03/12/2012

Should we try to find a replacement for oil?

Once you have understood the phenomenon of peak oil, the problem can be tackled from many angles.

You can become depressed from the feeling of powerlessness, because like everyone else, you are dependent on this cheap and abundant form of energy. Furthermore, it seems impossible to avoid this general quagmire facing us. You therefore, put this problem in the back of your mind to not think about it too much, and you go on living with a feeling of reassurance because everyone around you seems oblivious to it.

From this, you may see a great opportunity for a paradigmatic shift, to change your life and that of your neighbours, your community or your city because you are aware that never again will we have such a providential energy source. You are overly excited by the promising ambitious changes and the possibility of creating your life by yourself, and no more in keeping with everything that society imposes on you.

Finally, you can hope that a solution will emerge, THE solution that will allow you to change nothing about your lifestyle, or almost nothing. You hope that, like all technological innovations, all you have to do is go to the supermarket and make out a cheque (or take out a loan) to solve the problem. After all, there is no reason why this should change, that’s how things have always been done.

All the debates often focus on this last possibility. Which technical solutions will allow us to change nothing or almost nothing? How long will they be ready? How much will they cost?

But must we really hope for a substitute solution?

As an energy engineer, I often ask myself this question. When I went back to study, I didn’t know if I would discover a technology that was better than the others, one that does not pollute and would allow me to envisage our society operating in a truly sustainable way. If this was the case, I would do everything to promote it.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that there was no miracle alternative and that each technology had its advantages and disadvantages and that each territory did not have the same available resources. Therefore, it was useless to promote solar energy over wind, geothermal or biomass energy because Marseille and Dunkirk, for example, obviously did not have the same energy potential.

But beyond that, and as Jean Marc Jancovici so fairly points out: “there is energy whenever there is a change in temperature, speed, mass, chemical composition or an atomic structure. Energy consumption is above all, an excellent indicator of the pressure we put on our environment.”

It is obvious that the constant increase in our energy consumption has increased the pressure we put on the environment at a breakneck pace.

Nonetheless, we should not conclude that humans are inherently destructive; they are simply part of the earth’s ecosystem like any other plant or animal species, but they knew how to exploit the resources available to them better than the others. And that is how it is in all ecosystems, whenever a species is better able to exploit the resources, it ends up predominating and, unfortunately, this means a reduction in diversity, interaction, and in the end, the system is weakened and it loses its resilience.

Examples abound in which an animal or plant species becomes powerful and ends up progressively suffocating the others while becoming increasingly vulnerable to certain changes.

Image representing four phases in the adaptation cycle through which all ecosystems go through, following longer or shorter time scales. (Source: Resilience Alliance)

Humans had the ability to exploit the resources thanks to their intelligence and the wealth of natural resources to which they had access. Today this predominance means that over exploitation of the resources has led to a significant reduction in biodiversity and that we are becoming increasingly fragile and vulnerable to certain shocks.

Finding an equivalent energy source to oil would continue to increase this already advanced imbalance as it could continue to increase world population, by consuming even more resources to meet this supposedly limitless growth.

This is why, as I analyse the peak oil problem, and as I ask myself what would be the real sustainable solutions, I think that it is probably a good thing that no technological solution is ready, that none is effective enough to allow us to continue operating as we do today.

Human predominance has made us extremely vulnerable without us even recognizing it and it is only possible if the earth’s resources are still sufficiently abundant to allow us all to live, which is no longer the case.

The end of oil would force us to make do with what we have locally. This is a fundamental parameter because it will allow us all to understand that the material and energy comfort that we have today will not exist without exploiting the wealth of other countries in the world, and they themselves cannot, and may never reach our standard of living.

Let us come to terms with the end of the Anthropocene!

Let us, therefore, stop searching for a solution that will allow us to continue living the same way we do now. In any case, it is no longer sustainable because in the end, if it is not the energy, it is everything else that will be in short supply.

Let us rethink our lifestyles intelligently, let us organise our needs locally according to our resources. We already have all the tools to exploit wind and solar energy, the land and the sea to provide the small amounts of energy that we need to live a balanced, healthy and sustainable life.