Our Energy Story

Humans Like Stories

We tell stories. Our lives are part of stories. But what if our cultural stories about the future are flawed? What if they are both too positive and too negative? Science increasingly converges on a different story than we hear in the news or watch on TV. This story science tells involves energy, but not just energy. It also involves anthropology, human behavior, economics, the environment, and ultimately … you.


Billions of years ago, primitive life forms emerged on Earth, and they absorbed sunlight to use as energy to reproduce and grow. Over the eons, a vast tree of life evolved. Each branch and twig is connected. Energy is why we are here. Energy streams 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 the crops.

Fossil Hydrocarbons

Creatures that were alive in Earth’s past were condensed under pressure and vast amounts of time into deposits of energy-dense materials. Today, we pull these materials – coal, oil, and natural gas – out of the ground and add their “productivity” to the human ecosystem. What they 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. We only pay the cost of extraction. Economic theory treats $1 worth of gasoline the same as $1 worth of crayons or ice cream, but its effect is vastly larger.

Continued Growth

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

OECD Growth Forecast to 2050 (2015)