My Life Story on Energy

FRED IRWIN – We Canadians are among the most favored peoples on the planet with both an abundance of energy and water. This abundance is seemingly the  root cause of the difficulty we face in accepting that we are in the midst of an Energy Crisis; which in itself could lead to collapse of our way of life even before the economy craters or climate change begins to affect everything we do and our very survival.

My life story on energy started as an undergraduate in physics where I developed a deep appreciation  for the work of  Albert Einstein and his eloquent equation on energy, e =mc2.  Not much of what we enjoy in our complex life styles would exist without Einstein and the power of his work to lead fundamental scientific research.

After graduating, I worked as a lubrication engineer for Imperial Oil Ltd. Later I went on to complete an MBA in finance and marketing. By this time energy and oil were in my DNA and shaped my world view. This view brought clarity for me around the rise and fall of empires and ancient civilizations, the sixth extinction, now well underway, the industrial revolution, globalization and consumerism, and the extremely comfortable but unsustainable lifestyles we enjoy in the so called advanced western industrialized nations.

To understand my story of energy, a basic understanding of the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics is helpful. The 1st law states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed.  The 2nd law:  Entropy, a measure of the molecular disorder or randomness in a system, increases with every exchange of energy. A bit of a leap from these fundamental laws leads one to appreciate that it takes energy to change energy into a form that is usable.  The power of the water going over Niagara Falls rotates the turbines which generate electricity.  Fossil fuels, burning and expanding in the piston of a machine, turn into the mechanical energy to propel cars, trains, ships, and airplanes. Further and essentially important: These transformations of energy are inherently very inefficient. Energy is lost with every step.

Advancing a bit, we can more clearly appreciate that if some source of energy requires more energy to extract and produce than what it yields, it is a unsustainable source, no matter its cost. This is energy return on energy invested (EROEI).  Further, our way of life is not sustainable without a high amount of excess energy; that is, in total a high return on energy invested. Meanwhile, here we are in 2017 with total excess energy in sharp decline globally leading us all into the energy crisis, whether we know about it or not. The topic of excess energy has been covered in greater depth in previous Greenzine articles. One brief example: The Canadian tar sands provide a fossil fuel of very low return on energy invested. It takes almost as much energy to produce a barrel of tar sands oil as the energy it delivers.  The narrow margin of energy won does not provide enough excess energy per barrel to come anywhere close to sustaining the lifestyle we have grown accustomed to.

For much of my life I was a frustrated “Oil Peaker”. I made representations after the oil embargo in the 70’s on peak oil in North America. I knew about Hubbert’s Curve and about CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect early on. I also worked internationally for the largest heating and air conditioning company in the world, and was directly engaged in the ozone issue. Ultimately I was thrilled with the nations of the world coming together with the Montreal Protocol.

I was introduced to the Transition Towns movement from an early article in the UK Ecologist Magazine. This provided the missing link for me for action to mitigate and adapt to global warming, namely fossil fuels. I also discovered a program of energy descent, which squarely faced the energy crisis. I learned about a systems thinking approach based on permaculture design practices and economic localization, as a counter balance to globalization, and for sustainable community resilience and prosperity.

In essence the Transition Towns movement created the framework and methodology for communities to mitigate proactively and adapt as best they could. The approach was positive, even celebratory. I found the courage to encounter the converging energy crisis, climate crisis, and a global capitalistic system, which was failing not only the vast majority of people on the planet, but literally all of the remaining species of plants and animals. And I embraced it!  

For a long time now we have known that the only answer to the pickle we are in, let’s call it The Triple E Predicament, namely energy, environment, economy, is by very dramatic energy descent.

George Monbiot’s book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (2006), in a foreword to the Canadian edition, calculated that Canada should cut its carbon emissions by 94% by 2030.

This number has been verified multiple times and yet ignored by virtually everyone. I suspect the number is even higher now as carbon emissions have increased since 2006.  In 2017 we are well into the early stages of the global energy crisis, with no major global energy, environmental, or economic strategy to mitigate or adapt to the new realities.

So, I can say with a high degree of confidence that the only solution to our community’s need for adaption, resilience, and prosperity rests with its own citizens working together on a local basis on energy descent.

In the way of celebrating the 10th anniversary of Transition Town Peterborough, it’s worth reiterating that our mission, moving forward, remains working together towards greater adaption, resilience and prosperity of the community as a whole through energy descent.

Recognizing that we are approaching the cliff at lightning speed.