By Tony Davenport
[Editors Note: This article was originally published on page 16 of the S. African Sunday Independent on October 12, 2008]

It is not as bad as you might imagine – it’s worse, and before you bury your heads in the sands of collective denial, please consider how it is coming about. The truth will set you free, but first it will probably make you ill.

We have had it too easy with cheap energy for a century and the cheap part is going to disappear. Quickly. Energy is the ubiquitous part of everything we consume, and liquid fuel is getting scarce.

The easy part is to understand how we got to where we are. The difficult part is predicting how we can possibly manage to make our way out of this one. It will draw on our deepest resolve and wisdom, and probably require a “Copernican” shift in our thinking (Copernicus was the first astronomer to prove scientifically that the sun rather than the Earth was at the centre of our cosmic system).

We seem to have scientific prowess, but there’s no time for self-congratulation. This time the solutions are the cause of a much bigger problem. Our current pursuit of growth and the elevation of human material wants above all else are the raison d’être of the problem. We promote consumption and ignore efficiency. We live as though there is no tomorrow, and the way we are going there probably won’t be.

We might have just one last window of opportunity and it requires that we draw deeply on our resolve, think wisely and act purposefully. People will need to make unpleasant choices.

Thomas Robert Malthus, demographer, mathematician and priest, wrote an essay in 1798 entitled “The Principle of Population” in which he postulated that, firstly, “food is necessary for the existence of man” and secondly, “that the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state”.

Furthermore, he advanced that population tended to grow in a geometric or compounding manner (1,2,4,8,16…), and that food linearly (1,2,3,4,5…).

Simply put, he suggested that we are better at breeding than growing food and that along the way population will inevitably be kept in check. He believed that this would take the form of “misery” and “vice”. In today’s language he meant that war, famine and epidemics would keep the population down, on top of which the “vices” of alcohol and contraception would invariably play an important role.

We would do well to reread Malthus’ essay 200 years after it was published. The world’s population is now more than six times what it was in his day. So was he wrong? The world of 1798 was fraught with possibility and trepidation. This was the age of enlightenment, but food production in Europe was at capacity. Something had to give.

It is not surprising that the French revolution of 1789 was triggered by heavy summer rainfall that all but destroyed the food harvest. Malthus predicted wars and emigration.

Significant inventions alongside social upheavals also had a profound influence. Science came to the rescue; exit Malthus. The industrial revolution harnessed the energy of coal and unlocked steel for a multitude of uses. This powerful combination brought the steam engine. The long industrial boom of the 19th century increased food production, public health and mobility. Lives were prolonged. Population grew faster than ever before. For the first time the rate of population grew to 0,4 percent per annum, a record not surpassed since the Renaissance when it previously peaked at 0,3 percent per annum.

Growth was only marginally disrupted by wars, famine and pestilence. Was it a coincidence that the abolition of slavery in the West coincided with industrialisation and the development of transport and steam power? During the 19th century the recurrent energy cost of maintaining slaves became displaced by cheaper capital equipment and low- cost coal energy.

“Petr-oleum”, or rock oil, had been known for millennia, but the ability to separate the product, together with the invention of the internal combustion engine, literally got things moving. The Stanley Steamer (a steam-engined car) won the land speed record in 1916 but it wasn’t long before the gushers in Texas and the Model T Ford heralded seemingly limitless growth and consumption. Our love affair with the car began. The bell tolled for railways and public transport.

After a short respite for the Great Depression and the Second World War, the United States embarked on an unparalleled growth and pulled the world along with it. There was no end in sight. The American dream and suburbia consumed their way to might. Oil consumption increased at 7 percent per annum for each of the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s an oil embargo and an Iranian revolution marginally curtailed growth and we talked of small being beautiful. But then we were off once again, worshipping Mammon.

We are at a tipping point in history. This is the time when Malthusian facts can no longer be ignored. We passed the peak of energy consumed per capita in the mid-1980s. What hope is there of a sustainable future when we are adding more than 80 million new mouths each year to a world total of 6,7 billion and more than 50 million new cars to an existing fleet of more than 600 million?

Compare this to the world’s population at the height of the Roman Empire (200 million) or at the beginning of the Renaissance (400 million).

A short lesson in basic mathematics will provide graphic proof of inevitable consequences when a straight line meets a curve. Geometric or compound growth can easily be understood with this simple tool.

If you want to know how long it will take for a growing population to double, take the number 70 (it comes from about 100 times the natural logarithm of 2) and divide it by the percent increase. For example, interest compounding at 10 percent per annum will cause a doubling of the original amount every seven years. A country’s population growth of 2 percent per annum will result in the population doubling in 35 years.

As a species we have been growing at just over 1,6 percent per annum since the 1950s. It does not sound like a lot, but this means a doubling period of 43 years. The population doubled since 1965 (3,35 billion) to today’s 6,7 billion. Right now, finite resources stare world population in the face.

There is no doubt that we have used up cheap fossil-fuel energy. Whether we have already used up half that exists is moot. From the existing evidence it would seem as though we have. It does not matter whether we have or haven’t quite reached peak oil (the top of the bell curve, after which we will produce it at a declining rate).

The point is that oil is geologically finite. We are using it up five times faster than we are finding it, and it’s getting harder and more energy expensive to extract. It’s not the end of oil but the end of cheap oil.

In addition to the depletion of this energy source for transportation (about 70 percent of oil is used as liquid fuels for cars, trucks, ships and planes), oil derivatives are used in about 300 000 commercial products that are ubiquitous in our daily lives.

To get a perspective on how much energy is embodied in a litre of high-octane petrol, try pushing your energy-efficient car for 15km or your SUV for 8km. That is what a R10 litre of petrol gives you. Our geologically brief flirtation with fossil fuels has given each of us on the planet the equivalent of 25 “slaves”. For an average Westerner at least 150 “slaves” would be required to replace the contribution of fossil fuels.

The contribution of energy to food production and distribution is astounding. We use about 10 units of process energy for every unit of food energy delivered into the kitchen. We have enough food in the world right now, but only just. Food security globally is down to its lowest levels per capita in 30 years, and the United States is about to convert more than a quarter of its grain harvest this year to ethanol in order to power vehicles. This food was previously exported to resource-poor countries at subsidised prices.

Malthus was wrong about food production. He did not know about our ability to increase yields of grains by up to tenfold to about 3 tons per hectare today. We will need 4 tons per hectare to feed the world in 40 years time.

One problem here is that we are running out of naturally occurring phosphates, and artificially produced fertilisers are energy dependent. As the price of oil increases food crop yields tend to go down.

The energy and food markets are now interconnected. Watch staple food prices carefully. Meanwhile, soils are being depleted, water tables are dropping and shifts in climate are resulting in more droughts and more floods. Things are not looking good.

So, how will the world evolve in the next few decades? There is no sustainability with increasing population consuming finite resources. Something has to give and it is likely to give in a dramatic way. There will have to be zero population growth and the system will necessarily have to become “sustainable”. The challenge is whether we get there by design or by default.

The default route involves wars, pestilence, natural disasters and famine. Remember Rwanda, Darfur, Haiti, HIV/Aids, Avian flu, the Asian tsunami and the Sichuan earthquake? Watch this space.

The process has only just begun, and is likely to intensify in the coming decade. There will be scrambles for the last remaining cheap energy reserves. These too have begun.

The stage is shifting dramatically. The empowered nations of the foreseeable future are energy-independent states. The US, Europe and Japan are immediately vulnerable, as are less developed countries without energy. Patrons are arming small oil-producing countries to the hilt. The energy wars are beginning.

A rescue scenario involving design requires a change in global consciousness. Extraordinary human endeavour and capability exists and solutions could lie in a combination of bottom-up change and policy- driven initiatives. The oil-deficient parts of the world are facing a clear and present danger.

A collective effort greater than the mobilisation for the Second World War is needed just to keep things as they are. This is not likely to happen quickly, but it should. Where are the leaders with wisdom and perspective? There is no shortage of human capital. There is a dearth of collective wisdom.

The message for our country, South Africa, which is well endowed with resources, is this: be bold and aim to reduce population growth, using education and incentives at all times.

Beware of famine and focus on food security. This means retaining and nurturing efficient maize and wheat farms, promoting agriculture at all levels, developing real skills in this sector and protecting water resources.

In terms of energy, we should do what is necessary in the short term to ensure that the wheels keep turning and focus on efficiency rather than resolving shortfalls only through more capacity. Forget about giving away energy to new aluminium smelters.

Innovation, inspiration, capability and competency in the renewable energy sector are vital. We have wind, waves and plenty of sunshine. Eskom’s old monopoly on power is not serving us well enough. And when we can engage with wisdom in this urgent matter, we need to consider the end of burning fossil fuels for energy altogether.

Thomas Edison said in 1931: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

We are, in a way, trying to deal with the collective failure of technocrats, politicians and the public to imagine a version of human existence that is socially and economically probable and ecologically viable.

We need to understand where we have come from and where we are going to and create a collective vision that negates the self in favour of community.

We really do need to know who we all are and what we truly need.