Sustainability: The intersection of energy, economy & environmental justice

Sustainability: The intersection of energy, economy & environmental justice

I teach two courses in Environmental Sustainability at SMU and I have been involved with energy efficiency and sustainability for more than 20 years.  From the teaching standpoint, Environmental Sustainability is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry which examines the relation between energy and economy in human social evolution. If there’s one thing you can count on in the current debates about climate science, energy resources, and environmental impact, it is that few people understand the controlling points of the science of energetics, the branch of physics which examines energy transformations.

Economics, a convention of human beings for the production and distribution of goods and services, says nothing about energy or specifically the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI), a key concept in understanding the long-term functionality of any biological system. Unfortunately, political viewpoints and wishful thinking appear to rule the discussion rather than the laws of physics.

The ability of any organism in an ecosystem to survive long-term has everything to do with the way it manages energy consumption. Human beings are doing a poor job of managing energy and are astonishingly wasteful with the fossil fuel and mineral capital of the earth.  Consider the following “spaghetti” chart produced annually by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, The Department of Energy and the Energy Information Administration.  Without getting into all of the details, look at the top right corner of the chart where it says: REJECTED ENERGY. What this means is that in the US, WE WASTE MORE THAN 50% OF THE ENERGY WE PRODUCE:

Our ancestors are spinning in their graves at this colossal WASTE of resources.  This is where Bioethics, Environmental Justice, and Common Sense meet at the crossroads.

Every living organism has an energy budget required for its survival which depends on the available energy resources in its environment. And any organism which has survived for more than tens of thousands of years has learned to be extremely efficient and frugal with the resources available to it.  Indeed, a successful ecosystem is a system which has evolved to waste nothing. A good example is a forest in which all organic matter which dies is recycled into the system.  Consider this magnificent specimen, a Giant Sequoia named The President.  It is 247’ tall, 3200 years old, and constitutes a thriving and sustainable ecosystem unto itself and which, despite its size, coexists peacefully with its neighbors.  This is a lesson to us all!

Prior to the discovery of fossil fuels and their implementation with machines, human beings were very efficient and frugal with energy because they had to be. But fossil fuels have created a short-term and a false sense of prosperity when it comes to energy.  Indeed, human beings have developed a kind of energy alcoholism with respect to the use of energy derived from fossil fuels. Moreover, as per capita energy use increases exponentially with the development of industrial societies, it eventually outstrips the carrying capacity of the fuel sources and the environment we strip them from.  We are, as a species, on a drunken bender when it comes to energy use, and not too far in the future we will run the car into a tree like teenagers after a high school football game.

Part of the situation we face has to do with the talismanic properties of technology, which as it advances has convinced us that we can solve any problem we create by simply inventing a new technology.  It is also due to certain characteristics of industrial capitalism, which grows by constantly consuming more resources and not replenishing them.  Our future as a species depends on common sense, the science of energy, and learning from the organisms on our planet that have already proven their long-term value through sustainability.

Image: hd2 wall papers. n.d. [Image of trees]. Retrieved from


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