Energy Hunter-Gatherers to Energy Agriculture?

Isaac Berzin (founder and creative vision behind GreenFuel Technologies in its early days, now a professor in Israel) once proposed an analogy that I thought was pretty interesting, and relevant in this time of uncertainty about our energy future, and so I report it here.

Isaac suggested that the way modern society has been using energy over the last century or more is akin to the way hunter-gatherers provided themselves with food in prehistoric times, and predicted that we will soon make a transition akin to the one that replaced hunter-gathering with agriculture – that we will begin growing our own energy in situ.  Now this obviously makes literal sense in the case of algae biofuel, where photosynthesis is actually doing the critical work.  But you don’t have to believe in the promise of algae biofuel (which is still very much in its infancy) or cellulosic ethanol (likewise) to appreciate the core insight.  I think the analogy also holds for other forms of renewable energy as well – we already get significant amounts of power from maintaining and operating our stationary, long-lived “wind farms”, and it’s not too hard to imagine an array of PV modules in the yard as a sort of  “kitchen energy garden”.  This stands in strong contrast to our present practice of nomadically scouring the global energy plain for rich herds of petroleum “food”, slaughtering, devouring and abandoning in sequence West Texas, the North Slope, the North Sea, and the Persian Gulf.

It seems to me that archaeological study of the prehistoric transition to (food) agriculture offers a dark cautionary note: recent research provides strong evidence that the size, strength, and health of humans actually took a dramatic step backwards with the transition to agriculture – see for instance this piece by Jared Diamond.  It occurred not because it was nutritionally superior (it wasn’t), but rather because primitive agriculture could support population densities sufficiently high to drive off the hunter-gatherer competition with their necessarily sparser numbers.  I don’t endorse his thesis (that the transition to agriculture was the worst mistake our species ever made), but the important point here is that the replacement of a mature hunter-gatherer technology with an immature agriculture technology was accompanied by a centuries-long transition period of acute suffering.  Once again, the transition seems to be occurring not because of inherent superiority or cost (renewable energy is an expensive pain in the butt) but for technical reasons – we’re just plain running short.  There’s further cause for concern: in the prehistoric case, the areal productivity of the new agricultural technology was truly improved relative to that of its predecessor (which was after all similarly dependent on sustainable solar “income”), while we are presently burning our fossil fuel “savings” at thousands of times the rate of formation.  Let us hope that this time we can somehow manage the coming transition without the stunted legs, rotten teeth, and epidemics of bubonic plague.

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