Energy will never be as cheap as it is now. The question is do we act now and transition to a low-energy society while energy is still cheap, or do we paint ourselves into a corner?
Global trade will only work until cheap fossil fuels run out. This is definitely going to happen (read more about Peak Oil) although no-one knows when. The fact that we don’t know when is the reason why all countries need to look at becoming less energy dependent and more self-sufficient now while energy is still relatively cheap. Starting now will in all likelihood create a soft landing. We don’t want to even contemplate a hard crash landing which would happen if we do nothing.
The alternatives to cheap fossil fuels are all much more expensive. The cost of renewable energy is currently ’subsidised’ by the availability of cheap fossil fuels which are used to produce and maintain renewable systems. In other words it takes energy to make energy. The difference between the energy output and the energy input is called net energy gain (NEG). The net energy gain of wind power, solar power and biomass is very low compared to fossil fuels. This is because fossil fuels are a very concentrated form of energy whilst wind, solar and biomass are very diffuse. Wind, solar and biomass are perfectly suited to small-scale ‘diffuse’ applications in households such as space heating, water heating and cooking. Their diffuse energy, however, is not suitable for running large machinery.
A soft landing is a low-energy future where there will be much less affluence but all people would have well-being with sufficient food, clothes, shelter and warmth.
How do we create a soft landing to a low energy future?
Individuals are the ones who will need to change. Governments, corporations and ‘free’ markets will not make the change for us. What will we need to do?
- We will need to relearn and practice low-energy skills – the homemade and homegrown. Skills such as sewing, knitting, spinning, weaving, carpentry, woodworking, metalworking, vegetable gardening, preserving, hunting, fishing, foraging etc.
- We will need to transition to low-energy transport: walking, biking, electric scooters. Most families in the future won’t have a vehicle. This is partly because the energy to run them will be expensive but mostly because of the energy, and therefore cost, to make them will be exorbitant. There will likely be electric, or biofuel, public transport and local freight vehicles as well as expensive electric fire engines, ambulances, police cars, taxis and rental cars. There will be fewer roads partly because they won’t be needed and partly because they will be very expensive to make and maintain. We will live much more locally-based and slower-paced lives.
- Our basic resource needs – food, clothing, furnishing and building materials – will have to be sourced locally. Exotic materials and goods would only be for the very wealthy – if there were going to be any. One of the consequences of low-energy, local economies is that there won’t be any very rich people. Financial wealth comes from the ability to make profits from the centralisation, super-scaling and automation of production and then exporting goods far and wide. This won’t be feasible in a low-energy world.
- There will be fewer electric appliances and electric tools and more use of hand tools. There will be small scale local power generation and homes will also generate some electricity through solar panels, micro-wind, and other means where possible but electric appliances will be very expensive.
- We will live in smaller houses.
All of this might sound a bit grim or at the very least, austere. However, this is not the case at all. In a sense, we will be much better off. Modern ‘produce and consume’ lifestyles are not actually good for us. We definitely won’t be going back to the dark ages. We will still have modern technology but the technology will be at a smaller, human scale and there will be less of it.
The future will be about local, small scale. The future will be about quality and not quantity. If we change now we will have a soft landing and not a brutal crash.