Fossil Fuels Were A One-Time Inheritance And We Blew It
Fossil fuels are—by popular definition—not renewable. We don’t have 100 million years and 100 trillion plants to bury solar energy in liquid batteries under solid rock. Fossil fuels were a one-time inheritance from our dead ancestors, and we’ve blown them all in a few generations, on coke and Ferraris. It was a good run, but there’s no way around it. We’re running out.
As Tom Murphy, whose textbook I reference, says, “The current state of apparent success cannot be taken as a meaningful proof-of-concept, because it was achieved at the expense of finite resources in a shockingly short time: an extravagant party funded by the great one-time inheritance. The aftermath is only beginning to appear.”
We are nearly half done with coal, 80% done with oil, and 50% with natural gas. The last bits of these resources will be so difficult to obtain, it’ll be like William S. Burroughs looking for a vein. We’ll be shooting up between our planetary toes. By the end, it won’t even be worth it. The last 10% of fossil fuels will cost more to extract than they’re worth.
You could say that there are unproven reserves, but these are again expensive to A) find and B) extract. They are by definition not obvious and easy, or we would have found them. Peak oil happens not when you completely run out, but when you economically run out. When it costs more energy to find the shit than you get from burning it. So the last bit gets left in the ground.
What are fossil fuels and why aren’t they renewable? Fossil fuels are trillions of dead plants and animals that have been compressed for millions of years. We don’t have trillions of plants and animals (killed 95% of them) and we don’t have millions of years. We are thus facing a math problem we can’t win. The amount of fossil fuels that get renewed are only enough to power one university campus. And we obviously have higher ambitions than this. We want to get high motherfucker, not study. That’s how we’re blowing our inheritance.
When do we run out? In about 50 years for oil and gas, 100 years if we want to go back to the steam age. I’m rounding down because, again, the last reserves are probably uneconomical to get.
This is what makes Net-Zero By 2050™ commitments so hilarious. We’re coincidentally running out around the same time. It’s like saying “You can’t fire me! I quit!”
I mean, no shit. We have to go net-zero by 2050, because the fossil fuels themselves are going to go ‘net zero’ on us. By 2050 we’ll barely have enough for the accounting fraud called Net-Zero™. By 2080 we simply won’t have economic access to fossil fuels at all. Which is a bit of a problem because fossil fuels are the economy.
We could certainly have a different economy without fossil fuels, but we can’t have this economy. We simply can’t keep growing without hitting the gas. This lifestyle and being high as fuck on fossil fuels are inextricably linked, and the come-down is going to be intense.
As serious scholars and basic math point out, climate change is just one of our problems. It’s a symptom, not the disease. Stopping CO2 emissions is the equivalent of taking a Panadol for cancer. It might reduce the fever, but it doesn’t address the root problem, which is unchecked growth in general. This cancer of growth is just spreading to lithium, copper, and other non-renewable resources, all requiring diesel to extract anyways. The growth continues to take land and life from other species, and the planet still collapses. The cancer is growth, and electrifying it won’t help the patient planet. Our current CO2-only approach to collapse is like a doctor diagnosing cancer and then saying, “let’s move the tumor to another organ, and paint it green.”
What we don’t understand about this lifestyle is how deeply enmeshed it is with fossil fuels. People don’t get it. The ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture was black, it involves making fertilizer using natural gas, growing food with machines, and effectively eating fossil fuels.
Murphy uses the term EROEI which is basically how much energy you get out for how much energy you put in. For every calorie we get out of food (0.1), we put 10x as much energy in (making the fertilizer with natural gas, farming and transporting it with oil, cooling it with electricity). Then we put our groceries in a cloth bag and save the planet. We’re fucking delusional. The fossil fuels are baked in.
Fossil fuels are what enable us to get pomegranates from Morocco and toys from China and cocaine from Colombia and all this unnatural shit. It all gets here on tanker ships that cannot, physically, use batteries and which cannot, economically, use wind. It’s all preserved in plastic which is, again, a fossil fuel product. We could certainly live differently, but we can’t live like this. And nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to sacrifice. That goes against the very religion of growth, which promises that everyone can live like the rich, eventually. Just keep feeding the growth engine. But we’re literally running out of fuel and running out of runway. It’s a perfect storm of hubris. Human ambition meets a finite planet. Who do you think wins?
I’ll conclude with Murphy’s own words on the themes I’ve riffed on here, because both his words and math are better. As a physicist, he’s terrifyingly lucid. Murphy says:
The delirious ascent in energy and resource use witnessed over the past few centuries has been accomplished via the rapid, accelerating expenditure of a one-time inheritance of natural resources — a brief and singularly remarkable era in the long saga of human history. It has produced a dangerously distorted impression of what “normal” looks like on this planet. The fireworks show on display today is spectacular, fun, and inspirational, but also exceptionally unusual. Just as a meteorologist somehow born and trained within a 15-minute fireworks display likely cannot make useful predictions about weather and sky conditions over the next week, we are ill-equipped to intuitively understand what comes after the present phase…
Substance Addiction: Finally, the very fact that fossil fuels are finite may be viewed as a serious negative. Granted, an effectively inexhaustible supply would be devastating for the climate change story. Setting that aside, the fossil fuel inheritance might be viewed as a sort of bait-and- switch trick. We have built up to our current state wholly in the context of cheap and available fossil fuels, and simply do not know if we can continue to live at a similar standard in a post-fossil world.
What I put picturesquely—shooting up heroin between toes, a wastrel squandering their inheritance—is in fact the mathematical description of what’s going on. Our civilization, as an organism, is addicted to fossil fuels and we have blindly used them to power all of our so-called progress. We are like the child of a billionaire who complains about working hard after taking a few meetings. We’ve been in big daddy fossil’s pockets the whole time, and he’s dying, leaving us nothing but debt. As Murphy says, “Fossil fuels are a one-time resource — an inheritance — that will not continue propelling the future, and nature does not guarantee a superior substitute.” As I put it, we were fossil fools, and now we’re shit out of luck.
Read the textbook! It’s funny and the most engaging textbook I’ve ever read, perhaps because it’s the physics equivalent of a gun to your head (very motivating).