What if everything you “knew” about something was wrong? Would you cling to what you “knew” anyway, even in the face of new information? Here’s the news: Fossil fuels will be virtually obsolete by 2030. As of 2002, no significant, easily accessible new oil had been discovered, and world oil production began declining. U.S. oil demand has been dropping since 2006, the U.S. has become a net fuel exporter, and analysts at Deutschebank and elsewhere predict that by 2030 in industrialized nations, 60 percent of all coal-fired plants and half of all oil-fired plants will be closed, nuclear will be gone, and renewable energy, waste-to-energy and natural gas plants will provide all the electric and thermal energy we need.
“We’re now in the end game,” says economist Jeremy Rifkin.
This may sound like topsy-turvy Purim thinking, but we Jews have been turning the world on its head since we exited Egypt 4,000 years ago. We think “outside the box,” because that’s where we’ve been obliged to live. We invented the Sabbath and Ten Commandments, the rabbinate and Talmudic scholarship, Marxism, psychology, Zionism, relativity and Hollywood. Why not a fossil-fuel–free world?
Until the early 1800s, humans lived solely on “current solar income” — the daily sunshine that provided light, heat, and energy for photosynthesis and all other activities on Earth. When the sun went down, people lit oil lamps or candles, and wrapped up their day’s business. They could see the Milky Way from the biggest cities at night. And distances and delivery times were based on how far a pack animal could travel in a day: 20-40 miles.
But thanks to fossil fuel infusions since the 19th century, today we can travel more than 300 times farther than our ancestors. (Minneapolis to Melbourne? Just jump on the jet!) Even our food travels 50 times farther —1,500 miles or even more from farm to table. But even as our entire civilization depends on fossil fuels, two factors are driving us back to our solar income roots: The direct relationship between economic collapse and high fossil fuel prices, and private investments that increasingly favor energy efficiency over generation.
Rifkin and other economists found that each time we try to restart our economic engine, fossil fuel prices rise and the economy sputters — in roughly four-year cycles. And as China and India demand increasing shares of the world’s fossil-fueled economy, this situation will only get worse.
Simultaneously, investors have found that funding energy efficiency costs less than half of what generating electricity does — about a penny per kilowatt; plus, it cuts greenhouse gas emissions, and avoids the risks of massive accidents and toxic wastes. Renewables now supply 11 percent of U.S. energy (through co-generation, wind, solar, waste to energy, geothermal and hydro plants). Over the past decade, investments in coal- and oil-fired power plants have decreased, and no private money has gone into nuclear.
So why do the fossil-fuel industries persist in claiming we need to drill and mine today, so we can secure the energy we need for tomorrow? They’re lying to protect their investments. The U.S. actually wastes about 75 percent of all the energy it uses — through heat and transmission losses, and inefficient designs and operations of vehicles, buildings and equipment.
Dramatically improving our energy efficiency would reduce or eliminate our needs to mine coal or uranium for “clean” coal and “safe” nuclear plants, drill for oil offshore and in the Arctic, or dig up Alberta and North Dakota tar sands. And it would flatten our boom-and-bust economic cycles.
We not only wouldn’t need the extra energy, we could drive and charge millions of electric cars, and cut our carbon emissions output below the magical 350 parts per million that could help reverse climate change. The Wuppertal Institute, RMI and many others assert we can use our energy 10 times more efficiently than we do now. Which ironically puts the most ancient way to do things — living on current solar income — within our reach. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “All my great ideas have been stolen by the ancients.”
So nuclear is dead, coal and oil are dying, and efficiency and renewables are ascending. Killing the XL Pipeline is a smart move, since the tar sands will be a bubble that bursts as demand evaporates and those windy mid-continent areas get converted to renewable energy use. Increasingly, all that’s available for consumers to buy are high-mile-per-gallon vehicles, energy-efficient appliances and equipment, and green materials and building products; and the only ways we can build are “green.” Long before we run out of fossil fuels, we just won’t need them. As Lovins enjoys reminding us, “We didn’t leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones.” We just moved out of the Stone Age box.