Written by David von Seggern
The headline in ClimateWire (12/13/2023) caught my attention immediately. It read: “The green energy revolution's first casualties: Sweden's reindeer herders.” Wait—can they really be the first? Not hardly, and I will elaborate on that later.
Since the start of the Holocene Epoch about 12,000 years ago, humankind has been thirsting for energy sources. It began somewhat benignly with the cutting of trees for cooking fires and space heating, for smelting minerals, and for drying crops and foods. A significant increase in energy use began in the Industrial Age when whales were nearly hunted to extinction for their lamp oil and coal mines were dug throughout Europe and North America to feed steelmaking, run railroads, and heat cities. Humankind’s lust for energy has led us to greatly alter a significant portion of the Earth’s surface (and underground in the case of mining) with many effects going beyond geomorphic changes. Through the capture and use of fossil energy, humankind has altered not just the land but also the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the biosphere.
Let’s start with the fossil-fuel revolution because energy use was relatively insignificant prior to a rise in the use of coal around 1800. Before then, the average human may have multiplied their energy potential by a factor of two or three through, for example, the use of domesticated animals, primitive solar heating, and wind resources. This was accomplished with the help of some clever designs such as water screws, hydropower mills, windpower mills and pumps, ships’ sails, and passive ventilation. The Industrial Age facilitated multipliers of ten or more; and, in the early 21st century, we each used energy at a rate of roughly 300 times our basal metabolic rate (BMR). Our BMR is what keeps us alive and going—that rate of energy was sufficient for the hunter-gatherer, but now we have captured fossil fuels and renewable energy to increase our average rate of energy usage by a factor of 300. What impact on the Earth, its biosphere, and humankind is brought about by that enormous factor?
Some credible estimates indicate that one-half of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by humankind up to this point in time. Although “altered” may have widely different meanings to different people, my long life with a substantial portion in the outdoors, with a fair amount of travel, and with a great amount of time paying heed to news and earth science indicates to me that one-half is a fair estimate. Much of the world is vigorously pursuing a 30x30 agenda of trying to protect 30% of the world’s remaining wild places by the year 2030. It’s a race with increasing population, increasing impact per human, and new technology that makes those impacts larger and more far-reaching.
I return to the question posed at the beginning: who are the green energy revolution’s first casualties? This can be answered in the context of who were the first casualties in humankind’s initial quests for augmented energy because this has not started with the green revolution. Although impacts are certainly present before the Industrial Age, let’s consider the Westward Expansion in the United States. Enabled by railroads, the expansion cut through the lands of Indigenous peoples. The railroads brought thousands of men who hunted the bison to near extinction while transporting the meat and fur back to growing populations. The railroads similarly supported the cattle industry spreading across the West. This all pushed the Indigenous peoples into smaller and smaller enclaves; treaties, most eventually to be dishonored, were simultaneously forced upon them. Railroads ran on energy—first wood, then coal, and finally oil. Coal mining and stripping pushed aside Indigenous peoples, but even the recent European settlers often were displaced or subjugated to the needs of fossil-fuel energy production.
The depredations on American Indigenous peoples and poorer settlers multiplied as oil and gas production ramped up in the twentieth century. A famous case, now embodied in the 2023 movie Killers of the Flower Moon, concerns the Cherokee tribe members who were the victims of land and wealth grabs in Osage County, Oklahoma. The development of the Athabaskan Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada has eliminated substantial hunting and fishing areas of the Indigenous peoples there. Another case of fossil-fuel depredation is in the North Slope of Alaska where the caribou-based culture of Inuit tribes is being threatened by oil and gas interests.
As the world enters into the green-energy transition, we need to look at what changes are implicit in this revolution. Instead of uncovering fossil fuels through drilling, mining, and stripping, we now set aside large land surfaces for solar and wind farms while still continuing to mine and strip to provide the metallic and other ores which contain the elements needed for the latest energy-producing equipment. In our race to electrify everything, we are developing new products that require materials which will be obtained through opening of distinctly new mines. The impact on the Earth is likely no less, just somewhat different. The impacted communities are no fewer, just in different places. Sweden’s reindeer herders are not the first to be displaced by the energy transition. For example, cobalt mining in Africa to feed lithium-battery production has caused a large migration of workers who now labor in arduous and dangerous conditions.
The green revolution implies increased electrification for vehicles, homes, and businesses; this cannot be done without greatly increasing electrical transmission corridors. These corridors split animal habitats and human communities and remove large swaths of land from other, often productive, uses. It takes no imagination to see the conflict between the aims of 30x30 and the needs for more electrical transmission.
The green revolution is pushing humankind’s industrialization into the oceans. Already having occurred offshore in many European countries, the US is now committing to the development of a large, offshore, wind-generation capacity. There are many unknowns in regard to the environmental impacts of such industrialization. Communities based on traditional uses of the seas and oceans around the globe may often feel threatened by the need for renewable energy production. The social impacts of the Industrial Revolution are known, and the emerging social impacts of the energy transition are already receiving widespread media attention.
I now get to my central point. To truly curtail and diminish impacts on the Earth, its biosphere, and humankind, we need to reduce our overall consumption of energy. There are two parts to this objective. One implies a reduction in consumerism, a reduction in travel, and a reduction in our spaces to be heated and cooled. Dare I say we need to get along with less? That does not necessarily translate to living less well, and there are many guides to how that can be accomplished.
Also using less energy implies doing all of our familiar cultural activities, even at a reduced level, in as efficient a way as possible. This is where technology has answers. Humans have become very clever at using energy efficiently, and the green revolution includes much of that technological progress. High on the list are the electrification of vehicles and the electrification of space heating. It takes far less energy to move an electric vehicle down the road than an internal-combustion one. It takes far less energy to remove heat from outside air and pump it into the living space (heat pumps) than to heat air with an oil or gas combustion furnace and move it into the living space. Recycling in a circular economy will also lessen energy demands and therefore impacts on the Earth and its peoples.
The use of energy, and the quest to meet that demand, will always be with humans. Humans will not be satisfied with getting off a high-energy diet. Global inequalities and colonial history complicate overall reductions. However, it behooves us to wisely reduce our energy consumption in order to reduce the impacts on the living and non-living Earth. Because cost is always a factor in our choices, I shudder to think of the possibility of extremely inexpensive energy produced through fusion. Peaceful fusion for energy production has been a goal since the first hydrogen-weapon test in 1952 at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Progress is slow on atomic fusion, but the record of human technology suggests that we again will accomplish a feat which initially seemed unlikely. What choices will humans make when energy becomes so cheap that it is no longer a factor in travel, in products that fill the Amazon catalog, or in the size of infrastructure for homes and businesses? Will we impose constraints upon ourselves then, knowing that we failed for decades to impose constraints on the use of fossil fuels, thus initiating the current climate crisis?
Next: How to live well with less energy.