the consequences of easy energy
What if we were to achieve an unlimited, near costless, non-polluting energy supply? Would all of our problems be solved? Or would we be like children given a dangerous toy?
Some of the dangerous issues humanity faces are peak fossil fuel limiting our energy supply, environmental damage caused by open cut coal mining and by oil spills in the sea, and fast climate change caused by global warming, which is in turn caused by quickly increasing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. All of these problems could be largely eliminated with an unlimited, near costless, non-polluting energy supply.
So where is the problem? The problem lies with the growth in economic activity that would be released by such an energy source. Even though some of the biggest issues that we face, the issues associated with our current major energy sources, would be eliminated, we face many other issues, such as:
- loss of wilderness to expanding human land use
- increasing soil degradation and loss
- overuse of renewable resources to the point of their destruction
- depletion of essential non-renewable fertilisers
- depletion of essential mineral resources
- population growth (the massive population growth of the last 150 year was driven substantially by the easy availability of fossil fuel energy which enabled increased food production through
mechanisation and nitrogen fertilizer production).
Most of these issues are associated with our economic activity and will consequently grow along with our economic growth. Because that economic growth is likely to continue to be exponential, but at a much greater rate when underpinned by a near perfect energy source, the consequences of these issues will grow massively. The fact that these issues only represent a part of the range of issues that we currently face will soon be outweighed by their high-rate exponential growth.
It's true that a near perfect energy source could be a great benefit to our society, potentially making us more comfortable, more secure, and healthier, while allowing us to spread those conditions across all humanity; but that is only potentially so. A near perfect energy source could also potentially free us to be massively destructive of our environment and our remaining resource base, and exacerbate many of the issues that we would still face even if all of the issues associated with energy were to be resolved.
If we were to get such an energy source before we collectively matured enough to use it sensibly, it could be the greatest disaster to befall us yet.