Energy, Ethics and Civilization by Vaclav Smil

Dr. Smil is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba.

Dr. Smil is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba.

In 1922 Alfred Lotka (1880–1949) formulated his law of maximized energy flows: In every instance considered, natural selection will so operate as to increase the total mass of the organic system, to increase the rate of circulation of matter through the system, and to increase the total energy flux through the system so long as there is present and unutilized residue of matter and available energy.

The greatest possible flux of useful energy, the maximum power output (rather than the highest conversion efficiency) thus governs the growth, reproduction, maintenance, and radiation of species and complexification of ecosystems. The physical expression of this tendency is, for example, the successional progression of vegetation communities toward climax ecosystems that maximize their biomass within the given environmental constraints—although many environmental disturbances may prevent an ecosystem from reaching that ideal goal. In the eastern United States, an unusually powerful hurricane may uproot most of the trees before an old-growth forest can maximize its biomass. Human societies are, fundamentally, complex subsystems of the biosphere and hence their evolution also tends to maximize their biomass, their rate of circulation of matter, and hence the total energy flux through the system.

The trend toward higher energy throughputs has been universal, but the process has been proceeding at a very uneven pace, with affluent countries claiming disproportionate shares of modern energies…..

In order to keep the future global warming (climate disruption) within acceptable limits, concentrations of atmospheric CO2 should be kept below 500 ppm (they surpassed 394 ppm in 2012). That, of course, implies a necessity of limiting the future rate of fossil fuel combustion. Two much-discussed strategies commonly seen as effective solutions are energy conservation and massive harnessing of renewable sources of energy. Unfortunately, neither of these strategies offers a real solution…. Claims that simple and cost-effective biomass approaches could provide 50% of the world’s TPES by 2050 or that 1–2 Gt of crop residues can be burned every year would put the human appropriation of phytomass close to or above 50% of terrestrial photosynthesis. This would further reduce the phytomass available for microbes and wild heterotrophs, eliminate or irreparably weaken many ecosystemic services, and reduce the recycling of organic matter in agriculture. Only an utterly biologically illiterate mind could recommend such action. . . .

These realities make it clear that a society concerned about equity, determined to extend a good quality of life to the largest possible number of its citizens and hence willing to channel its resources into the provision of adequate diets, good health care, and basic schooling could guarantee decent physical well-being with an annual per capita use (converted with today’s prevailing efficiencies) of as little as 50 GJ. (US is about 375 GJ)

Pushing beyond 110 GJ per capita has not brought many fundamental quality-of-life gains. I would argue that pushing beyond 200 GJ per capita has been, on the whole, counterproductive. The only unmistakable outcome is further environmental degradation.

The benefits of high energy use that are enjoyed by affluent countries, that is by less than one-sixth of humanity consuming more than150 GJ per capita, cannot be extended to the rest of the world because fossil fuels cannot be produced at that rate even if their resources were not an issue, and, in any case, the environmental consequences of this expansion would be quite unacceptable. Are not these realities sufficiently compelling to start us thinking about what too many people believe to be unthinkable, about approaching the global energy problem as an ethical challenge, as a moral dilemma? 

We have the technical and economic means to move gradually away from the pursuit of maximized energy throughputs and thus reverse perhaps the greatest imperative of human evolution. The most important first step is to agree that an ever-rising energy and material throughput is not a viable option on a planet that has a naturally limited capacity to absorb the environmental by-products of this ratcheting process. To invert Lotka’s dictum, we must so operate as to stabilize the total mass of the organic system, to limit the rate of circulation of matter through it, and to leave an un-utilized residue of matter and available energy in order to ensure the integrity of the biosphere.

Vaclav Smil received a doctorate in natural sciences from Carolinum University in Prague in 1965. In 1969, after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, he came to the United States, earning a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in 1972. Smil is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba. His interdisciplinary research deals with interactions of energy, environment, food, economy, population and technical advances. He is the author of 30 books on these topics. Source:  Excerpts from Chapter 35 of Science, Energy, Ethics and Civilization.

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