

II. Industry and Globalization

III. Impact of Extraction

IV. Quality of Life and Community

V. Conclusion

Alternative Fuels

Fossil Fuels 1There are many sources of usable power on our planet, including natural gas, oil, coal, nuclear energy, manure, biomass, solar power, wind energy, tidal energy, and hydropower. These energy sources are classed as renewable or nonrenewable. For renewable energy (for example, wind, biomass, manure, and solar power), it is possible to refresh energy supplies within a time interval that is useful to our species. If well planned and carefully managed on an ongoing basis, the stock of energy supplied is continuously renewed and is never exhausted. The fossil fuels are forms of nonrenewable energy. For each, the planet has a current supply stock that we draw down. These nonrenewable supplies of fossil fuels are not replaceable within either individual or collective human time horizons. It is not that the planet cannot renew fossil fuels in geologic time—that is, over millions of years—but for all practical purposes, given human life span and our limited abilities, renewal is far beyond our technical and scientific capabilities.

For almost all of human history, our species used very little energy, almost all of it renewable, usually in the form of wood fires for heating and cooking. If we had continued in that fashion, the human population might easily be in the low millions and would be approximately in a steady state in relation to the environment. As the first animal on this planet to learn how to use fire, we were able to establish successful nomadic tribes, small farm settlements, early cities, and the kinds of kingdoms that were typical of medieval and preindustrial civilizations. The associated rise in human numbers and our spread across the planet was also associated with the early use of coal, for example to make weapons. But it is only with the rise of industrial civilization, and specifically and increasingly in the last 500 years, that we learned how to use concentrated forms of energy in industrial processes and to exploit various nonrenewable forms of energy massively for uses such as central heating, industrial processes, and the generation of electricity.

Industry and Globalization

The rise of our current global civilization was dependent on abundant and inexpensive concentrated energy from fossil fuels. All of this energy ultimately derives from sunlight, but as we learned how to use coal (replacing wood as fuel) and then oil and natural gas, there was little concern for energy conservation or for developing rules for limiting energy use. Up until the middle of the last century, and somewhat beyond, the typical discussion of energy would have linked usable energy with progress, as is the case today. The spirit of the presentation would have been celebratory, however, celebrating the daring risks taken and the hard work of miners and oil and gas field workers in dominating nature to extract resources. In addition, it would have celebrated the competence of the “captains of industry” whose business skills and aggressive actions supplied energy to manufacturing industry, and would have implied that this pattern of resource exploitation could go on forever without taking limits into account. Today that era of celebration belongs to the somewhat quaint past, and we are now much more aware of the cumulative damage to the environment from aggressive exploitation of limited fossil fuel resources. We now know that we face an immediate future of global warming, shortages of usable energy, and rising prices. From a material perspective, the planet is a closed system, and the dwindling stocks of nonrenewable but usable energy are critically important. For each fossil fuel, what is left is all we have.

Impact of Extraction

There is currently no social convention to limit the use of nonrenewable energy to essential production or essential services. Under the rules of the neoliberal market system, resources are provided to those who have the ability to pay for them. This is the kind of human behavior that an unregulated or weakly regulated market system rewards. Because the stocks of fossil fuels took millions of years to create, the ability to extract them is inherently short-run when there is no strong social planning to provide for a human future on other than a very short-range basis. We commit the same error with fossil fuels that we commit with fish stocks—as ocean fish dwindle in numbers, and species after species significantly declines, the main response has been to develop more and more efficient methods and machines to kill and extract the remaining fish. The same is true with fossil fuels. As abundance disappears, and the cost of extraction continues to increase, the primary response has been to find more efficient methods of extraction and to open up previously protected areas for extraction. As a general pattern, Georgescu-Roegen and others have pointed out that resources are exploited sequentially, in order of concentration, the easy sources first. After the easy sources of fossil fuels are exhausted, moderately difficult sources are exploited. Then more difficult sources are exploited. Each more difficult source requires the input of more energy (input) in order to extract the sought-after energy resource (output).

In the material world, the process of the energy extraction from fossil fuels requires more and more input energy. And as extraction proceeds to more difficult sources, it is also associated with more and more impurities mixed in with the energy resources. These impurities are often toxic to our species (and other species). Examples include the acidic sludge generated from coal mines and the problem of sour gas in oil and gas drilling (sour gas contains hydrogen sulfi de and carbon dioxide). As more and more input energy is required per unit of output energy, we also need to do more work with more and more impurities and toxic waste. Remember now that from our species standpoint the planet is a closed system with respect to nonrenewable forms of usable energy. In physics, the change in internal energy of a closed system is equal to the heat added to the system minus the work done by the system. In this case, more energy has to be added to develop a unit of energy output, and more and more work has to be done. For example, as coal, gas, and oil become harder to reach, increasing gross amounts of waste materials are generated.

Beyond this, all of our processes for extracting energy from fossil fuels are inefficient in that energy is lost in the process of doing work. In physics, the measure of the amount of energy that is unavailable to do work is called entropy. (Entropy is also sometimes referred to as a measure of the disorder of a system.) Georgescu-Roegen and others have developed a subfield of economics based on the priority of material reality over conventional economic beliefs. The fundamental insight grounding this subfield of economics is that the earth is an open system with very small (residual) usable energy input. So, like a closed system, it cannot perform work at a constant rate forever (because stocks of energy sources run down).

So if we look at the extraction of energy from finite stocks (of coal, oil, or natural gas), the extraction process must become more and more difficult per unit of energy extracted, become more and more costly per unit of energy extracted, and generate more and more waste per unit of energy extracted.

This understanding, which follows from physics and the nature of the material reality of the planet, does not fit with the conventional capitalist economic theory that currently governs world trade, including the extraction of energy resources. Market economics, sometimes called the “business system,” typically advises arranging life so as not to interfere with the operations of markets. This advice comes from a perspective that regularly disregards the transfer of “externalities,” costs that must be suffered by others, including pollution, health problems, damage to woodlands, wildlife, waterways, and so on.

Conventional economic thinking employs economic models that assume undiminished resources. That is why it seems reasonable to advise more efficient means of extraction of resources (e.g., with fish and coal) as stocks of resources diminish. Another feature of conventional economic thinking is that it (literally) discounts the future. Depending on the cost of capital, any monetary value more than about 20 years in the future is discounted to equal approximately nothing. These features of conventional economics mean that the tools of economic calculation operate to coach economic agents, including those who own or manage extractive industries, to act for immediate profit as if the future were limited to the very short term.

This is in contrast to a material or engineering viewpoint, the perspective of community- oriented social science, and the humane spirit of the liberal arts. All of these are concerned not simply with the present but with the future of the human community and with the quality of human life and of human civilization in the future as well as today.

Quality of Life and Community

Outside of the limited focus of conventional economics, most disciplines place a high value on the quality of the human community and sustaining it into the distant future. Practical reasoning in everyday life often puts a higher value on the future—most of us would like things to get better and better. One way to understand this difference is to contrast the interest of today’s captains of industry with the perspective of a student finishing secondary school or beginning college, just now. For the captains, everything done today has a certain prospect for short-term profit, and the future is radically discounted (progressively, year by year) so that 20 years out, its value is essentially zero.

For the student, the point in time 20 years out has a very high value because the quality of life, the job prospects, the environment (including global warming), the prospects for having a family, and the opportunities for children 20 years out will be of direct personal relevance. The student might argue that the future is more important than today (and should be taken into account without discounting), as would most families that would like a better future for their children. Today’s student has a strong interest in having usable energy resources available and the disasters of global warming avoided or lessened. Conventional market economics does not do this; it takes strong regulation, strong central planning, and an engineer’s approach to nonrenewable resources to best use and stretch out resources for the future, rather than a conventional economist’s approach.

The growth curve of the planetary economy continues to increase. India and China are undergoing rapid economic growth, and the Western economies continue to follow traditional consumption patterns. Capitalist strategies abound in these economies; companies make money by engineering built-in obsolescence into their products. Not only does this require regularly replacing products with new or upgraded versions; it also leaves openings for replacing obsolete products with entirely new lines of products. The computer industry offers numerous examples of this obsolescence imperative. The demand for products of all kinds is soaring in comparison with past decades or centuries. At the same time the human population has increased dramatically over past centuries. All of this requires more and more energy.

Current industry projections for fossil energy suggest that there may be about 250 more years of coal, 67 years of natural gas, and 40 years of oil. These kinds of industry projections change from year to year and are much more generous than projections made by independent university scientists and conservation groups. Several scientists believe we have passed the time of peak oil. The point here, however, is not the specific numbers (it is easy to find more on the Internet) but that these numbers provide a rough indication of remaining stocks. Also, note that the optimistic industry projections are not for millions or thousands of years into the future. From your own perspective, if you knew coal stocks could last for perhaps another 250 years or oil for another 40 years at the outside, would you want fossil energy carefully rationed for specific uses that cannot be easily met by renewable energy (so that it might last 1,000 or 2,000 years)? This is an alternative to the current system of neoliberal market rules that destroy or weaken the institutions of social planning in many small states. Coal, oil, and natural gas are forced onto world markets (by military force, if market pressures and diplomacy do not suffice) with ever more intense extraction for use by those who can afford it (to use as quickly as they like). Which policy is best for you, your family, your community, your country, and the world?

What makes the number of years of remaining stock estimates tricky is that sometimes new resources are found (though this does not happen much anymore), new technical improvements can sometimes increase extraction, and the more optimistic projections tend to use bad math. That is, sometimes the math and statistics fail to take into account factors such as dwindling supply with more and more difficult access, increased percentage of impurities mixed into remaining stocks, increased waste streams, and the entropy factor. When we interpret these estimates, we need to keep in mind that it is not simply that we will “run out” of coal and oil but that remaining stocks will become more and more expensive to extract.


Energy is important because doing anything requires energy. Any area of human civilization largely cut off from fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, or coal in current quantities) will fail to sustain human carrying capacity. Jobs will be lost, businesses will have to close down, and home energy supplies for heating, cooling, and cooking will become sporadic as energy costs spiral beyond people’s means. As a secondary effect, the same thing happens to food supplies that are gradually made too costly for increasing numbers of people.

We are currently watching income in the lower and middle to upper-middle sections of society decrease or not increase. By contrast, income in the upper 1 and 5 percent of households is growing rapidly. We are witnessing, in other words, a resurgence of a class division similar to that of the Middle Ages, with a relative handful of privileged households at the apex (enjoying access to usable energy and food supplies) and a vast surplus population and marginalized population of different degrees below them. We have a choice in planning for a long and well-balanced future for the human community in our use of fossil fuel stocks or continuing with neoliberal economics and conventional market rules (supported by military force), which will allow elites to live well for a while and leave most of the rest of us as surplus.

As important as they are, conservation and renewable energy are insufficient to countervail this future unless we make significant changes in lifestyle and gently reduce the number of humans to a level close to that sustainable by renewable technologies. This will take more mature thinking than is typical of the business system or of conventional market economics. In particular, we need an economics in which beliefs are subordinated to the realities of the physics of the material world.

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