Learning Objectives Self-Check
Read through the following statements/questions. You should be able to answer all of these after reading through the content on this page. After going through the content, check the boxes next to the questions/statements that you feel at least somewhat confident answering. I suggest writing or typing out your answers, but if nothing else, say them out loud to yourself. This is to help you reflect on important content, and will help you prepare for this week's quiz. It will also help lay the foundation for future course content.
It may be helpful to summarize some of the key points from the previous page (though more will be addressed in this week's homework questions):
- Sustainability/sustainable development has no single definition, but the most commonly cited one is by the Brundtland Commission ("meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs").
- We must consider quality of life when addressing sustainability and may need to make some sacrifices to achieve abroad-based quality of life.
- We must utilize systems thinking when addressing sustainability problems, recognizing that actions taken will likely have far-reaching consequences.
- If we are to achieve sustainability, we must at least consider the environmental, economic, and social equity impacts on current and future generations.
- In order to know how well we are achieving sustainability, we must find a way to measure it or at least find ways to know if things are (not) going well.
Sustainability is some heavy, complex stuff! Most would argue that the future of civilization depends on how we address sustainability, starting yesterday <raising hand>. As Asher Miller phrases it in his introduction to The Post Carbon Reader, "The success or failure of the human experiment may well be judged by how we manage the next ten to twenty years" (p. xv). (For better or worse, and unfortunately I'd say "worse," that was written about 10 years ago.) Sustainability is a very important topic, but it is an even more complex and broad topic than energy. I don't expect you to be an expert (yet), but I hope that this course helps you think critically about sustainability-related and other claims.
Energy, Sustainability, and Society
I have a challenge for you: think of something that you did in the past week that did not involve energy.
Okay, so that's not really a fair challenge. Everything we do, even thinking about things that we might do, require energy. Here's a more reasonable challenge: think of something that you did in the past week that did not involve the use of non-renewable energy.
Any food you eat almost certainly required non-renewable energy. There are obvious connections like farm machinery, artificial fertilizers, and herbicides, transporting food, refrigerating food, cooking food, and packaging food. But even if you grow your own, you likely used a tool or fencing that was manufactured using non-renewables, seeds that were processed and shipped with fossil fuel-using machines, packaging that was made using non-renewable energy, or maybe even plastic row markers made with petroleum-based plastics. Almost all transportation uses non-renewables, most businesses run on non-renewable energy sources (either directly or indirectly through electricity generation), almost all of the products you buy contain materials either made of or that are processed with fossil fuels. The electronic device you are looking at right now is partially made of and manufactured using fossil fuels. In short, modern society is very dependent upon access to non-renewable energy, particularly fossil fuels. As Asher Miller notes in The Post Carbon Reader:
Look around and you'll see that the very fabric of our lives - where we live, what we eat, how we move, what we buy, what we do, and what we value - was woven with cheap, abundant energy. (p. xiv)
Watch the video below for an interesting 5-minute journey through the last 300 years of fossil fuels in society.
The charts below provide rather dramatic evidence of how important non-renewable energy is to the U.S. All charts are from the EIA's Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) series, which are published on a yearly basis. I have provided a series of charts to provide some indication of how difficult it is to predict future trends. But, these serve as official (and generally pretty accurate) guides to future energy use.
The first chart is from the 2015 version of the AEO. Though a bit outdated, I put it here because the chart style makes it very easy to see the dominance of non-renewable energy sources. The second chart is from a more recent report (2019) that has total energy consumption, and the third from the most recent (2022) report. The second and third charts are obviously more recent, but is not quite as easy to interpret. Another nice feature of these charts is that they include both historical use and projected future use.
Any way you slice it, the charts make clear that non-renewable energy - particularly fossil fuels - have played and will continue to play a dominant role in society. At this point, our society simply cannot function at its current capacity without them.
Another aspect worth noting is that aside from recessions (e.g., early 1980's and 2007-8), energy use continues to increase over time. Despite consistent increases in energy efficiency, the U.S. can't seem to level off, never mind reduce overall consumption. This is also something that will have to be addressed if we are going to have a sustainable energy future.
Finally, Figure 1.15 shows which energy sources are most responsible for carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. Oil i the current leader, but as more and more natural gas is used (particularly to generate electricity), it will likely come close to catching up to oil-based emissions by 2050, according to the EIA.
Non-renewable energy is extremely useful - it has played an essential role in human society developing to the point that it has. It is energy dense, generally easy to transport and control, and is used for a variety of purposes. Non-renewable energy will continue to play a starring role, for at least the short term future. I enjoy the freedom of the open road in my car. I like to have a house in which I have some control over the temperature and humidity. I like to buy new things from time to time. I enjoy the occasional air travel. I eat food that was shipped from countries on the other side of the world. If we are all to enjoy such things (and more) in the way society and our economy is currently structured, we need access at least to fossil fuels. But given our understanding of the nature of sustainability and non-renewable energy, this cannot go on forever. In fact, it will probably need to change dramatically within the next 10-15 years.
If nothing else, since non-renewable energy is finite, we will reach limits at some point in the future - exactly when is open to debate. But even before that eventuality, it is becoming apparent that the results of unsustainable energy (and resource) use is making it difficult for current generations to meet their needs, never mind future generations. The topics in the next lessons illustrate some of the reasons that scientists and others are worried about the sustainability of our society, some of which are directly related to energy, others not.
Food for Thought
Richard Heinberg mentions four things that must be done to achieve a sustainable society with an adequate quality of life. Think about how difficult each of these is. Which do you think is the most difficult to achieve? Do you think they are even feasible? Can you envision a society that achieves these, and if so, is it good or bad? I don't have the answers (I wish I did!), but I think they are important questions to ask. Heinberg is not alone in thinking these are important.
- "Learn to live without fossil fuels"
- "Adapt to the end of economic growth as we’ve known it"
- "Support 7 billion humans and stabilize population"
- "Deal with our legacy of environmental destruction"
Optional (But Strongly Suggested)
Now that you have completed the content, I suggest going through the Learning Objectives Self-Check list at the top of the page.