Living on a Finite Planet

Hyman RickoverCommUnity of Minds—Speaking in 1957, Admiral Hyman Rickover explained: We live in what historians may some day call the Fossil Fuel Age. Today coal, oil, and natural gas supply 93% of the world’s energy; water power accounts for only 1%; and the labor of men and domestic animals the remaining 6%. This is a startling reversal of corresponding figures for 1850 – only a century ago. Then fossil fuels supplied 5% of the world’s energy, and men and animals 94%. Five sixths of all the coal, oil, and gas consumed since the beginning of the Fossil Fuel Age has been burned up in the last 55 years.

These fuels have been known to man for more than 3,000 years. In parts of China, coal was used for domestic heating and cooking, and natural gas for lighting as early as 1000 B.C. The Babylonians burned asphalt a thousand years earlier. But these early uses were sporadic and of no economic significance. Fossil fuels did not become a major source of energy until machines running on coal, gas, or oil were invented. Wood, for example, was the most important fuel until 1880 when it was replaced by coal; coal, in turn, has only recently been surpassed by oil in this country.

Once in full swing, fossil fuel consumption has accelerated at phenomenal rates. All the fossil fuels used before 1900 would not last five years at today’s rates of consumption.

Nowhere are these rates higher and growing faster than in the United States. Our country, with only 6% of the world’s population, uses one third of the world’s total energy input; this proportion would be even greater except that we use energy more efficiently than other countries. Each American has at his disposal, each year, energy equivalent to that obtainable from eight tons of coal. This is six times the world’s per capita energy consumption. Though not quite so spectacular, corresponding figures for other highly industrialized countries also show above average consumption figures. The United Kingdom, for example, uses more than three times as much energy as the world average.

With high energy consumption goes a high standard of living. Thus the enormous fossil energy which we in this country control feeds machines which make each of us master of an army of mechanical slaves. Man’s muscle power is rated at 35 watts continuously, or one-twentieth horsepower. Machines therefore furnish every American industrial worker with energy equivalent to that of 244 men, while at least 2,000 men push his automobile along the road, and his family is supplied with 33 faithful household helpers. Each locomotive engineer controls energy equivalent to that of 100,000 men; each jet pilot of 700,000 men. Truly, the humblest American enjoys the services of more slaves than were once owned by the richest nobles, and lives better than most ancient kings. In retrospect, and despite wars, revolutions, and disasters, the hundred years just gone by may well seem like a Golden Age.

Whether this Golden Age will continue depends entirely upon our ability to keep energy supplies in balance with the needs of our growing population. …

The earth is finite. Fossil fuels are not renewable. In this respect our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations. They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot. Fuel that has been burned is gone forever. Fuel is even more evanescent than metals. Metals, too, are non-renewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves. They were created by solar energy 500 million years ago and took eons to grow to their present volume.

In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: the longer they last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift.

Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank. A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare. …

I suggest that this is a good time to think soberly about our responsibilities to our descendants – those who will ring out the Fossil Fuel Age. Our greatest responsibility, as parents and as citizens, is to give America’s youngsters the best possible education. We need the best teachers and enough of them to prepare our young people for a future immeasurably more complex than the present, and calling for ever larger numbers of competent and highly trained men and women. This means that we must not delay building more schools, colleges, and playgrounds. It means that we must reconcile ourselves to continuing higher taxes to build up and maintain at decent salaries a greatly enlarged corps of much better trained teachers, even at the cost of denying ourselves such momentary pleasures as buying a bigger new car, or a TV set, or household gadget. We should find – I believe – that these small self-denials would be far more than offset by the benefits they would buy for tomorrow’s America. We might even – if we wanted – give a break to these youngsters by cutting fuel and metal consumption a little here and there so as to provide a safer margin for the necessary adjustments which eventually must be made in a world without fossil fuels. (11/03/09)