The Sower’s Strategy: A Way to Speed up the Energy Transition
by Ugo Bardi
Ugo Bardi (Italian, born 1952) teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. His interests cover the depletion of mineral resources and peak oil, nanotechnology, and robotics. He runs the Italian section of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and blogs on www.cassandralegacy.blogspot.com. His most recent book is The Limits to Growth Revisited.
‘Don’t eat your seed corn!’ is a well known saying. It refers to the age-old farmer’s strategy of saving some of the harvest of the current year as seeds for the next. Unfortunately, however, our main energy source today, fossil fuels, produces no ‘seeds’. Once extracted and used, it is gone forever and the same is true for all our mineral resources. This is what we call ‘depletion’. In addition, fossil fuel burning is the main cause of climate change; an even more worrisome problem.
So far, we have been behaving like farmers who eat their seed corn; burning fossil fuels and consuming our resources as fast as possible. And we are still investing enormous amounts of money just to continue doing that. According to the Grantham Research Institute, about $650 billion were spent to develop new fossil fuel resources in 2012, mainly for oil and gas and, in particular, for the so called ‘non conventional resources’ (e.g. shale oil). This is the result of our current way of thinking, which emphasizes short-term gains. Not only does this strategy worsen the climate problem, but it forces us to spend more and more as depletion progresses and that perpetuates our dependence on fossil fuels. Obviously, that can’t continue for a long time.
Is there a way out? Yes, if we go back to the wisdom of ancient farmers: don’t eat your seed corn! Of course, we can’t sow fossil fuels, but we can sow what these fuels provide: energy and minerals. We can use some of this energy and these minerals as seed to create the structures needed for a sustainable economy until, in the future, renewable energy eventually produces enough to replace itself and we learn how to recycle minerals much more efficiently than we do now. This is the sower’s strategy applied to the modern world.
We are already using this strategy. At present, most of the resources used to build renewable energy plants and other elements of a sustainable economy come from fossil fuels. It is good that we are doing that, but are we doing enough? According to UNEP, some $250 billion were spent in 2012 for new renewable sources. This is much less than what is being invested in fossil energy but, so far, it has nevertheless allowed a rapid and consistent growth of renewable energy. The problem is that there is no guarantee that the necessary levels of investment will be maintained in the future if we continue giving priority to fossil fuels. Indeed, in 2012 we saw a decline in the investments in renewables. So, if we leave choices on energy to the market alone, we risk facing runaway climate change together with rapid resource depletion, without having sufficient resources available to create a new energy system. If we continue along this path we will eat all our seed corn.
Instead, we need to save our seed corn. This means investing a significant fraction of the energy and resources we are producing today into a sustainable economy, even though that may not provide the largest short-term returns. First, it means investing in renewable energy, i.e. energy technologies that don’t produce greenhouse gases, are efficient in terms of ‘energy return for energy invested’ (EROI) and don’t occupy too much land, in particular photovoltaics and wind power. It also includes infrastructure and industrial technologies that tend to recover resources and avoid the use of rare and disappearing mineral resources. The concept of ‘efficiency’ can also be included, with the caveat that it must not perpetuate dependency on fossil fuels (an example of such an ineffective strategy is moving from coal to natural gas).
So, how do we implement the sower’s strategy? It may not need formal measures; we can see it as a form wisdom that already exists in people’s minds and that leads to supporting investments in renewables in general. But we can also think of an international protocol (The Sower’s Protocol) mandating that a fraction of the revenues obtained by fossil fuels must be dedicated to the development of a sustainable economy; in particular renewable sources. Revenues from a carbon tax could fund the protocol but, perhaps better, it could be directly applied to private or state owned energy companies. After all, investing in energy production is their job and we are not asking them to pay money, we are asking them to make money; albeit on a longer time scale. The protocol could also mandate non-monetary measures, such as for governments to ease permits and reduce bureaucracy for investments in sustainability.
No matter how it is implemented, the sower’s strategy implies that we need to invest enough to create a new energy system before depletion (or global warming) makes it impossible to do so, but not so much that it would be an excessive burden on people’s current welfare. It is a window of opportunity that will not be there forever, but which probably still exists today. Consider that the 58 largest world’s oil and gas companies together had almost $6 trillion dollars in 2012 revenues (Wikipedia). If they were to re-invest just 4% of those revenues in renewable energy, that would double the amount spent today in the sector.
Irrespective of the actual fraction to be set apart, we can say that the sower’s strategy, especially if implemented as a formal protocol, could be a true game changer in sustainability since:
It speeds up the transition, ensuring that sustainability and renewable energy will remain consistently supported.
It diverts investments from fossil fuels, forcing them to decline faster than they would if left to market forces alone. That speeds up the transition and eases the problem of global warming.
It stimulates the economy and creates jobs. It has the force of a positive approach: we are not asking people to stay home in the dark; we are asking them to work for the transition and make money from it!
The well-known principle of ‘do not eat your seed corn’ is something that everyone can understand. It will be hard for negative propaganda to distort it so much to make it appear as part of a Communist plot to enslave mankind (but never underestimate the power of PR tied to vested interests).
The sower’s strategy by itself, formally or informally implemented, does not guarantee a smooth transition to a sustainable (and cool enough) world. It can’t go against the laws of physics and it can’t allow humankind to continue growing forever. Adapting our economy to renewable energy requires new infrastructure, rethinking industrial processes, adapting to the gradual reduction in the availability of all mineral resources. Among other things, we’ll need to learn how to use renewable energy to power agriculture, to replace rare minerals with common ones (e.g. copper with aluminium), to manage waste as a resource and not as a burden, and much more.
Clearly, building up a completely sustainable economy is a difficult task, but it is not an impossible one. The only impossible thing is to keep civilization alive without energy and resources. The sower’s strategy may give us a chance for the revolutionary transition.
Every year, our farmer ancestors faced a choice: how much of their harvest to keep as seeds? Save too much, and they would starve that year; save too little and they would starve next year. But they must have been making the right choices because they survived and we are their descendants. Today, we can learn from our ancestors how to make the right choices with fossil fuels too: save enough energy now to have enough energy in the future and also avoid disastrous climate change. Who hath ears to hear, let them hear.