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The energy woes that will come back to haunt us

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Posted: Monday, August 6, 2012 11:00 am | Updated: 10:36 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — History is filled with fallen civilizations — Romans, Celts, Gauls, Mongols. When we talk about what brought them down, we usually focus on the usual suspects of politics, religion, colonization or barbarian hordes.

When Douglas Reynolds, professor of oil and energy economics at University of Alaska Fairbanks, looks at fallen civilizations, he sees something entirely different: Energy. Or rather, the lack thereof. His book, “Energy Civilization: The Zenith of Man,” explores this concept — that civilizations are brought down not by politics, but by loss of energy.

According to Reynolds, the two dimensions of energy — availability and quality — “are what determine the ultimate survival of a nation, empire, or way of life.” And in his mind, this particular civilization — on a global scale — is headed for a big fall.

In Reynolds’ view, the relationship with energy is our most vital, and the one that girds the foundations of a nation or civilization, and ultimately, leads to its downfall. He also posits that our biggest environmental concern is not greenhouse emissions, but pending scarcity of oil. After all, when the world is scrambling to survive, taking care of the environment falls far down our list of priorities, leading to ecological collapse as well. That much is evident if you look at history and current events.

Douglas’ book is a mix of history, economics, environmental science, and politics. He starts the first section, Empire, with the story of Rome. “Ever since the dawn of civilization, man has risen to epic heights by harnessing and mastering Earth’s energy resources in order to build great human culture ... ” he begins. Roman civilization depended on food energy to survive. It controlled large swathes of land, so it could grow vast amounts of food grains, allowing it to trade, maintain a standing army and conquer nearly every barbarian horde in its path — for a while.

“The more energy a civilization can lay claim to, the higher its achievement in art, culture, and empire building. Alternatively, the less energy a civilization has, the lower its achievements,” Douglas writes.

Rome fell because it ran out of energy due to depleted soils, climate change and leadership crises. Fewer crops meant less trade, and a downward spiral began. As farmers produced less, the government collected fewer taxes, and was unable to continue to maintain infrastructure, pay the army or continue to grow. Political chaos ensued, and those barbarians waiting at the gate busted it down and took over.

This is a pattern for every civilization before and after — massive quantities of energy, of good quality, and the civilization rises, thrives, grows, and conquers. As the energy source depletes, growth slows, priorities change, and eventually, the civilization collapses into the dust of history. As adaptable as we humans are, we often don’t see the crisis until it smacks us upside the head, and by then it’s too late to adapt.

Energy, Douglas continues, isn’t just oil, gas or coal. After all, man thrived for centuries before the internal combustion engine, industrial revolution or computers. Energy is anything that makes the economy go, such as food (cash crops), wood, charcoal, whale oil, even weaponry. In the past, as one energy source depleted, our adaptability and ingenuity often gave us the technology to replace it — technology interacts with energy to create a strong civilization. But technology alone is insufficient to stave off the collapse.

“Technology, social complexity, and natural resources together build a civilization, but, as Rome makes clear, if you take away the energy, you destroy the most important leg of the whole structure and it falls.”

While sometimes the economic lessons Douglas used to make his point were a little muddy to me, on the whole the book is good at making the science of civilization building, as I saw it, understandable for the layperson. Interspersed as it is within the history, contemporary accounts, and other information, it never gets overwhelming. It serves as a good foundation for Douglas’ theories.

According to Douglas, he saw the writing on the wall nearly 40 years ago, and began doing what he could to prepare. Not believing, as most economists do, that new technology would miraculously arise to save us from declining energy production, he realized he had to adapt to the coming future. Humans are very good at adapting — it’s what has allowed us to proliferate and prosper throughout the ages on a planet with myriad environs and landscapes. And, we’ve adapted to changing energy sources and needs before — surely we can do it again.

Douglas makes sure his residence is always as close to work as practical, and rides his bike in just about every day, rain or shine, 90 °F or -40 °F, snow or not. It’s a tough commute, but with the right bicycle and cold-weather gear, he does fine. If he has to go places that aren’t amenable to bike travel, he makes use of Fairbanks’ bus system, as inconvenient as that is. He has it down to a science, knowing schedules and distance. And rather than viewing the time on the bus as wasted, he sees it as a chance to read and grade papers, do research, or just talk with his fellow riders.

He also uses coal to heat his home, and weatherized his home to avoid wasting heat and energy. And while there are times when he absolutely has to drive – for groceries, to take his kids places, etc. — he manages to keep his energy use to a minimum, thus ensuring he can weather the storm he sees coming. This is one economist who practices what he preaches, and shows it can be done, even in Fairbanks.

Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at

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