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
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.
Santa Rosa, CA