The Great Enrichment

windIn recent years the radical environmental movement has argued that we will soon run out of fossil fuels, that alternative sources of energy will price fossil fuels out of the market, and we just cannot afford the consequences of them.

According to Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, and a member of the British House of Lords, these days, none of their arguments looks very healthy. In fact, a more realistic assessment of our energy and environmental situation suggests that, for decades to come, we will continue to rely overwhelmingly on the fossil fuels that have contributed so dramatically to the world’s prosperity and progress.

In 2013 about 87% of the world’s energy came from fossil fuels, a figure mostly unchanged over the last decade. An amazing fact is that as the overall volume of fossil fuel consumption has remained steady, the overall volume of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy produced has diminished, due in large part from switching from high carbon coal to low carbon gas for electrical generation.

The argument that fossil fuels will run out is pretty much dead. The collapse of the price of oil is due to its abundance, thanks to hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, seismology and information technology. The U.S., the country with the oldest and most developed hydrocarbon fields, has found itself once again at the top of the energy producing league, rivaling Saudi Arabia in oil and Russia in gas.  And, even if the current low price drives some high cost oil producers out, shale drillers can step back in whenever the price rebounds thanks to a rapid fall in the cost of time it takes to drill a well, along with a rapid rise in the volume of hydrocarbons they are able to extract. The shale revolution has yet to go global but when it does, oil and gas in tight rock formations will give the world ample supplies of hydrocarbons for decades, if not centuries. Lurking in the wings for later technological breakthrough is methane hydrate, a seafloor source of gas that exceeds in quantity all the world’s coal, oil and gas put together.

Alternative energy sources are much more expensive than fossil fuels. Hydroelectric is the biggest and cheapest supplier but has the least capacity for expansion. Technologies that tap the energy of waves and tides remain unaffordable and impractical. Geothermal is a minor player for now and bioenergy, i.e. wood, ethanol from corn or sugar cane and diesel made from palm oil, is producing an ecological disaster, not only encouraging deforestation and a rapid rise in food prices worldwide but creating even more carbon dioxide than coal.

Wind power and solar power would not even exist without taxpayer subsidies. Wind power inched up to 1% of the world energy consumption in 2013 and solar, for all the hype, has not even managed that. If we rounded to the nearest whole number, solar would account for 0% of world energy consumption. The two fundamental problems that renewables face are that they take up too much space and produce too little energy. Take Solar Impulse, a solar powered airplane now flying around the world, as an example. Despite its huge wingspan that is similar to a 747, with its slow speed and frequent stops, the only cargo that it can carry is the pilots themselves, which is a great metaphor for the limitations of renewables.

To run the US economy entirely on wind would require a wind farm the size of Texas, California and New Mexico combined, backed up by gas on windless days. To power it on wood would require a forest covering two-thirds of the US, continually harvested.

John Constable, who will head a new Energy Institute at the University of Buckingham in Britain, pointed out that the trickle of energy that humans managed to extract from wind, water and wood before the Industrial Revolution placed a great limit on development and progress. The incessant toil of farm laborers generated so little surplus energy in the form of food for men and draft animals that the accumulation of capital, such as machinery, was painfully slow. Even as late as the 18th century, this energy-deprived economy was sufficient to enrich daily life for only a fraction of the population.

Our old enemy, the second law of thermodynamics, is the problem. As a teenager’s bedroom generally illustrates, left to its own devices, everything in the world becomes less ordered, more chaotic tending toward “entropy,” or thermodynamic equilibrium. To reverse this tendency and make something complex, ordered and functional requires work and work requires energy.

The more energy you have, the more intricate, powerful and complex you can make a system. Just as human bodies need energy to be ordered and functional, so do societies. In that sense, fossil fuels were a unique advance because they allowed humans to create extraordinary patterns of order and complexity with which to improve their lives.

The result of this great boost in energy is what economic historian and philosopher Deirdre McCloskey called the Great Enrichment.  In the case of the US, there has been roughly 9,000% increase in the value of goods and services available to the average American since 1800, almost all of which are made with, made of, or powered by fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels have contributed to preservation of the planet. The use of coal stopped and then reversed the deforestation of Europe and North America. The use of oil halted the slaughter of the world’s whales and seals for their blubber. Fertilizer manufactured with gas halved the amount of land required to produce a given amount of food, thus feeding a growing population while sparing land for wild nature.

To throw away these immense economic, environmental and moral benefits, would require a very good reason and the one invoked by the far-left – man made global warming – is not a very good one since its theories have been shown to be based not on science but an agenda.

There has been no increase in the frequency or severity of storms or droughts, no acceleration of sea-level rise, no decrease in polar bear population. Arctic sea ice has decreased but Antarctic sea ice has increased. At the same time scientists have agreed that the extra carbon dioxide in the air has contributed to an improvement in crop yields and a roughly 14% increase in the overall types of green vegetation on the planet since 1980.

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