How Our Excessive Energy Use is Ruining our Species’ Chances of Survival
The Universe is an entity that transforms energy into a less useful type. Every energy transaction has a portion that can do work, while the rest dissipates, unable to do any work. Let’s take our brilliant sun, a star like many others that uses hydrogen to produce helium in the process of fusion. This process transforms the energy in this reaction into radiant light while dissipating heat. The laws of the universe mean that the more energy you transform to do work, the more entropy or waste you will have. We have neglected to notice the immense collateral damage that our continuous excessive energy use keeps on causing, and that has led to the present climate disaster and ecosystem loss.
Our planet has life because it is located in the right place to benefit from the light and heat from our star. From the tiny bacteria to the human, life is ruled by the energy laws of this Universe and these energy constraints have directed evolutionary possibilities since the beginning of life. Life started with unicellular life: bacteria and archaea, and remained at this stage for about 2.4 billion years. It would have continued like this if bacteria and archaea had not found a way to enlarge their energetic possibilities.
Let’s take bacteria, who managed to evolve sophisticated bio machinery like DNA, RNA, and ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate, the molecule that gives energy to cells). This sophistication never managed to develop more complexity due to energy production constraints. Bacteria’s energetic process was very inefficient because its single-layer bacterial wall had very limited ATP- production capabilities. This curtailed the evolution of a more complex genome that could lead to something new. Whenever a bacterium dared to develop a slightly more complex genome, the energy requirements for this extra genetic load would take away energy from the usual bacterial tasks and the bacteria would be out-selected under natural selection rules.
The only way to have enough energy to increase the genome and develop complexity was to design a more efficient way to provide energy to a cell. This only happened when there was a serendipitous symbiosis -a bacterium entered an archaeon and eventually, both adapted to live as one organism. The adaptation to this symbiosis led to the bacterium’s evolution into a mitochondrion in a cell and the development of a cell with a nucleus. This modified bacterium, turned mitochondrion, gradually evolved into a cell organelle with increased ATP-producing membranes, much more efficient at energy production than bacteria.
The increase in energy availability in the cell allowed for evolution to take off, especially once there was oxygen in the atmosphere. In this way, diversity exploded and this eventually led to humanity. Without this once-in-an-eon occurrence -a bacterium’s entry into an archaeon — we wouldn’t be here.
A human, like all multicellular animals, is very efficient with its energy use, and like all life, always in balance with the laws of nature. An average human that weighs 80 kilos needs about 2000 calories or about 100 Watts hour (Wh) a day, (36,500 Watts hour per year). This energy is used to think, feel, move, reproduce, feed all the organs, regulate temperature, and other important systems that keep our body functioning.
The energy efficiency of a human is amazing–with just 100 Wh per day, our energy-producing organelles can feed incredible feats like complicated physics, beautiful symphonies, or record-breaking sports feats. Our machines in comparison are not very efficient -much of the energy ends up wasted in unusable heat and creating entropy. As an example, scientists have found that a simple task such as the transcription of DNA in a cell is 100,000 more efficient than the same task done by a computer. The proliferation of machines with different degrees of inefficiency has greatly increased our energy needs creating an imbalance. Contrary to the bacteria’s natural selection constraints, our machines exist completely out of the rules of natural selection.
The energy of our daily calorie intake produces modest amounts of waste in the form of CO2 and excrement, and this energy was enough for our survival during the majority of our time on Earth. The discovery of fire upped our energy use with wood and charcoal, without greatly increasing our daily energy allotment and its corresponding waste. As long as the population was not too big and wood was widely available, anybody could benefit from this amenity without affecting the natural balance.
As our civilization became more complicated our energy requirements grew accordingly. The horse was used very early for individual transportation in the areas with horse availability. A horse’s energy requirements per day are about 25,000 calories, 10 times more than those of an average human. As long as these horses remained in normal numbers, the energy use per human didn’t increase that much and the horse’s waste didn’t become overwhelming. The invention of the wheel created the need for more horses, but the energy and waste imbalance would only be violated if we bred more horses than nature’s resources could maintain.
The advent of private property eventually led to big landholders whose extensive land required slaves. Using the Roman Empire as a model, the maximum allowance of slaves was usually set to around 100 slaves per household. Any slave uses the same energy as any other human being, so there was no energy imbalance in nature, but there was an imbalance in energy share. Slave owners had upped their energy intake by using the slave’s energy, while the slaves, the small landowners or the landless, remained with the same basic energy intake.
Private property also led to an increase in husbandry and agriculture, both of which have been growing until today. Domesticated animals and industrialized agriculture have increased their space to feed the increasing population, creating an imbalance that affects wildlife and the health of ecosystems. This imbalance is taxing the Earth’s resources beyond the natural limit, an occurrence that would never happen in a natural environment if natural selection acted on our machines.
This imbalance was greatly exacerbated when our accumulated knowledge led to a very intricate understanding of the chemical and physical world around us, in the 19th Century. While this knowledge helped to increase our quality of life, it also exponentially evolved its technological applications and in turn, the need for more powerful energy sources -fossil fuels.
Since then, this eternal technological growth has upped the energetic requirements of an American from about 100 Wh a day or 36,500 Wh in a year to an astounding 73,677,000 Wh in 2020. The rest of the industrialized world, all heavy technology users, hovers around those same numbers.
As jaw-dropping as this increase is, it becomes even more sobering when you see that this energy only includes domestic energy -electricity, and transportation. Once you add the energy for the mining, manufacturing, and international transportation of all our consumer goods, the energy use of the Global North becomes stratospheric. This excessive energy use of our much needed machines has created an imbalance in our planet that is responsible for the climate and environmental disasters we are experiencing.
This increase also betrays a great energy inequality in the world. While an American requires 73,677,000 Wh a year, a person in Colombia can live with 9,648,000 Wh and just 4,735,000 Wh in Congo. Many people in the world still use wood and other biomass for their cooking and heating so their fossil fuel use has remained minimal. Their GDP is so low that few can indulge in extended consumerism and in some places, even food.
These energy-use comparisons show that the real culprits of the climate disaster are the historically high dense energy consumers. These energy abusers are aware of our troubles with atmospheric emissions but most remain quite ignorant of the collateral damage caused by the mining of raw materials that happens mostly in Global South countries. Let’s take again the Congo, a country with very low emissions that continues to be gutted and polluted for its richness in 1,100 minerals and precious metals.
These minerals include coltan, a mix of columbite and tantalite), cobalt, uranium, and copper, essential for our cars, phones, computers, and renewable energy contraptions. How can a country that has done the least damage to the natural imbalance suffer the worst effects from this imbalance? It seems unbelievable, but nobody in the industrialized and powerful world has time to consider this and try to at least create a system of reparations.
The climate disturbances we are seeing are the handwriting on the wall of our unchecked energy excesses. These have created a heavy burden on the planet and its resources by destroying the balance of energy, population, and waste. Our anthropocentric world tends to still erroneously believe in an evolutionary pyramid that leads to an inevitable pinnacle -humans. Bacteria and other microorganisms seem rudimentary and dangerous to us, nothing compared to our master’s of nature status. This hubris is ironically based on the excessive energy use of a few privileged humans -an excess that can’t be corrected by universal energy constraints and natural selection.
Despite their bad reputation, only a few microorganisms are dangerous and most are essential even for our survival –we wouldn’t be here without their brilliant creations of DNA, RNA, ATP, and a bacterium’s symbiosis with an archaeon. They are also masters of survival -they have been adapting and surviving for eons, while we are just very late arrivals. Our overuse of technology and energy in just 200 years has completely broken the natural balance, giving us a well-merited F grade in adaptability. Our intelligence has allowed us to bypass natural selection to our detriment, destroying other species in the process. With this evidence in mind, which is more dangerous, the microorganism, the snake, the tiger, or us?
We are not only more dangerous than any other organism, but we also lack the traits needed for adaptability and survival. Bacteria, one of the longest-lived forms of life, prove that trying to exceed the energetic constraints of nature will quickly out-select you. If natural selection would include our machines, we would have been out-selected at some point in the middle of the 20th century. As no natural selection can reach our technology, we will have to face the music when the imbalance created by these excesses finally gravely impacts our survivability.
We are like a speeding car on an endless road –this car causes a lot of damage, leaving a trail of dead and maimed, that the car’s occupants don’t notice. The car goes so fast that no cop can reach its occupants to make them accountable. One day, the accumulation of damage is such that it interferes with the speeding car and wrecks it. When the occupants finally get their comeuppance without any law intervention, it is too late! In the same way, our unbalancing of nature has reached the upper limit and the damage we have caused has started the process to out-select our species, and with us, many others. But don’t worry, bacteria will most likely survive!
We don’t like to hear this because our dominant culture equates civilization with technological advancement and its lack with backwardness and savagery. Ironically, it is the supposedly “backward” people, the ones that are truly sustainable and more in tune with the natural order!
Our capacity to rationalize insists that more technology will fix everything and the most powerful on the planet advocate for idealized sustainable practices that won’t make a dent in our problems. We accept their proposals blindly because few want to face the crude reality –it is our unchecked progress that has ruined our chances of adaptability and survival. We have heavily transgressed the natural order that follows all the energetic constraints of the Universe, and yet we expect things to magically work up in the end -somehow. Survival and adaptability don’t depend on hope and idealized false promises of experts and the powerful -it only works in reality, and we are not doing a great job at it!