Ecologist discusses coming to terms with our energy dependence
October 29, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Ecologist Charles A. S. Hall told an overflow crowd at Bud Werner Memorial Library on Tuesday night that if the modern denizens of the high plains understood their relationship to fossil fuels the way the Sioux Indians of the 18th century understood bison, they surely would behave differently.
"The Sioux ate bison, they made their houses and their clothes from the bison and their tools came from bison," Hall said. "They understood this and appreciated their complete dependence on bison. The people of Denver today are as completely dependent on oil as the Sioux were on bison, but they don't recognize it."
Hall, who retired this year from his post as a professor in the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York in Syracuse, describes himself as a systems ecologist. He was in Colorado this week to give an address before the 125th convention of the Geological Society of America at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. His talk in Steamboat Springs was titled "Peak Oil, Net Energy Yields and Your Financial Future."
The reason modern Americans are not attuned to their dependence on fossil fuels, Hall implied, is likely attributable to the fact that generations of academic courses in economics have focused on the relationship between producers and consumers and the currency they exchange, to the exclusion of the natural resources that, in his view, are the true basis of our prosperity.
"Economics has somehow gotten away from that," Hall said. “But it doesn't take a Ph.D. or a Nobel Prize winner to understand there is something wrong here. What is a good measure of wealth? Maybe it's the money in my wallet, but money has no value, it just inflates. … The real value results from the energy caught in forests and fields and the labor of fishermen and farmers (and others) who did the work to generate the wealth. … When we talk about economics, we should start by talking about energy."
Hall's approach to systems ecology has been described as being predicated on the idea that the survival of living creatures is dependent on achieving a return on energy expended, or achieving an energy return on investment.
The concept goes back to his own days as a graduate student spent researching the migration patterns of fish in a North Carolina stream.
Hall postulated that animal species that migrate, sometimes over great distances, do so only because they achieve a net energy gain.
The problem facing today's human societies that are dependent on energy is that demand for oil is increasing even as supplies have begun to retreat from peak oil production to the extent that we are drawing down reserves. And as a result, more energy must be expended for every barrel of oil extracted, thus reducing the energy return on investment.
As a systems ecologist, Hall approaches the economy from the standpoint of the geophysical conditions on which it depends. He is fond of quoting the Hungarian economic historian Karl Polanyi, who said about a century ago that "economics is the study of how people transform nature to meet their needs."
During his own lifetime, Hall said, human consumption of fossil fuels, and along with it the dependence of the world economy on oil, has skyrocketed. All across the world, Hall said, different countries, with their differing economies are going through cycles of exploiting natural resources.
However, as the world's supply of carbon-based energy dwindles, the implications are similar for virtually all of those nations: More investment in energy in exchange for less return means there is less discretionary money in the economy for nonessentials. And the news media are not helping the situation by worshipping growth, Hall added.
For Western resort towns like Steamboat Springs, the prospect of less discretionary income in the economy is daunting, he added.
"I don't know that all of the things I'm saying are correct," Hall cautioned. "But this is how I see the data. We'd better look at the data and see what it's telling us. I don't see any way the oil isn't getting less difficult to find."
One thing Hall is certain about is that everything we purchase requires oil not only for its manufacture but for its delivery to market.
"For every dollar you spend, a coffee cup of oil has to be brought out of the ground and used in the economy," Hall said.
The question remains, "How great is the return on the energy invested?"