1. Technology Factor

Contemplation of the future starts by looking at the past. Let’s look at humanity, civilization and energy. Before humanity came along, that is, before the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens, people used zero energy and had no civilization. Eventually people lived on planet Earth. Just to survive, they needed energy. This biological need was satisfied by fruits, vegetables and meat. People, as omnivores, can eat many other living organisms to get their necessary dietary requirements of energy, protein, carbohydrates and vitamins. At this level of civilization, people consumed only the energy they needed to stay alive. Therefore their full energy requirements were just a product of the number of people multiplied by their dietary energy needs.

Total Energy = Number of people * Personal dietary needs

While people went about their lives, they got smarter. They learned about levers, ropes, sails and fire. Many of their tools were to control energy for their own purpose. Perhaps fire most of all represents the transfer of energy from a natural flow (decomposed wood returning to the dirt for other plants to use)to a human contrived flow. Humans used this chemical reaction to release the energy stored in the wood. They wanted the resulting heat and light. Technological knowledge gave people a decided advantage in the struggle for life. Energy requirements for knowledgeable people was thus greater than those without knowledge. The overall energy is then the number of unknowledgeable people multiplied by a person’s biological needs plus the number of knowledgeable people multiplied by the biological need and multiplied by a technology factor. The technology factor is the increase in energy needed to keep a person at their desired technological level. The following equation represents this relationship.

Total Energy = Number of unknowledgeable people * Personal dietary needs
  Number of knowledgeable people * Personal dietary needs * (1 + technology factor)

The increase in energy usage as a function of technology is dependent upon the amount and type of technology. For example, consider all of Canadians as technology experts. This country’s population is about 32 million people. Their dietary need, and every other adult male, is 10 MJ/person/day. In the year 2003 Canadians consumed 11.5 x 1018 joules of energy (page 10 of report ). From this, we know the technology factor is 100. That is, Canadians use nearly 100 times the biological needs of energy to sustain themselves at their technology level. Today’s technology experts are certainly energy hungry.

2. Consumption

Technology can mean about anything. Using a stick to dig a furrow for growing plants is a form a (agricultural) technology. Digging material from the ground, purifying it then forming it into sheets allows for light weight flying vehicles with aeronautic technology.
While we’ve experimented with many technologies, not all have made the grade. For instance, supersonic air transit has fallen to the wayside. So has human space travel. We just don’t consider these technologies worthwhile.

So, what technologies have made the grade? A quick look about most of use will result in a vision of cellular phones, automobiles and polyester. Given that higher technology is directly associated with energy usage, we can take a broader look by considering how we use energy. The following images show how we use energy today to support our technologies.

World Consumption

Canada’s Consumption


US Consumption

All images are from other researchers. Note that the image for world consumption does not indicate the loss due to energy conversion. The US Consumption image sets our energy loss to a value of 60%. That is, while we are consuming almost 500 exajoules, we only use about 40% or 200 exajoules. The remainder dissipates as waste heat.

The above does show how we use energy, but it is usage from recent years. Luckily, we increase our resource recovery rate as our consumption rate increased. Given this, the actual allocation is not an issue. But, consider when the energy demand exceeds the energy supply and we can’t recover sufficient resources to meet new or existing demand. At that time, we will have to choose what to let go, which technologies to leave behind. Are particle accelerators more important than toasters? Are cars in third world countries more important than airplane travel. These questions need to be addressed even though they won’t appear upon any news line. Will our technologies be ready when our energy demand outstrips supply?

3. Leslie White

World War II introduced humanity to a broad range of good and evil. It cemented the world as a collective entity. Highlighted the role of humans as great effectors. Some saw this and understood its association to the availability and use of energy. One of these was Prof Leslie White.
Prof White introduced quantitative metrics into the study of culture. His views on human survival vouchsafed;

  • Technology is an attempt to solve the problems of survival.
  • This attempt ultimately means capturing enough energy and diverting it for human needs.
  • Societies that capture more energy and use it more efficiently have an advantage over other societies.
  • Therefore, these different societies are more advanced in an evolutionary sense.

The third bullet above speaks directly to his expectation that a society’s culture followed a relationship of C = E T where;

  • C is culture
  • E is energy consumption
  • T is the efficiency of energy consumption

Interestingly Prof White assessed culture as a species wide characteristic.
Associating the success of a culture with its ability to consume energy may be accurate. Does it bode well for the future? As Kardashev noted, energy is the key to an expansive future. Can a culture adapt to less energy? Or we can keep finding new and better sources of harnessable energy.