The Technology That Will Not Save Us,The Technology That Can Transform Us

Despite the overwhelming amount of data and scientific studies that corroborate the serious problems of unsustainability that we live, the solutions that are proposed, at all levels, remain extraordinarily timid and slow. Environmental issues, unfortunately, are not usually considered a priority and are left in the background behind economic or social issues. Very few political actors are able to go beyond superficiality and see that many of these socio-economic problems have their roots in the unsustainability of our society and it is, therefore, useless to try to solve them without simultaneously addressing ecological issues in one holistic approach.

Technology is probably the factor that most “helps” us to maintain this artificial blindness regarding the relevance of the ecological crisis. The spectacular technological deployment that we have experienced since the 18th century has allowed human beings to stop feeling like our ancestors, at the mercy of nature and its ups and downs, and leads us to believe that technology can solve all our problems. However, our dependence on nature remains practically the same, since the entire technological umbrella is, in short, built with natural resources. Technology is a complex process that involves not only scientific knowledge, but also materials, infrastructures, qualified personnel, and, above all, the energy necessary to power all these links.

Our industry, our cities, our transportation, and our agriculture have been designed with fossil energy in mind. Also the enormous extraction of minerals that we currently carry out has been possible due to the abundant energy that has allowed us to exploit minerals with low grades (this type of ores in other centuries were not profitable, since extracting elements from these minerals requires much more energy than doing it from ore with high grades). For this reason, it is very difficult that only technology, and above all this technology that we have designed in times of abundant resources, is capable of solving by itself the scarcity problems that we now face.

The limits of fossil fuels and the fact that phenomena of stagnation in their production are beginning to appear (peaks in oil, gas, and coal) question not only our current way of life that consumes superfluous goods, but also technological development in the future, which will not be able to be based on energy or minerals as abundant and cheap as those we have enjoyed throughout the 20th century.

The Oil Question

It is difficult to talk about energy crisis and shortage problems when we find ourselves in a context like the one we have experienced in 2015, with the price of oil in continuous decline. Even so, the production data, scientific studies, and the economic and geopolitical trends that have been seen since 2006 are enormously consistent with the theses of those who speak of the importance of the energy decline in the current economic crisis. As Antonio Turiel says [1], it is a simplistic vision typical of liberal economic thought to think that peak oil should translate into permanently high prices, since “for the price to stay permanently high, oil has to become a luxury item and stop being what it is now, that is, the engine of the economy […] during certain periods oil prices will remain too high, in a way that will damage the economy in general, and then it will remain too low, hurting the production companies ”.

The oil production data already show a certain stagnation in the 2005-2015 period, which has grown by around 0.6% per year while in the 1985-2006 period it did so at rates close to 2%, but there is no similar stagnation in the consumption of natural gas and coal (which have continued to grow at a good pace: 2.5% and 3%). Conventional oil (cheap and easy to extract) reached its maximum production in 2006 and unconventional oil (such as those extracted by hydraulic fracturing or asphalt sands, of poorer quality and highly polluting) are barely managing to increase production slightly. Virtually all studies agree that before 2020 we will see a stagnation in the production of all types of oil, followed by a decline around 2030.

Added to this is the decline in energy quality, since, when poorer quality oil is exploited, the Energy Return on Enery Investment (EROI — the ratio between the energy obtained and that used in extraction) is decreasing. Oil from oil sands, for example, have an EROI of 3 or 4, which means that, although the statistics are not reflected, 25-33% of their energy is consumed before leaving the field. . Taking these losses into account, some authors estimate that the net energy obtained from oil has already started to decrease [2].

This stagnation in oil consumption is not explained by a lack of demand since, if this were due to an economic crisis, it should be observed in all fuels. Nor is it due to the fact that consumption patterns have changed (such as car use) or due to technological substitution (with electric vehicles, for example). The adaptation is being carried out based on the destruction of demand via an economic crisis that results in more and more people not being able to pay for gasoline to fill the tank.

Given these facts, we can ask ourselves if technology is going to be able to provide us with alternatives, and the conclusions of the studies we have carried out are clear [3]: we don’t have time. There are technological bottlenecks that will make it very difficult to successfully overcome peak oil, especially in the transport sector, which is practically 100% dependent on this fuel. All the alternatives available in this decade are insufficient. Biofuels, for example, have very low yields and require huge tracts of land (if we wanted to move all the vehicles in the world with them, we would need more than twice the arable land on the planet). The yield of photosynthesis is also very low (plants barely store 1% of solar radiation) and that puts a brake on all resources related to biomass (second generation biofuels, biogas, etc.).

Other possible substitutes are liquid fuels extracted from natural gas, coal, and by-products of oil refining (they are known as “coal to liquids” or “gas to liquids”, LPG, etc.) but they are based on limited resources that already they have many uses. In addition, the massive use of coal as a substitute for oil would skyrocket CO2 emissions and lead us to catastrophic climate change scenarios [4].

On the other hand, hybrid vehicles are but more efficient gasoline cars while electric cars have a low accumulation capacity. Currently an electric car stores 15 times less energy than a gasoline vehicle, which causes a poor price-performance ratio.

There are technologies in the development phase, such as fuels extracted from waste or microalgae, hydrogen vehicles and electric cars with lighter batteries, but they are not yet on the market and that means that they are encountering technical and/or economic limitations. They either need years of development and are therefore not going to arrive in time.

Coal, Gas, and Uranium

Natural gas and coal supply 48% of the primary energy used in the world, and forecasts estimate extraction peaks around 2030-35 for gas from 2050 for coal. The uranium used in nuclear fission reactors is expected to begin to decline around 2050, which would make it difficult to find fuel for a second generation of plants to replace the current ones. Attempts have been made to develop fission reactors that do not require as much uranium (the so-called fourth generation), but the results have been mediocre and there are currently no reactors of this type under construction. There has also been research for more than 40 years in nuclear fusion power, which uses hydrogen as a raw material, but its own promoters do not expect commercial reactors before 2040.

In any case, nuclear energy is not going to be developed on a large scale in the coming years since the construction of the reactors requires at least 10 years, and currently not enough are being built to replace those that will reach the end of their useful life. The nuclear “rebirth” has been halted, in part because of the Fukushima disaster and in part because renewables are becoming cheaper.

Renewables are being postulated as the most serious candidates to replace the decline of fossils. However, keep in mind that they are intermittent, they need supportive and oversized facilities, and most only provide energy in the form of heat or electricity, not in the form of fuels, and energy storage is complicated. The only renewable energies that currently provide fuels are those based on biological resources (biomass, biofuels) and we should not increase their use because ecosystems are already being exploited at unsustainable rates.

Renewables are dispersed energies and require large areas of land. To obtain, for example, the electrical energy that humanity is currently consuming with photovoltaic panels (using current yields), would require a surface similar to that occupied by a third of our urban infrastructures. That takes considerable effort in terms of material and terrain use. Increasing the level of production even further to replace all fossil fuels would entail enormous impacts and costs. Before we get there, we will probably ask ourselves if we need so much energy or is it more sensible to design our societies differently.

The Energy Transition

All these data allow us to sketch a panorama of the energy transition that will mark the 21st century. The symptoms of depletion of fossil fuels are already beginning to be noticed and they do so on the resource that has more complicated substitutes: oil. Due to the weakness of technological solutions, successfully dealing with peak oil will require measures that go far beyond the purely technical (promoting savings, public transport, agroecology, relocation, etc.). If we are not able to find technical substitutes or saving measures, it is very likely that this will harm our economies, since oil intervenes in all production processes to a greater or lesser extent.

From a technical point of view, the electricity situation is somewhat better. If a strong commitment were made to renewable energies (rates that are around 20% per year), we could reach 2050 without experiencing a decrease in electrical energy. In the long term, however, it will be very difficult to replace all uses (electrical and non-electrical) with renewable energies, especially if we want to maintain current consumption levels. The occupation of territory, the amount of metals and infrastructure, and the investments that would need to be made are of formidable magnitude [5].

It is very likely that we are going to a low energy world, and the most sensible thing would be to try to adapt by modifying our way of life. We do not need renewables to replace all the energy we now use in heating or tractors: we already know how to design houses that are practically heated by the sun and how to cultivate without plowing the land. If the design phase is acted upon with criteria such as those used in agroecology or bioconstruction, notable energy savings can be achieved, although the change in mentality that these technologies require is enormous.

The energy transition is technically possible but, from a sociological point of view, it is enormously difficult because it runs up against formidable inertia and requires a logic completely opposite to the current one. There are many energy-economy-society relationships that can cause us to enter into spirals of degradation and, if we do not know how to cut them in time, they will make a good transition impossible.

For example, if the oil shortage damages the economy, the demand for electricity will fall and it will not be “necessary” to invest in renewable energy until coal is scarce and then it will be too late (the reaction of the Spanish government these years, boycotting renewables, fits perfectly with this logic). On the other hand, a weak economy will make it more difficult to dedicate effort to renewable energy research and can also trigger social instability, leading to the triumph of authoritarian governments that abort any attempt to change towards sustainable societies.

The energy transition requires very conscious governments and citizens that are capable of avoiding these degradation dynamics and investing in the energy of the future, even if the payback periods for the investment are long and it is necessary to change deeply rooted habits. Unfortunately, the experience of these years does not allow us to have much hope in this regard. For ten years now, the data show a strong coherence with the theories of peak oil and still, there is not the slightest institutional reaction, nor has the problem even penetrated public opinion.

Furthermore, we must bear in mind that the energy crisis is not the only one. We are also faced with climate change, the loss of biodiversity, fertile soil, forests and fisheries, and an economic system that tends to grow and increase inequality. For this reason, the energy crisis is very far from being able to be solved only with renewable energies; it is necessary to correct, first, the structural unsustainability of our society.

The Technology That Can Transform Us

There are few things as difficult to predict as technological development, and it is very risky to say which technologies will be best suited to overcome fossil decline. However, we can be sure of one thing: our technology has been built with our backs to sustainability principles and what is unsustainable ends up falling, because it grows by undermining its own base. If we want to enjoy “technologies of the future,” we must begin to make them truly sustainable.

A technology is sustainable when it respects at least three basic rules: use of renewable energies, closing of material cycles, and accommodation to the rates of growth that the planetary biosphere can sustain.

Our technology is still far from being based solely on renewable energies, but it is still further away from closing material cycles, that is to say: recycling all elements at rates close to 100%. Recycling is vital to avoid depleting the minerals, since the elements of the earth’s crust are finite and we currently extract them from areas of exceptionally high concentrations (mines) and dispose of them in landfills where they are dispersed and mixed. Lowering energy will make extraction and recycling much more complicated, as both processes are energy intensive. Furthermore, once the elements have dispersed below a level or mixed in certain ways, they become virtually unrecoverable.

We should only design appliances that are intended to be repaired, have a long life, and allow all items to be recycled. Furthermore, it would be necessary to design forms of production and sale that do not encourage obsolescence. This is especially important for some very scarce elements that, in recent years, have made it possible to achieve very interesting benefits in electronics and renewable energies [6]. Will we have enough minerals to maintain the internet, electric vehicle batteries, or complex electrical grid control systems if we continue to dump lithium, platinum, germanium, vanadium and other scarce minerals as we do now?

The third requirement of sustainability is accommodation to the biosphere of the planet. No matter how low the impact of a technology is, if its use is excessive compared to the regeneration capacities of the biosphere, it becomes unsustainable. Biomass or wind energy can be sustainable on a reasonable scale, but they cease to be if their use is so great that they cause deforestation, erosion or even interrupt prevailing winds and change the climate of a region. Ecology is the science of balance and it is the harmony between human activities and those of the rest of the planet that tells us if we are sustainable or not.

Although most of our technologies do not respect these three requirements, we already have data from experiences that do and achieve encouraging results. The energy return on investment of agroecology compared to conventional agriculture, for example, are in some cases 3 times higher [7], while the total food production per hectare may be higher. However, agroecological techniques need a cultural substrate that allows them to function. Not only is it necessary to stop using chemical inputs, it is necessary to take care of the land that can only be done by farmers who are well-trained, motivated, and tied to the land. The same, probably, we can extrapolate to all technologies: we not only need to design sustainable vehicles or houses but also cities that allow them to be viable; we not only need to design sustainable machines but ways of trading that do not encourage obsolescence, etc.

However, despite the fact that technological change must be accompanied by social change, we should not underestimate the transformative capacity of technology itself. If there is something that paralyzes us at the moment, it is that anguish of knowing that the global crisis requires radical changes in the socioeconomic system but, at the same time, all our daily activities depend on that unsustainable and unjust system. Much of the paralysis, fear and the “ostrich” attitude in front of the problems that we see around are due to this: simply, we do not know how to live in any other way.

Political action and ecological awareness are no longer enough. We must also go down to the material level and build a sustainable economy that meets the basic needs of people and prevents them from falling into marginalization and despair. Paying special attention to the physical plane and gradually building ways to feed ourselves, produce, and live with less dependency on fossil energy can become the bridge that allows the social energies contained by fear to begin to flow and make the change towards that fairer and more sustainable society that we need so much.

Summary

The limits of fossil fuels (peaks of oil, gas, coal) are beginning to be corroborated by the data, and the technological substitutes that we have cannot be a large-scale alternative. The lack of technical substitution, and the fact that we are probably facing a 21st century with less energy availability, challenges our way of life and economic growth. Nor will future technological development be based on energy and minerals as abundant as those we have enjoyed throughout the 20th century. A great change in mentality is necessary to allow us to evolve towards truly sustainable technologies that must be built on paradigms very different from the current ones.

Notes

[1] Antonio Turiel, El rumor del peak oil, The Oil Crash, 15 enero 2016.

[2] http://crashoil.blogspot.com.es/2014/12/el-ocaso-del-petroleo-edicion-de-2014.html

[3] Agotamiento de los combustibles fósiles y escenarios socio-económicos: un enfoque integrado, Capellán-Pérez et al. http://www.eis.uva.es/energiasostenible/?page_id=2216. See also The potential land requirements and related land use change emissions of solar energy, Dirk-Jan van de Ven et al. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-82042-5.

[4] http://www.eis.uva.es/energiasostenible/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/AAM_More_growth_SS_2015.pdf

[5] A global renewable mix with proven technologies and common materials Antonio García Olivares y col. Energy Policy 41 (2012) 561–574.

[6] Thanatia: the Destiny of the Earth’s Mineral Resources. Antonio Valero, Alicia Valero. World Scientific Publishing 2015.

[7] Compilation of studies about the Cuban case. Option Zero. Sostenibilidad y socialismo en la Cuba Postsoviética: estudio de una transición sistémica ante el declive energético del siglo XXI. Tesis doctoral Emilio Santiago Muiño, 2016.(pàg. 458)

This essay was originally published in the book La Gran Encrucijada, FUHEM, Spain, 2016. Reference [3] has ben updated to include a recently published article.

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