Our Energy Story

Humans Like Stories

We tell stories and our lives are part of stories. But what if our cultural stories about the future are flawed? Both too positive and too negative? Science is increasingly converging on a different story than we hear in the news and watch on TV. This story involves, energy – but also anthropology, human behavior, economics and the environment, and ultimately….you.


Billions of years ago, primitive life forms emerged on Earth which can absorb sunlight and use its energy to reproduce and grow. Over the eons, a vast tree of life has evolved with each branch and twig connected by that heritage. Energy is why we are here. Energy streaming from the sun in the form of visible light bathes our planet and nourishes our biological systems.

Human Systems

Energy underpins nature, but also human systems. The sunlight combines with soil and water to create crops which are fed to animals – and humans eat the animals and crops. 

Fossil Hydrocarbons

Creatures that were alive in Earth’s past were condensed under pressure and vast amounts of time into deposits of highly energy dense materials. We pull these materials – coal, oil and natural gas -out of the ground today and add their productivity to the human ecosystem. And what they can accomplish is akin to magic.

Cost vs. Value

For each barrel of oil, we get thousands of human worker equivalents.  No one thinks about this when they fill up their tank or fly in a plane. The average American consumes over 60 barrels of oil equivalent per year. In coal equivalent that is over 24,000 lbs of coal. 

The Core of Macro Economics

This leads to the greatest flaw in modern economic theory – we don’t pay for the creation of nor the pollution from the most valuable input to our economies ~only the cost of extraction. Economic theory treats $1 worth of gasoline the same as $1 worth of crayons or ice cream, when it’s effect is vastly larger.

Continued Growth

Our governments and institutions assume and plan for continued growth this century. At 3% per year, the size of the global economy (and energy and material use) will quadruple in the lifetimes of today’s college students. Is that possible? Is that desirable? What happens if we do triple by 2050, as OECD predicts? What happens if we don’t?

OECD Growth Forecast to 2050 (2015)