Beyond Sustainable Economy: Civilization and Energy

Published: 24.08.2017


The world population is steadily growing, and at the same time we all want more: more goods, more gadgets, more money. We are producing more and more. We want more physical comforts. All this lead to more desire for energy. We have become the parasites of our Mother Earth. What can we do in practice? The least we can do is to use the available resources sanely, and seek to take only what is given by nature, without exploitation. Direct and indirect violence to the planet and all that lives should be avoided. We can study the pros and cons of various sources of energy, and give them an 'aparigraha index' and a 'non-violence index.' The aparigraha index means: who can we be as humble as possible towards our planet. The ahimsa index means: how can we do so with the least possible harm to the planet and all living beings. These article by David Pratt give a rational scientific and [were possible] quantized view of the pros and cons of various forms of energy use.

- Editor

Based on: David Pratt: The Energy Future[1]:

Civilization and Energy

Fossil fuels have an energy density far higher than traditional, renewable energy sources, and their large-scale use has resulted in the total energy consumption of human societies rising to unprecedented levels. Vaclav Smil writes:

Traditional societies drew their food, feed, heat, and mechanical power from sources that were almost immediate transformations of solar radiation (flowing water and wind) or that harnessed it in the form of biomass and metabolic conversions that took just a few months (crops harvested for food and fuel), a few years (draft animals, human muscles, shrubs, young trees), or a few decades (mature trees) to grow before becoming usable. In contrast, fossil fuels were formed through slow but profound changes of accumulated biomass under pressure; except for young peat, they range in age from 106 to 108 [1 to 100 million] years. A useful analogy is to see traditional societies as relying on instantaneous or minimally delayed and constantly replenished solar income. By contrast, the modern civilization is withdrawing accumulated solar capital at rates that will exhaust it in a tiny fraction of the time needed to create it. (Smil, 2010a, 710-11)

[The aparigraha factor]

The Pre-agricultural societies consumed around 10 billion joules (gigajoules, GJ) of energy per capita per year, roughly divided between food and phytomass (vegetation) for open fires. By the late 19th century the figure had risen [tenfold] to about 100 GJ per capita in industrial England, nearly all of it coming from coal. A century later, the major economies of the European Union, as well as Japan, averaged around 170 GJ per capita, with coal, oil, and natural gas all contributing a significant share. By 2005, the average annual consumption in the US had risen to more than 330 GJ per capita [of which] 39% comes from oil, 27% from natural gas, 23% [totaling 89%] from coal, and virtually all the rest from hydro and nuclear power.

[If we wish to put this in terms of an 'parigraha index' (Pi) as directly measured as increase of consumption, the index has increased with 3200%. If we define the 10 GJ of pre-industrial societies with the population density of these times as Ai = 100, the total aparigraha index (Ai) is down to about Ai = 3.

There are enormous inequalities in wealth distribution and energy use both between different countries and within them. In 2000, the affluent countries, containing just 20% of the global population, consumed about 70% of the commercial Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES). So the average parigraha index for the members of this group of countries as compared to the second group Ai (1): Ai (2) is 100:20x70 35 / 100:80x30 = 350:36 = almost 10.

It means that in order to return to a truly natural, pre-industrial sustainable situation as far as energy consumption is used, the first group of countries should reduce 9 times as much as the second group of countries. i.e. 90% of 3200% = 2880 % and the second group 10%, i.e. 320 % of their present energy consumption, or 28,8 times and 3,2 times of what they use at present.]

The United States, with less than 5% of the world population, consumed about 27% of the world's commercial TPES in 2000, and the G7 countries (the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and Canada), whose population adds up to just about 10% of the world's total, claimed about 45% (Smil, 2010a, 715). The annual consumption of commercial energy in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa (Chad, Niger) is less than 0.5 GJ per capita. A third of all countries have an average per capita energy use of less than 10 GJ per capita. [So one third of all countries in the world could be called aparigrahic in this sense. They prove that it is possible, but they bring very great sacrifices in the sense of health and health care, education, and many other sectors of well-being. However this group intends to become smaller. The consequence is, of course, that these countries should not be taxed for the misbehavior of others. It also means that it is our duty as humanity to search for other sources of healthy, decent, happy, socially and politically free and noble causes for human happiness and spiritual progress than sources dependent on exhaustible and material factors. Every human (and other) being has the right to live according its nature and stage of inner, spiritual, intellectual and emotional development. Every human being has the duty to help others to enhance the factors conducive to the growth and flowering of their innate potentialities.]

With less than a sixth of all humanity enjoying the benefits of the high-energy civilization, a third of it is now engaged in a frantic ['parigraha-]race' to join that minority, and more than half of the world's population has yet to begin this ascent. The potential need for more energy is thus enormous. (716)

High levels of affluence and consumerism do not automatically mean higher levels of individual happiness and satisfaction with life. [Apart from the fact that 'happiness' is an unquantifiable psychological entity that depends on a very wide range of internal and external factors, and may vary in each moment, and here looking only to external factors supposed to be conducive to greater happiness.]

Smil says that pushing beyond 110 GJ per capita has not brought many fundamental quality-of-life gains, while pushing beyond 200 GJ per capita has largely been counterproductive. He writes: 'the US falls behind Europe and Japan in a number of important quality-of-life indicators, including much higher rates of obesity and homicide, relatively even higher rates of incarceration, lower levels of scientific literacy and numeracy, and less leisure time' (2010a, 725). In high-energy societies, 'a large part of TPES goes into short-lived disposable junk and into dubious pleasures and thrills promoted by mindless advertising' (Smil, 2008a, 387). [This scientific viewpoint factually supports the spiritual or instinctive notion of aparigraha experienced by so many spiritual aspirants – the fact that non-possession and non-grasping may lead to greater satisfaction and general well-being than accumulation of wealth and possession.]

[It is estimated that the planet can not carry] an energy consumption of over 150 GJ per capita, currently enjoyed by one-sixth of humanity [remember the 330GJ of US citizens alone!], being extended to the rest of the world during the next few generations. There are voices in the privileged West that oppose any significant industrial development in the poorer nations on the grounds that it would be unsustainable and critically damage the environment. Those who preach that message should perhaps set a good example by switching off all their electrical appliances and gadgetry and withdrawing entirely from our modern technological society.

Though in the last decades extreme poverty seems to have been reduced considerably. [The most recent estimates, in 2012, 12.7 percent of the world's population lived at or below $1.90 a day. That's down from 37 percent in 1990 and 44 percent in 1981. This means that, in 2012, 896 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day, compared with 1.95 billion in 1990, and 1.99 billion in 1981.

(Last updated 7 October 2015):  (][2]

It is a fact of life that all nations want to pursue the path of economic growth and that increasing the amount of electricity they generate would help raise many people out of poverty. In the West, every material social advance in the 20th century depended on the proliferation of inexpensive and reliable electricity (see

[The ahimsa factor]

[Depriving people from sources of modern energy to save the environment would therefore be a wrong application of aparigraha. It would sustain and even create more great suffering and would be a scandal if richer people and countries would support such a policy from an erroneous philosophical perspective. Depriving others of what one would wish for oneself is a form of himsa, violence. For example, in] sub-Saharan Africa the infant mortality rate [was and] is commonly over 100 (or even 150) deaths per 1000 live births. Infant mortality rates of less than 30 typically correspond to per capita energy use of at least 30-40 GJ per year. Infant mortality rates of less than 20 are found only in countries consuming at least 60 GJ per capita, and rates of less than 10 are found only in countries using more than about 110 GJ. Female life expectancy of over 70 years typically corresponds to per capita energy use of at least 45-50 GJ per year, while a female life expectancy of over 75 requires about 60 GJ, and of over 80 about 110 GJ (Smil, 2008a, 346).

Electricity consumption and the Human Development Index (HDI) ( takes account of life expectancy, literacy, education, and per capita GDP, as is expressed in the following diagram:

Energy poverty means insufficient access to affordable, reliable and safe energy services to support economic and human development. [As per March 2016] 1.2 billion people lack access to electricity, and 2.7 billion rely on traditional biomass – such as wood, crop residues, and dung – for cooking and heating. Household air pollution from the use of biomass in inefficient stoves causes millions of premature deaths per year (IEA, 2010, 7, 13)[3] Greater access to liquid and gaseous fuels and electricity would reduce poverty and improve human health. Even doubling the poor world's average per capita energy consumption to about 40 GJ per year would be sufficient to guarantee a decent standard of living and quality of life. [It is therefore clear that to live with aparigraha in mind is an advisable conscious choice of individuals and countries who have more than they need, and thus are responsible for the present dire situation of the ecology and economic disparity, but that it should not ever be imposed on those who are still suffering of lack of primary needs and facilities' of life. It makes much more sense to seek ways to live a balanced ecological life for all, rationally seeking to take away anything that is counterproductive to happiness and spiritual progress. For some acquiring greater happiness, individually and globally, may main curtailing oneself – both out of concern for the planet and out of compassion for the deprived; for others it may mean receiving benefits of modern technology of which they are still deprived. Both sides will benefit. Thus, from  the viewpoint of an aparigrahic sustainable economy and human happiness, searching out the sources of energy that are the most clean as well as the most ethic, and can be made available to all without dependence on external power structures – political and economic – seems the most feasible.] This article explores the pros and cons of various conventional and alternative sources of energy, and outlines likely near-term developments.


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Title: Beyond Sustainable Economy
Author: Dr. Rudi Jansma, Dr. Sushma Singhvi
Publisher: Prakrit Bharati Academy

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahimsa
  2. Aparigraha
  3. Consumerism
  4. Ecology
  5. Environment
  6. Himsa
  7. Parigraha
  8. Violence
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