www.stuartmcmillen.com

Pete Myers: The past and future of Buckminster Fuller’s energy slaves

We are in something of a race… a race against time and depletion.

Economists like to point to ingenuity, capital and labor as the drivers of economic growth.


They certainly contribute, but today's economy would be vastly smaller than it is were it not for the availability of Buckminster Fuller's 'energy slaves' ... the fossil sunlight that we have tapped for the past three centuries in the form of fossil fuels like coal, gas and petroleum.

As this superb comic—Energy Slaves by Stuart McMillen—lays out, the harnessing of those slaves has transformed the world.

"Bucky saw that coal, oil and gas were batteries for ancient sunshine that allowed civilization to, for the first, live beyond its solar income" available through daily sunshine, McMillen writes in the comic.

We now face two huge problems as a result. One is on many people's minds: climate change, the unintended consequence of burning fossil fuels.

The other is no smaller but less front and center, because people are technological optimists: the civilization constructed using fossil energy slaves may be vastly more complex and energy intensive than what annual solar income can support.

We don't have the technologies that are shovel-ready to replace fossils with solar (including solar derived sources like hydro, biomass, etc.) for all our uses of energy. Some, yes, and there is a great story emerging based on the growth trajectory of renewables.

But for the energy needed to replace today's transportation and industrial requirements, renewables aren't ready to go to scale.

Even if we're lucky and innovation keeps improving their energy density, swapping out the fossil infrastructure and replacing it with something renewables can sustainably support will take decades at best and require vast amounts of capital.

"Today's invisible slave power now operates at a scale that is impossible to replace with human or animal toil," McMillen writes.

Low hanging fruit

Here's a complication, also explored by the comic. Humans are really good at tapping and using the best and easiest resources first… the low hanging fruit. And we've been really wasteful in the process.

"Why care about churning through tons of disposable junk when the energy slaves magically take it away ... The average late 20th Century citizen enjoys a servant count that exceeds the tally of any King Queen or tycoon who live in previous centuries," McMillen writes.

This 'low hanging fruit" pattern means that what remains takes more energy to extract.

"The United States' first oil well needed to sink just 21 meters below ground to strike oil. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico, descended through 1,500 meters of water and then through a further 4,000 meters of crust," McMillen writes.

And, incidentally, "the Macondo oil field below the drilling platform contained a total volume of petroleum that would satisfy world oil consumption for only 12 hours." 12 hours.

What does this mean? In the early 1900s, "one energy slave could drill an oil well and discover another 100 slaves (100:1) to replace himself with," McMillen writes, "today the ratio has slipped closer to 10:1." The lower that ratio falls, the less energy surplus we have to drive civilization's needs.

This ratio is often called Energy Return On Energy Investment (EROI), and it's just as important for renewables as it is for fossil slaves.

A race against time and depletion

We are in something of a race… a race against time and depletion.

Against time because the shift to renewables requires decades and vast amounts of capital. Will we complete the transition before some large disruptive global event (nuclear war, cybersecurity attacks, climate change, etc.) so destabilizes our social machinery that we can't afford and can't complete the journey?

Against depletion because, despite all our technological prowess and seemingly endless sources of innovation, the costs of energy extraction may begin to exceed the energy return on energy investment (EROI less than 1).

We're placing almost all of our bets on winning the race through technological improvements. It's worked in the past, underwritten by vast numbers of fossil energy slaves and seemingly limitless opportunities for innovation.

But with the energy demands of 7.6 billion people continuing to grow ever faster, and numbers still increasing, the window for a smooth transition is shrinking.

What's Plan B?

Print Friendly and PDF
SUBSCRIBE TO EHN'S MUST-READ DAILY NEWSLETTER: ABOVE THE FOLD
(Credit: Petras Gagilas/flickr)
Originals

Federal tests 'dramatically' undercount BPA and other chemical exposures

Tests used by the federal government to determine how much of the chemical bisphenol A is in people's bodies have "dramatically underestimated" our exposure, according to an analysis published today.

Keep reading... Show less
State test results show that Coraopolis has some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination in its drinking water, though it doesn't exceed the federal advisory level. (Photo via Unsplash)
Originals

Coraopolis drinking water shows PFAS contamination among highest in Pennsylvania, but below federal advisory

Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing collaboration between Environmental Health News and PublicSource on PFAS contamination in Pennsylvania.
Keep reading... Show less
Illustration of the R.E. Burger power plant by David Wilson/Belt Magazine.
Originals

What the petrochemical buildout along the Ohio River means for regional communities and beyond

The R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant's final day ended, appropriately enough, in a cloud of black smoke and dust.

Keep reading... Show less
BPA testing in the lab of Cheryl Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri researcher. (Credit: Cheryl Rosenfeld)
Originals

Exposed: A scientific stalemate leaves our hormones and health at risk

This is part 1 of a 4-part investigation of the science surrounding the chemical BPA and the U.S. regulatory push to discredit independent evidence of harm while favoring pro-industry science despite significant shortcomings.

Keep reading... Show less
Originals

Fighting pollution and apathy on the Lower Ohio

NEW ALBANY, Ind. — When Jason Flickner was a kid, he built a dam on the creek behind his grandparents' house causing it to flood a neighbor's basement.

Keep reading... Show less
From our Newsroom

Hidden gotcha in artificial turf installations

With heightened awareness around the country about the health effects of PFAS, calculations for what artificial turf installations actually cost over their full life-time may send a shock through the artificial turf industry

Above The Fold

Daily & Weekly newsletters all free.