It is a valid question to ask how much real stuff - energy, water, soil and mineral resources - currently go into producing something costing, say, $100. In the past ten years, we have had oil prices rise from $50 to $150, then drop to $30, shoot back over $100, then drop back to $30 per barrel. 142 This was due to various financial crises and responses by central banks and governments to rescue the system, including artificially low interest rates, subsidies, guarantees, money creation, etc. During all this, the cost to extract the oil was not volatile: it (generally) went steadily upwards. No matter what the current market price of oil, a new well in Bakken Shale in North Dakota roughly requires: 100 trainloads of sand, 1200 truckloads of water (and the associated diesel fuel to power the trucks and trains) and all the energy inputs embodied in and fed into the extraction machinery. 143 This amounts to real energy costs which are inherently independent of money.
“ …the world can, in effect, get along without natural resources….at some finite cost, production can be freed of dependence on exhaustible resources altogether ….”
- Nobel Laureate Robert Solow
A biophysical lens gives a much different view than that held by award- winning economist Solow, whose quote is above. As we move from the easy-to-access oil that bubbled near the surface, to deep water offshore drilling, to complicated resource- intense drilling of “light tight oil” in the shale formations (which is the last oil available), we require an increase in other natural resource inputs to reflect this rising cost of energy, materials, and complexity. Creation of dollars, subsidies, tax breaks, debt, etc. can mask the true costs, but it can’t alter them. Money can be manipulated because it is just green pieces of paper and ones and zeros on bank hard drives; an elaborate structure of IOU’s based on a belief in unlimited future energy. The real energy and materials cost of resource extraction always goes up, (with periodic dips from new tech or efficiency) because humans mostly use the best, purest, and most accessible remaining resources first. TaaL: I often hear humans talking about producing energy. That gives me a bit of an alien smirk because humans don’t produce energy at all. But at least you evolved to do a bit of work for the energy you appropriated from the environment in your early days. The case of fossil energy is more analogous to getting a high-def TV by chucking a brick through a store window: your only effort is hefting the brick, grabbing the TV and running off laughing. That is, the fossil energy you “produce” was already created by the toil of ancient life and sequestered underground back when your ancestors still had gills and tails. You just grab it and run, and you’ve gotten
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