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Book Data

ISBN: 9781933392127
Year Added to Catalog: 2007
Book Format: Paperback
Book Art: B&W photographs, illustrations
Dimensions: 6 x 9
Number of Pages: 384
Book Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Old ISBN: 1933392126
Release Date: March 7, 2007
Web Product ID: 76

Also By This Author

The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook

Community Solutions to a Global Crisis

by Greg Pahl

Foreword by Richard Heinberg

Excerpt 2


Human history has been marked by three decisive energy transitions— the commencement of the use of fire, the invention of agriculture (including the domestication and harnessing of draft animals), and the adoption of fossil fuels. Of these three, the last—a project that began only about two centuries ago—is proving to have had by far the greatest impact on human population and the environment. Indeed, the fossil fuel revolution has occurred so quickly, and with such overwhelming force, that it may prove to be humankind’s undoing.

The coming century will see the fourth great energy transition—one way or another. This is a certainty; all that remains to be revealed is whether this next transition is undertaken with planning and cooperative effort, or whether it is put off as long as possible. In the latter case, our prospects are not good.

We know that the fossil-fueled energy regime is coming to an end, and that something else will follow, for two reasons.

First, the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas produces carbon dioxide in sufficient amounts to destabilize the global climate. If we do not stop burning these biochemical accumulations of ancient sunlight, we are likely to set off a series of chain reactions (including the melting of polar ice and the release of methane from arctic permafrost) that could turn a mere warming of the globe by a couple of degrees into a full-blown global inferno of climatic chaos, complete with widespread desertification and sea-level increases of over thirty feet or more over the course of the next few decades. In short, a failure to foreswear fossil fuels is likely to be suicidal to our species.

Second, we face the specter of oil and gas depletion. Fossil fuels are nonrenewable and therefore finite in quantity, and there is abundant, persuasiveevidence that the rate of global oil extraction will peak by the end of the decade and begin its inevitable, inexorable decline. The global natural gas peak will not lag far behind. This might be seen as a good thing, given the climatic consequences of continuing to burn these fuels. However, modern societies have become overwhelmingly dependent on oil for transportation and agriculture, on gas for home heating, power generation, and fertilizer production, and on both as feedstocks for chemicals and plastics. The contemporary urban environment is unimaginable without these services and materials. And so oil and gas depletion threaten both our economy and our way of life. It is not mere scare mongering to draw parallels between the vulnerabilities of modern oil-dependent societies to petroleum depletion, and the circumstances that led to the collapse of ancient civilizations.

In light of these realities, it is clear that the work of engaging proactively, purposefully, and intelligently in the energy transition ahead (that is, the transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable alternative forms of energy) represents the most important work of the new century.

There are endless human concerns, many of which are more or less perennial—the quests for justice, equality, knowledge, artistic excellence, personal success, and so on. All of these will and should continue to have importance in people’s lives. However unless our species successfully manages the next energy transition, efforts in these directions will have only transitory meaning; in the end, they will be overwhelmed by the disintegration of the social and ecological systems that make human existence possible. On the other hand, if the energy transition is handled well, many of our current social, economic, and environmental quandaries will be substantially ameliorated. Our descendants could live in smaller communities, enjoying a more stable environment as well as more intergenerational solidarity and a deeper sense of connection with place and vocation.

The renewable-energy transition will not happen automatically. If we simply sit back and wait for market forces to propel the shift, the results will be horrific—energy wars, global economic collapse, climatic catastrophe, and widespread, persistent famine.

The situation would look much brighter if there were signs that government and industry leaders already understand the situation and are preparing enormous investments in new energy sources, more efficient transportation networks, and more resilient, organic, locally-based agricultural systems. There are indeed such signs on a very small scale and in the case of a very few municipalities and two or three nations. However, in Washington, Detroit, and Beijing, the predominant discourse is merely about maintaining current trajectories of energy production and consumption.

Therefore much hinges on large numbers of citizens taking matters into their own hands. I am not proposing vigilante action to sabotage oil fields or install guerilla wind turbines. But I am suggesting that widespread, voluntary, proactive efforts by citizens and small communities to ditch fossil fuels and develop alternatives could play an important role in helping society as a whole begin moving in a direction essential to its own survival.

Such efforts must begin with energy literacy. In past decades, it seemed that only techno-nerds were interested in measuring energy efficiency, in understanding how a photovoltaic cell works, or in keeping up with the literature on energy profit ratios. Now it is clear that civilization will persist or perish by our attention to such information. We can no longer afford to leave these essential matters to the energy geeks (bless their hearts). We may not all have the capacity to become experts, but we must all make the effort to understand the basics. Our society must soon and quickly make fateful choices regarding a confusing array of alternative energy sources and conservation strategies, and, because of the late hour and limited budgets, we cannot afford to make many costly, time-consuming errors. The only way to avoid such errors is to invest the effort to understand as much as we can about energy itself, the various available energy sources, the necessary ways of assessing them, and the uses to which we put those resources.

Greg Pahl has done us an enormous favor by assembling a great deal of such information in this highly readable and well-organized book. This citizen handbook provides a valuable overview not only of the various energy alternatives, but also of what is currently being done with them in several nations, and in towns and cities across the U.S. There is useful data here for experts, but it is presented in a format that will primarily benefit the layperson who knows relatively little about energy and wants to learn. The reader will come away not only better informed, but also better prepared to take action—which is really the point of the exercise. Reducing fossil fuel consumption takes knowledge, planning, investment, and effort. And only those who have successfully reduced their consumption will be in position to show others the way.

To his credit, Pahl maintains an upbeat, encouraging tone throughout this narrative. There are some who look at the implications of our current societal addiction to fossil fuels and conclude that there is no hope. But in fact, no matter how great the challenge, we will all be much better off if we do what we can rather than simply sinking into cynicism and despair. We need to understand the enormity of the task, but we also need courage and good cheer as we apply ourselves to it. And there are plenty of encouraging community energy efforts—in places like Willits, California, Toronto, Ontario, and Burlington, Vermont—to savor and learn from.

This book is for pioneers in the great project of the new century. It will remain a touchstone informational resource for many years to come. May you benefit from it by applying its insights and suggestions in your life and in efforts you undertake with others in your community. May we all engage deliberately, proactively, and enthusiastically in the energy transition, and learn to enjoy life without fossil fuels.

Richard Heinberg
Santa Rosa, CA
October 2006


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