Section VIII – The Energy Security Dilemma Facing the United States is Serious
By now it should be clear that the United States has inadequate technically recoverable resources of ground solar and wind energy to replace fossil fuels. Hydroelectricity, geothermal-electricity, and biomass are not capable of significant increases in energy production. Finally, conventional nuclear fission energy cannot be scaled up by any significant amount and fusion nuclear energy is not yet available. Still, the need for a replacement for fossil fuels is readily apparent. Where must the United States now turn to find industrial-scale replacements for fossil fuels? This is the energy security dilemma the United States now faces; a dilemma that raises the very ugly “solution” of warfare—a solution that, surprisingly, the United States avoided in the 19th century while Japan did not in the 20th century.
A. What would have happened had America not had fossil fuel resources?
As we now consider the dilemma the United States faces in how to replace fossil fuels, we return our attention to the first energy support crisis the United States faced in the mid-1800s. Since our distant human ancestors learned to harness fire, biomass (primarily wood) has been human civilization’s energy source.
Over the time period that Leslie White examined in formulating what became known as White’s Law linking energy and technology to cultural advancement, wood was the primary energy source for human civilization’s advancement across some 600 generations. Eventually, the size of the human population grew to the point that the rate of the natural replenishment of wood—about one-half cord per acre per year—failed to meet the growing demand for energy. The United States, with the European-standard of living brought by immigrants beginning in the early 1600s, hit this point in the early 1800s. Consequently, sometime in the 1830s-1840s, wood fuel, along with wood being used for other purposes, was being consumed at a rate higher than natural replacement.
Figure 24 plots the consumption of wood fuel from 1630-1930—across 300 years. This is an excellent example of the classic sinusoidal recovery pattern of over-harvested resources seen with fossil fuels, minerals, fish, etc. Imagine for a moment you are a government economist in the latter 1800s tracking wood fuel production. Further, for the purpose of this thought experiment, assume that fossil fuel recovery was still negligible. Perhaps, in this alternate history, anti-coal, anti-oil, and anti-natural gas commercial coalitions formed to protect the timber and whaling industries from competition. As seen in Fig. 24, up through the 1870s, wood fuel production was still expanding with no evidence of decreasing production apparent.
As an economist, you note the first falloff in wood fuel consumption in the 1880s, indicating the lack of an adequate supply at affordable prices. Yet, the U.S. population is still rapidly growing and per capita energy use is also growing due to the technological and societal changes brought by the industrial revolution. Your energy security forecast is bleak. The United States is consuming wood fuel at rates the forests cannot naturally replenish. Forests across the country are being clear cut. The U.S. industrial economy, approaching the point of inadequate energy supplies, will collapse back to an agrarian economy unless new replacement energy sources for domestic wood fuel are found. But there are none now available in the United States with the industrial scale capacity needed to keep the United States prosperous with a growing population and increasing per capita energy use. The fledgling fossil fuel industries could have done this had it not been for political opposition and Congressional naiveté preventing growth and technological development of these new energy sources.
The president, reading your report, notes the seriousness of your conclusion that it would take decades to develop the needed fossil fuel recovery technologies and build up this new industry to achieve the level of energy production needed to replace wood fuel. The rate of forest clearing is expanding to try to keep up with demand, but prices are inflating while production is declining. The report is forwarded to the Secretary of War for review. The War Department proposes, to prevent dramatic energy supply shortfalls and the accompanying severe economic decline, to invade Canada and seize sufficient Canadian forests to give the United States the time it needs to develop its fossil fuel industry. Canada, noting the devastation brought to America’s forests, has declined to let American companies conduct the large-scale forest cutting needed to meet U.S. energy needs. Hence, instead of warfare with Spain, the Canadian-American War commences in the 1890s as escalating wood fuel prices and fuel scarcity forces American action to sustain its wood-fueled, steam-powered cultural evolution.
B. When Japan faced this choice, it led to war
While you may find this alternate history incredible, a version of this played out in the early 20th century. Japan, adopting the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s to transform its medieval society into a modern industrial society, lacked the fossil fuel and other industrial natural resources needed to thrive per White’s Law. It began colonial expansion and military conquest to obtain these resources in northern China as early as the 1890s. A key part of this strategy was to build a modern military, becoming the preeminent military power in the Pacific from the 1920s until the early 1940s.
In particular, Japan needed oil and through the 1930s the United States was then its primary oil supplier—the United States being the OPEC of the early 20th century. When the United States cut off oil supplies to try to get Japan out of China, Japan decided to settle the issue by militarily seizing oil facilities in Southeast Asia belonging to European countries then at war with its ally Germany. However, to achieve this goal, Japan first had to neutralize the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet then stationed at Pearl Harbor. When Japan attacked the United States, as seen in Fig. 25, it had, by some accounts, less than a year’s worth of oil remaining—even less with substantial military warfare. Setting aside the cruelty with which Japan undertook many of its military campaigns, answer this important question: What really distinguishes Japan’s energy security circumstance in the early 20th century from that of the United States in the early 21st century? White’s Law applied then; it applies now.
C. The development of America’s fossil fuel industry shows that substantial change can occur, but this takes time
The primary focus of this paper on America’s growing energy insecurity due to this century’s pending exhaustion of technically-recoverable and affordable fossil fuels was first brought to the public’s attention during the 1950s and again in the 1970s. Further, the shortcomings of terrestrial renewable energy sources in becoming practical industrial-scale energy sources were also apparent in the late 1970s and 1980s. It was not a lack of renewable energy technology, but the scale needed to meet U.S. needs. The U.S. population and per capita energy needs were simply too large and still growing. Yet, White’s Law tells us that either America solves the challenge of returning to energy security by increasing E and T or human events will address the problem by forcing a dramatic decline in C.
A second purpose of the earlier thought experiment was to make clear that the United States avoided its first serious energy supply crisis by a leap forward in technology to enable fossil fuels to be recovered and used on an industrial scale. Figure 24 shows how coal became king within about 50 years of when it first became commercially mined. Figures 26a and 26b show the advancement of oil refining from the crude refineries of 1870 to the fairly modern refineries in 1905—less than two generations later.
The cultural transformation America underwent in the last two generations of the 1800s was dramatic. By the turn of the century, the new fossil fuels had created modern America with automobiles, electricity, electric motors, electric lights, telephones, oil-fueled ships and trains, steel-framed buildings, steel-bridges over America’s immense rivers, etc. The energy industry of America at the beginning of the 20th century was a far cry from America even at the time of the end of the Civil War. America’s industrial history of the latter 19th century shows that, with determination, substantial change can be accomplished to prevent an energy security crisis from arising—but the United States needs time—several generations—for this to happen. It cannot happen overnight!