Editor: Charles A.S. Hall; Springer Briefs in Energy, Springer 2016
21st June 2016
A book review by Michael Canning
In chapter 20 Friedemann quotes the late Randy Udall, a co-founder of ASPO-USA: “We have been living like gods. Our task now is to learn how to live like humans. Our descent
will not be easy”. A key component to that descent will be a renewed understanding of transport, which underpins industrialised existence. America’s economy runs on the grace of some 10 million trucks that run on fossil fuel to keep the every-day movement of fossil fuel engrained goods and food happening. Oil to industrialized countries is like water to fish; we’re so embedded within it, and its touch in everything we do and depend on, its invisible – until the supply stutters. We have become acculturated to enormous and continual energy use, quite unlike any culture before us.
Sadly though, and perhaps because of its existential nature, which prompts deeper questioning of the socioeconomic structures and policies that reign at present, the notion of the finitude of fossil fuel depletion is a troublesome political hot potato; just like population growth, climate change, and biodiversity loss. To enable further denial of the depth of these interlinked problems and biophysical realities would be an appalling cultural immaturity, and we would be effectively shortchanging and disrespecting our descendants. As Friedemann notes, “few people appreciate how limited the options will be once our premium abundant fossil fuels are gone – just when we need them to build very energy-intensive replacements”.
Energy education on a societal basis needs a major kick up the backside and so it is with pleasure that I commend Springer and editor Charles Hall for bringing about their Briefs in Energy series and specifically this publication. This concise 132-page book is a highly welcome addition to the critical thinking on the enormous issues and choices involved in transportation and its relationship to fossil fuels and climatic disruption. While its focus is mostly on the choices facing the different modes of transportation in the USA its intent and scenario exploration is just as relevant to non-American audiences and it includes various fascinating facts on European infrastructure i.e. the failed Spanish state investment model for photo-voltaic energy generation.
The chapters feature snappy titles like ‘Why you should Love Trains’, ‘Hydrogen, the Homeopathic Energy Crisis Remedy’, and ‘The Electric Blues: Energy Storage for Calm and Cloudy Days’ and presents lucid explanations of the key issues and difficulties facing the USA. Important subjects covered include: energy return over energy invested (EROI) models and their applications; the socio-ecological linkages of food and populations; peak oil and peak coal; the enormous cost of new forms of new energy infrastructure installation; the oil wars of the last 25 years; the lack of investment into rail systems; the problem of the storage of energy from alternative sources i.e. intermittency of wind; the problems of batteries and in improving them; the aged electrical and engineered infrastructure; the current and future bogey of nuclear power; and the issues within trying to accommodate alternative energy sources into the grid and for vehicles ; the need to ditch air freight; and the urgent need to reassess quickly port infrastructure and the role of ships.
The book is well researched and the incorporation of numerous snippets of fascinating historical information about the growth and changes of transportation modes since the 19th century were one of the highlights of the book for me. Friedemann used to be a systems analyst in the shipping sector, so her time into the world of commercial transport has enabled strong and thoughtful insights. She has a lively and concise writing style in a topic area that can be somewhat dry, and another reason I like this book is its gentle sense of humour, which is often absent in technical books. And given the scale of the existential problems that the book outlines – this is a welcome additive.
There were only a few minor things that detracted from making this an excellent text. Firstly while it has a good contents section it doesn’t have an index, which makes returning to certain pertinent points a somewhat lengthy searching process. In addition there has been a slight lack of attention given to some of the coloured diagrams, which in some instances have not reproduced well from their original sources and could have done with being tidied up a bit more.
I believe this book should be required reading for all relevant national and local government employees i.e. those involved in planning, transport, and economic policy, as well as transport consultants. In my experience the latter worlds do not exhibit anywhere near the critical knowledge that is required around energy per se, let alone fossil fuel depletion, and the amount of energy illiteracy in society is something that cannot continue. Friedemann makes the important point in her conclusions that, notwithstanding the issues on boundaries, that utilizing EROI analysis “makes it possible for society and policy makers to investigate our options and make the best energy choices”.
To pretend that the fossil fueled economy and infinite economic growth will continue ad infinitum into the 21st Century and to continue with national and local planning frameworks that have the latter as their pretext is delusional, and intellectually dishonest. The innate linkages between our energy use and its wider impact on societal and hydro-ecological stability cannot be fudged anymore either. Its high time we as a species stop pretending we’re the masters of the universe, and further evolve our thinking about everything, especially energy as the fundament to existence, its use and its effects. Indeed, as Friedemann writes, “we should go into the future with our eyes wide open. We have no choices but to assess how much energy goes into all of the things we take for granted. That includes our food, our vehicles, and how we go about moving goods around the planet like gods”.