We Must Step Backwards if the Human Race is to Survive

The story of humanity’s meteoric rise to planetary dominance during the past few centuries has led a great many of us to believe that this heady and exhilarating ascent can continue indefinitely. Emboldened and intoxicated by the many displays of our collective power and ingenuity, many humans believe that, thanks to the fertile, creative genius of science and technology, we will always be able to find a solution for whatever obstacles stand in the way of our continued development and progress. I declare, however, that there is no greater illustration of our collective stupidity than this widespread, mistaken, and extremely dangerous delusion.

First of all, all this frenetic development has depended on burning huge amounts of natural fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas in order to power the infernal machine of industrial development. Let us not forget that we neither created these fuels, nor are we able to produce them in the quantities that we are presently consuming them. Even nuclear power is not a long-term solution because, apart from its other significant problems, such as harmful radioactive wastes and potential disasters, the supply of radioactive fuels like uranium is not limitless and will therefore eventually run out, just as the supplies of all the other fuels we are burning or consuming will also eventually run out.

What this means is that humanity’s vaunted progress and material development will not resemble an ascending line that will continue to ascend forever, but instead it will resemble the slope of a hill or mountain, which ascends on one side and then descends just as swiftly on the other side. The only question is how steep this descent will be. The answer to this question depends on whether we voluntarily start reducing our consumption of these non-renewable[1] fuels now, or whether we continue burning them until they become more and more scarce, at which calamitous point we will be forced to reduce our consumption of them, as well as the many different things which they enable us to produce and do.

To illustrate what I mean, consider commercial air flights, which have existed for only a little more than fifty years, and have been an important step in the development of mass global tourism. Although it is possible to propel sea and land vehicles by using energy sources other than oil, such as coal-burning tankers and passenger ships and electrically-powered cars, it is simply not possible to use anything other than aviation fuel that is refined from oil, an extremely energy-dense and clean-burning fuel, in order to power planes that weigh more than one hundred tons.[2] This is because, among other reasons, a ship or car that stalls on the water or land will not sink or crash, but a plane that stalls in the air will drop to the ground and crash, killing everyone inside. The fuel needed to propel large, heavy planes in the air must burn quickly and consistently, not produce large quantities of solid residues, and it must provide the very large thrust that is needed by the plane’s jet turbines in order to keep the plane on its airborne trajectory throughout its flight. All of these necessary conditions rule out coal, wood, electricity, and solar power as possible replacements. Hence, when the supply of oil begins to run out, as it surely will before the end of the present century, this fuel will become so expensive that only the rich, and perhaps government leaders and military officials, will be able to fly around the world in planes, as much of the Earth’s human population has had the chance to do in our pampered and privileged age.

What this means is that, when oil becomes increasingly scarce, making its price too expensive to allow for commercial flights, this very brief period of global mass air travel will come to an end, forever. The same is true of space travel, and for the same reasons, which means that the period of space exploration will also only prove to be a very brief period during which our species vainly sought to escape from the nurturing and hospitable environment of the Earth, an environment that exists almost nowhere else in the Universe, and certainly not in our solar system. The delusion that our species will one day colonize other planets in the solar system, as a first step towards exploring the rest of the Universe, is nothing but a fantasy that will never be realized. In the case of both air and space travel, our human progress will resemble a mountain peak – rapidly ascending on one side of the summit, and just as rapidly descending on the other side.

For all our human ingenuity, we should not forget that we did not create the energy sources that have enabled us to accomplish so much technological progress, while creating so much material wealth, pollution, and environmental degradation, in such a short period of time. Moreover, even if we tried, we would not be able to reproduce the oil, coal, and natural gas in the quantities that they formerly existed before we began extracting and burning them, which we very foolishly continue doing as if their supplies were limitless.

Hydrogen technology has been touted as a potential replacement for oil, natural gas, and coal, but the problem is that, although hydrogen burns very cleanly and is abundantly available on Earth in the form of water, it takes more energy to break the bond that connects the two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom in a water molecule than is gained by burning the two hydrogen atoms. In other words, there is no net energy gain from this process. This is made clear from the fact that the result of burning hydrogen is water, which is the substance with which one began the whole process. In such a closed loop, given the Second Law of Thermodynamics, there cannot be a net energy gain, for this would imply a perpetual motion process or, what is the same thing, the creation of new or free energy from nothing. If this could happen, one could use the energy gained by freeing one hydrogen molecule to free another, and so on indefinitely.[3] The only way you could gain energy from this closed loop is if some form of outside energy, such as solar, nuclear, fossil, or geothermal, is used to facilitate the process of producing hydrogen from water. Furthermore, there are the additional energy losses due to the need to collect, compress, cool, store, and transport the hydrogen to the places where it will be used.

It would not at all be wise if we merely continue on our present path, with our heads buried deeply – and perhaps inextricably – in the sands of ignorance, selfishness, and indifference, completely oblivious to the very serious problems that await our species in just a few decades, while our exploding human population continues its alarming ascent to ever greater record levels. For in that case the necessary reduction in our unnecessary consumption of all the many things that we ravenous human beings devour in order to satisfy our insatiable appetites will be forced upon us, and the resulting changes will precipitate a chaotic return to a less materially prosperous period of our history. The problem is that, when it occurs, the human population will be many times greater than it was when our ancestors first began the ascent towards the summit of what we have mistakenly called human progress and supremacy, but in reality will prove to be the summit of human vanity, arrogance, and colossal stupidity. The widespread belief that science and technology, those two sinister twins of arrant duplicity and false superiority over Nature, will be able to solve whatever problems we humans cause, no matter how great these problems are, will prove to be our downfall. For we are not as smart as we think we are, as we will soon find out if we do not change our suicidally destructive ways.

There is no question that we will have to reduce our consumption of non-replaceable fuels like oil, gas, and coal, and all the many different things that depend on burning these fuels in order to be manufactured. The only question is whether we will make this reduction voluntarily, and therefore in an orderly manner, or whether it will be forced upon us, in which case the necessary reduction in consumption will proceed in a chaotic and disorderly manner, thereby plunging us into a new Dark Age of humanity – which will be many times worse than the first Dark Age.

[1] The term “non-renewable fuels” is not entirely accurate, since the geological and biological processes that created these fuels in the past are still occurring in the present day. In other words, just as fossils continue to be formed presently, coal, oil, and natural gas are also being formed. However, the formation rates of these fuels are very greatly exceeded by the rates at which they are presently being extracted and burned. In addition, human practices, such as clear-cutting old forests that might otherwise have become carbonized with time, have reduced the rates at which these fuels are being formed.

[2] Although it might be possible to create a nuclear-powered airplane, just as some countries have developed nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, such a flying mini-nuclear reactor would pose a grave danger if it were hijacked, crash in a populous area, or be shot down while in flight. Moreover, there is no government anywhere that would allow a privately owned company to own and operate such potentially dangerous planes. It is for these reasons that there are no commercial nuclear-powered ships or tankers, even though they could certainly be built.

[3] If such were the case, water would not be very stable, and there would be no life on Earth. Hence, although it makes more difficult our attempts to find new energy sources, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is also necessary to preserve life.