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The decline of the Fossil Age is the rise of distributive justice

J. Daniel Dahm and Stephan Bannas


The many cultures of the world today face a huge challenge: the organisation of a sustainable and just society, which enables people to have a share in the essentials of life, in knowledge and political and cultural development, as well as access to and the use of technological infrastructure. Sustainable development demands more than simply maintaining and protecting the climatic and ecological balance of the bio-geosphere; it requires a constructive effort to enable and promote the evolution of living things and the cooperative development of the diversity of the Earth’s cultural forms as a complement to bio-ecological evolution. In the co-evolution of humanity, economics has taken on an increasingly significant interface function with relation to nature. Economics mediates between the ideas, needs and demands of human culture and social reality on the one hand, and natural resources on the other. The role of energy availability has become ever more important as a result of industrialisation and the increasing tendency to use material and technological methods for economic production. Energy became the means and the motor of economic development. Its availability and access to it increased in significance for the development of industry, wealth and the creation of infrastructure. Many alternative cultural forms had already been marginalised and consigned to history, and many geographical areas had already been restructured to become suppliers of resources for transport to the booming western European-style societies. Together with an increasing shift in the orientation of models of prosperity from “being” to “having” (cp. Fromm, 1976) and the expansion of the consumer goods industry necessary for this, energy availability and energy use became entrenched as a prerequisite for prosperity. Energy transformed ideas and wishes into material goods and legitimised the conception that everything was endlessly feasible. At the start of the 21st century, energy is the source, the prerequisite and the legitimation of the model of power and consumption of the last century. However, there is neither the material basis nor the energy availability for us to pursue further, and around the globe, the resource-hungry and energy-hungry lifestyle of the past decades. This lifestyle never brought happiness (cp. Kasser, 2002). It could never be achieved throughout the world. Today, energy no longer embodies the genie from the bottle, who works wonders, but rather a model for limitless economic growth, material excess and the accumulation of economic, social and political power by one group at the expense of the others. Energy is frequently seen as being synonymous with the climatic and ecological crisis, with greenhouse gases, global injustice and military conflicts. At the same time, though, energy today once again represents hope. The age of renewable energy has dawned and, with its potential for decentralised production, its polycentric supply infrastructure and ecological balance, it represents a new technological age. Renewable energy gives new strength to ideas of good governance, of justice, participation and stewardship of our social goods.

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“Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne. Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben” (“A magic dwells in each beginning to shelter us and help us live on.”) (Hesse, 1995).

1. The need to change: the cultures are on duty

1The biosphere and geosphere exist in close dynamic interdependency. Their relational structure is gaining degrees of complexity whose causal relatedness is far beyond analytical objectivity. In particular, linear determinisms – still common in most scientific analyses – are reaching their limits. The fundamental uncertainty of ecological interdependencies and processes is multiplying within the cultural dimensions of the anthroposphere. Human value concepts and interpretations of reality (lat. res = thing) are becoming bio-ecological and climate ecological parameters. Economic and political strategies are directly affecting the geo-bio-ecological budgets, material and energy flows, accumulation, distribution and the ecological balance – in space as well as in time.

2The wide range of life-threatening conflicts today range from the destructive climate impacts by greenhouse gases as CO2, Methane and others and the atmospheric enrichment with particulate matter, up to the extensive degradation and desertification of soils and landscapes worldwide, the far-reaching pollution and exhaustion of water resources as well as the wasteful use of fossil resources, to the systematic destruction of marine and land ecosystems, and the rapid extinction of the wide variety of life forms. Humans are rarely able to understand clearly the complex chains of cause and effect, but we know that humans play a decisive role in these processes. But much easier to link directly to human behaviour and the human world of ideas is the broad spectrum of severe, destructive and far-reaching conflicts that humanity is facing daily.

3The only field in which humans are able to interact and communicate with their ecological environment is that of “culture”. It is only through culture that human-nature-relations are interpreted and strategically translated and realised. By means of cultures of knowledge, of economics, politics, social and civil relations, etc., humans set limits and openings for their position in “the world”, and their patterns of actions and opportunities.

2. The human-nature-relation: an epistemological disconnect

4Scientifically this relationship represents one of the most fundamental epistemological (of the theory of cognition) schisms in history: the contact between a materialistic view of reality and the immaterial “Wirklichkeit” of a living world in dynamic interdependency. “The insights of modern physics – of quantum physics – suggest a new interpretation of the world that carries us beyond the materialistic-mechanistic worldview. Instead of the world assumed until now – a mechanical, temporally determined “reality” of objectifiable things, the real Wirklichkeit (a world that effects) turns out to be basically “potentiality”: an indivisible, immaterial, temporally essentially indeterminate and genuinely creative bonding of relations that determines only “can”-probabilities, a differentiated potential for a material-energetic realization.” (Dürr, Dahm & Lippe, 2005) Such a “schism” cannot be resolved (as historically expected for a long time in the development of the sciences particularly in the philosophies) primarily by means of a change in our spiritual relationship to our world. Rather, and more drastically, humanity is confronted with this epistemological schism through its interaction with the living world, which both includes and borders humanity. The scenarios of bio-geo-ecological crises present human beings in a life-threatening way with the narrowness of their interpretations of the world and of their patterns of behaviour, and challenge them to adopt a new course of action. This goes hand in hand with a confrontation between the diverse cultural strategies and views of reality.

5Living complexes do not follow the mechanistic ideas of the old physics. The manifestations of life emerge and vanish in a highly dynamic flow of interactions. In this way, reality is created in a permanent transformative process. The description of ecology, biological and cultural plurality, and human impacts on nature, demands the describing and consequent inclusion of the in-betweens and go-betweens (Turnbull, D. 2004), of aspects of an inter-connected relatedness that are not measurable. Within such intelligence, the aspects of fuzziness and uncertainty are indivisibly integrated in the comprehension of nature, life and ecology. The consequences for actions and strategies from the local to the global level are presumably drastic, calling for a re-orientation in economic, political, socio-cultural and ecological matters.

6Since the 15th century, a narrow, centralistic world view, which strives to iron out all differences between diverse philosophical outlooks and create homogeneity, has come to dominate as never before. This can be seen especially clearly in the colonisation of virtually the entire known world by western European powers. This was followed by the one-sided monopolisation of the spiritual, living and material resources of our Earth by the European-style power centres.

7These strategies and ways of thinking, adapted all over the world, and the view of humanity that is closely connected with them, have a causal link with the materialistic-mechanistic world view that is still favoured around the globe, i.e. the object-related division of life resulting from the desire to control it (frequently referred to as the Cartesian-Newtonian world view).

8At the start of the modern era, in the 17th century, the changes wrought by the Cartesian revolution engendered diverse and far-reaching processes of social restructuring. This intellectual and philosophical change, having matured for some time, also began to affect the nature of economic activity and the organisation of the state. Put simply, a “God-given” world order was replaced by an impression of unlimited power to shape the world. This brought with it a materialistic view of reality and reduced the relationship between humans and nature to one concerned first and foremost with the production of energy and materials.

Explanatory remark: The Cartesian Revolution (named after René Descartes) altered the whole of European culture in the 17th century and fundamentally determined the course of Western intellectual development. The former scholastic world view made way for one that was individualistic and self-centred, which allowed a person to create their own view of the world through thought. Descartes' statement, “cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am - sums up this new mode of thinking. The old antitheses of the material and the spiritual, of darkness and light, are no longer determining factors; the self or ego is the origin of everything. There is something because I think. Because I think, I and the world around me exist. My reason explains everything, it is a tool for explaining the world, for conquering it and for knowing it. This reason may have limits but within these limits it is generally valid and it is the only benchmark (Descartes, 1641).
Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of the modern era, further elaborated this reason-based view of the individual (Kant, 1761), which developed into homo faber, who uses reason to subjugate the world and to form it in their image. Only in this way was the scientific and technical revolution made possible – with all its consequences for industrialisation, massive exploitation of resources and much more besides.

9The industrialisation that was thus set in motion and that persists to this day, with its many stages of scientific and technological innovation and revolution, today appears to have reached its zenith, which is leading to major confrontations on very diverse fronts around the world (cp. Ziegler, 2002):

10As all ideas regarding value and prosperity, together with patterns of consumption and economic strategies, are progressively brought in line with each other to fit the mould of a western, North American and European knowledge society, politics and economics have led to a cultural tautology, the escape routes from which are easy to overlook. The technological and scientific successes derived from the subjugation of a world that presented itself to humanity in a material form were the driving forces here. At the start of the third millennium, we are presented with the stark fact that these justifications for our actions are being destroyed by the dynamically driven processes of the living world, and that these attempts at justification have now spectacularly failed at virtually every level (Huntigton, 1996). This includes the way in which we interact with material flows, energetic resources and our surroundings via our socio-economical systems, as well as how we describe nature as being separate from us, and how to describe and – maybe – separate it from ourselves.

3. The rise of the fossil age: spiritual, mental and material requirements

11Whereas the pre-industrial world was still characterised by a limited division of labour and the dominance of agriculture, division of labour and specialisation later imposed themselves as the motors of industrial development (Polanyi, 1944). Production and trading processes that had previously been carried out as a whole were first divided into ever smaller steps, with the result that the people who carried out such small parts of the total process could do this with the highest possible rate of productivity (Bakke, 1954). Their training and experience were concentrated on a single, very small part of a process; they worked repetitively, and thus significantly more efficiently than previously when they were responsible for the whole process. The division of labour thus results in specialisation. At the same time, this way of organising work forms the basis for the introduction of machines for work processes that can be automated.

12The segmentation and reorganisation of work that became necessary was subject to a wealth of different preconditions (Eilon, 1962), of a spiritual and intellectual as well as a material nature. One of the most important spiritual and intellectual prerequisites was people’s readiness to devote themselves intensively to the conditions of their lives on earth and to strive for improvement in their material circumstances in this life. Whereas life had previously been marked by a strongly religious orientation, this gave way to ideas of material prosperity in the mortal life. In time, this developed into the working routine and consumption models of the modern era (cp. Weber, 1904, 1905). People were prepared play a part in the work structure of a society based on the division of labour and to define themselves as a part of this society. Religiosity and devotion to a superior God lost status and material values gained in importance.

13Without at this point examining the individual philosophical and theological principles and consequences of the industrial age, it is important to note that this spiritual about-turn was the origin of humanity’s readiness to relate to nature in a purely materialistic way (Toynbee, 1976). It created the presumption that nature should be used to excess and even non-renewable mineral resources should be exploited for the needs of one’s own generation. The seed of today’s ecological crises was planted intellectually at the very dawn of the industrial age, almost as a congenital defect of industrial development.

14The material and energy needs of an economy with division of labour and increasing automation created the necessary technical and logistical infrastructure (the transport networks, electricity grids, etc.) (cp. Richardsen, 1973). Division of labour is inconceivable without the rapid transport of people, semi-finished products, goods and commodities. Previously, in the agricultural and manufacturing economy, transport routes were very short, the places where people lived and those where they worked were very close together because of the way in which work was organised (Heady, 1952).

15Transport was also necessary for the basic raw materials of industrial production, and equally so for the semi-finished products, the goods and merchandise. It was only the advent of the economy of the division of labour that brought about the enormous increase in the demand for transport and logistics.  Previously, comparatively few, highly specialised goods – and rare luxury goods – were transported. Other goods were produced and used locally, and were often only seasonally available. It was unthinkable that the complete range of foods, including fresh fruit and vegetables, could be on offer in the shops. This only became possible as transport capacity was created.

16In this way, the demand for transport, the use of machines and the expansion of the infrastructure prompted continuous growth in the demand for sources of energy. This in turn created the conditions for energy dependency. Electrification, railway construction, the substantial expansion of coal mining, the rapid increase in steel production, and the development of oilfields at a faster rate than ever before, reflect this development.

Explanatory remark: The advent of urban transport using trams or railways with their own tracks (underground or elevated trains) is part of this worldwide development and demonstrates at the same time the regional development of industrialisation (Helmedach, 2002). The very first stretch of underground/overground railway line was opened in London in 1863. The following underground/overground railways were also opened in the 19th century (in each case the first stretch to open): New York 1867, Istanbul 1875, Chicago 1892, Liverpool 1893, Budapest 1896, Glasgow 1896, Boston 1897 and Vienna 1898. The Paris Metro was opened in 1900. The first electric tram service by Werner of Siemens ran in Lichterfelde, which was at the time not yet part of Berlin, in 1881 (Post, 2007).

4. Inequality: the decoupling of benefits and burdens

17By turns, energy intensity, the concentration of infrastructure, industrial growth and private and public consumption expanded explosively. In contrast, agriculture contracted in relative terms but, due to the high demand resulting from urbanisation and industrialisation, it too underwent a process of change to maximise production through mechanisation, specialisation and automation (Dobb, 1946).

18The continuing process of industrialisation and centralisation was accompanied by a process of decoupling and polarisation of social groups, and even entire regions and continents. Within states, but also worldwide, the gap between poor and rich grew. Increasingly, this gap served as a synonym for materially and industrially “developed”, and materially and industrially “underdeveloped”. In this situation, resource supply and resource consumption are often geographically diametrically opposed to each other. Entire continents became suppliers in order to sate the hunger of the developed industrial nations for energy and materials. These had already fallen victim to the ideology of growth and could no longer be satisfied.

19Thus, the material-based way of thinking slowly made headway, while the old ideas of spiritual understanding, integration with creation, and prayer were dubbed old-fashioned and obsolete. The old system of values crumbled (Weber, 1904, p. 60).

TABLE 1: GLOBAL POPULATION (since year 1000 AD 1000 – in millions)

TABLE 1: GLOBAL POPULATION (since year 1000 AD 1000 – in millions)

20The move towards the material was accompanied by huge worldwide population growth (Table 1) and a massive increase in the quantities of manufactured goods and of services. Although the number of people rose, the increase in manufactured goods and services rose out of all proportion to population growth (Table 2). For centuries the economy had remained at around the same level, with only limited movement. Now, with the onset of industrialisation, we can observe continuous growth (Table Tables 1 and 2 show in figures what it means when the material forces its way to the foreground. Table 2 shows, in addition, the shifting of economic weight brought about by this development.

TABLE 2: HISTORICAL STATISTIC FOR THE WORLD ECONOMY(1000- 2003, per Capita GDP - 1990 international geary – khamis dollars)

TABLE 2: HISTORICAL STATISTIC FOR THE WORLD ECONOMY(1000- 2003, per Capita GDP - 1990 international geary – khamis dollars)

21The exploitation of fossil energy drives this entire development. Coal production was first to be massively increased, followed by crude oil extraction from 1870, and this process continues to this day. The World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency expects a 20% rise in coal demand by 2035 and oil demand 18% higher than in 2010 (International Energy Agency, 2010, p. 77).

5. Energy availability and the role of infrastructures and urbanisation

22The availability of appropriate infrastructure (Jochimsen, 1966) is the material basis of development and depends directly on the supply of energy sources. On the one hand, infrastructure has an input effect on the development of an economy; on the other hand, it is expanded in tandem with the developing economy and adjusted to fit the increasing needs (Batten, Karlsson, 1997). Its extension can form part of the economy's growth itself. A classic distinction is made here between technical infrastructure (transport, supply, energy and telecommunications) and social infrastructure (education, health care system, judicial system, etc.). The technical and social infrastructures are interwoven and together form the framework within which an economy can develop. Only a balanced collaboration of all areas of infrastructure enables a smooth development that matches the living conditions. The infrastructure development of a country and its long-term income development are generally positively correlated and lead ultimately to further development of the society’s material foundation.

23The energy infrastructure has become the decisive variable in modern industrial or post-industrial cultures for the smooth functioning of all other areas of the infrastructure and thus of the “economy” and in turn of the “society”. Energy prices, constant availability, sufficient capacity and guaranteed energy supply have become the decisive parameters for economic development and location (Gordon, 1970). Access to primary energy sources and widespread distribution of useful energy sources, have gained strategic importance for the overall development of human societies. Currently, access to energy forms the physical basis for the whole range of society’s material existence.

24Modern infrastructure is capital intensive and, given the underlying basis of energy production and consumption, it requires urbanisation. Urbanisation and the booming of mega-cities are not the result of a worldwide increase in population, but essentially of increased economic efficiency, including the concentration of infrastructure and its supportive energy infrastructure. Infrastructure, energy density and urbanisation are mutually interdependent. In 1950 almost 30% of people resided in cities, in 2010 about half, and in 2050 an estimated 70% of the world population will be urban (UN/DESA, 2009). To achieve the required energy supply infrastructure, approximately $33 trillion will be needed by as early as 2035 (International Energy Agency, 2010, p. 77).

6. Interim recapitulation

25The different, mutually dependent phases, leading ultimately to urbanisation, can be divided into the following five stages: the starting point (stage 1) was the search for a reasonable existence in this life on earth. The tendency to look to the hereafter became weaker, life on earth gained in status. This led to the idea of organising processes as a whole more efficiently. Through division of labour and the subsequent specialisation (stage 2), this became a reality. The consequence of an economy based on the division of labour is that the processes of value creation must be separated spatially (stage 3). To make this at all possible in technical and organisational terms, the infrastructure for mobility had to be massively expanded (stage 4). It is, however, in the nature of capital-intensive infrastructure that it can only be run economically when many people use it. This economic efficiency benefit of the infrastructure leads to urbanisation (stage 5) and the concentration of working and living areas.

7. The rise in inequality among peoples and nations

26The emergence of industry at the beginning of the 19th century mostly occurred in the so-called West. The leaders of this trend were the UK and countries of continental Europe and the US (settled by Europeans). The other regions of the world did not have to the same extent the requisite political, cultural and historical conditions to construct an economy specialising in division of labour. From the beginning of the 19th century to today, there has been a huge gap between the real economic, material growth rates of Europe and North America on the one hand and those of the remaining regions of the world on the other (Polanyi, 1944).

27The resulting income gap throughout the world has also led to variations in capital formation. Europe and North America continue to become richer, while all other regions are falling behind in relative terms. Another cause of this intensifying effect is that the demand from Europe and North America for energy and raw materials is met by the other regions.

28One effect of colonialisation was that the formerly strong inland relations and trade infrastructure found in Africa, for example, were transected by arbitrarily drawn colonial borders. In place of the earlier inland infrastructure, the coastal regions became the focal point for a logistical infrastructure concentrated on exports to Europe. Formerly central areas with close ties to an agrarian structure declined into irrelevance, and harbours grew into regional power centres and revolving doors for trade in resources. All too often colonisation meant only the exploitation of the resources of that region. The greater capital formation in Europe and North America was indeed also invested to a limited extent in the undeveloped countries, but generally with the intention of organising the continued process of exploitation. And the colonial powers did not shy from the seizure of people: people were directly deported in the slave trade (Hobson, 1894). Despite a ban on the slave trade issued by the Vienna Congress in 1815, it took until late in the 19th century before this form of exploitation of countries that were not participating in industrialised growth came to an end. By that point, 40 million Africans had been abducted and enslaved.

29Table 3 gives examples of what colonisation meant for Africa in the historical trend of the development of GDP: in 1700 the GDP per head was 80% of that in North America and 41% of Western Europe; 200 years later, in 1900, this had sunk to 15% and 20%, respectively, and again 100 years later, in 2000, to 5% and 7%, respectively. Africa did not find its connection to the material global economy: first its people were deported and its resources exploited; later only those resources were exploited, a process that still goes on to this day, and the exploitation of its people now continues indirectly through debt pressure and global competition.  

TAB. 3: HISTORICAL RELATION (per Capita GDP Africa in relation to 12 European countries and to US – in %)

TAB. 3: HISTORICAL RELATION (per Capita GDP Africa in relation to 12 European countries and to US – in %)

TAB. 4: HISTORICAL RELATION (per Capita GDP Latin - America in relation to 12 European countries and to US – in %)

TAB. 4: HISTORICAL RELATION (per Capita GDP Latin - America in relation to 12 European countries and to US – in %)

30Similar developments, though less extreme than in the African case, can be seen in other disconnected regions around the world. Table 4 confirms that the same applies to Latin America and most Asian countries.

31Countries that were unable to keep up in the initial phase of industrial development (or didn’t want to) became increasingly disconnected from the demand for energy and forced into the role of offering their resources cheaply to the rich countries. The latter employed political means that they considered suitable to assert their demands for primary energy sources, generally crude oil, often using direct military force. As a result, the level of global energy intensity drifted further and further apart. In concrete terms, this means a difference in the amount of direct energy demand for daily consumption, and also a difference in the energy density of the products and capital goods consumed in the various countries.

32In 1944 in Bretton Woods, a world currency system was brought into being that further promoted an uneven growth of some countries at the expense of others. The second phase of industrialisation, starting around 1950 (cp. Pfister, 1995), was founded on the exploitation of irreplaceable fossil energy sources. The countries that had industrialised began to pump up their own prosperity in an ever more extreme fashion through accelerated consumption of the natural common goods – biodiversity, soil, climate, air, raw materials, and water. This massive increase in the unequal international distribution was only recognised very late in the advanced industrial countries. The first three decades were characterised by strong economic growth, even though it soon started to fall back. The view of these countries was clouded by reconstruction after WWII, participation of a greater proportion of the population in the growing material prosperity, and payment of development aid to developing countries, which tended, however, to promote their own growth rather than that of the recipient countries (cp. Sachs, 1993), but soothed their conscience. The variable distribution of prosperity around the globe was reflected in the energy consumption gradient.  

8. The ecological dilemma as the dawn of industrialisation

33With practically unlimited expansion of industrial production and technical infrastructure, the historically developed and now reciprocally legitimating geopolitical, sociocultural and economic strategies were materially established.

34With the expanding consumption of non-renewable resources, especially the fossil energy sources and their CO2 emissions, the energy- and materials-hungry industrial societies stimulate and create a situation that is irreconcilable with the fundamental spatial and material limits of planet Earth.

35Since the beginning of the 21st century, the urgent need to take action has spread around the world. This insight was forcefully imposed by the catastrophic potential ecological threats that were primarily created in the second half of the 20th century. The biological, material and energetic processes were so deformed by the industrial exploitation of the geo-bio-ecological balance that their dynamic compensation mechanisms have been negatively affecting human civilisation.

36The increasing pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, etc. further increases the warming of the climate system, and extreme weather events, shifting of the tropical rain belt, droughts, rising sea levels and the melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps have initiated the most dangerous ecological crisis since the origin of humanity. Clearing of forests, monoculture and agrarian overexploitation are followed by rapidly expanding landscape and soil degradation. The irreplaceable loss of freshwater supplies and damage to the water cycle, intensive animal husbandry, overfishing and acidification of the seas, and the reduction of biological and ecological diversity are destabilising all of humanity. Especially in the tropical and subtropical regions, where over two-thirds of humanity live, people are losing the essentials of survival.

37The life cycle that has lasted for millions of years, the evolutionary interaction of production and regeneration of nature, has cared for humanity for thousands of years. Now the upstream food chain is breaking down.

38These ecological effects are the result of an expansive economic growth strategy, which was only achieved on the foundation of extensive externalisation of the consequential costs. The cause of the crisis lies buried deep in the systems and processes of the modern economy.

39Economical (monetary) productivity was purchased on ecological credits, and ecological productivity was sold without consideration of its reproductive premises. The resolution of this conflict demands radical and far-reaching strategic changes in the nature and manner of our economy.

40But the irreversible reduction in diversity of human lifestyles and cultures has continued to restrict the scope of possible future strategies and lifestyles, necessary changes of direction and alternative paths of development, especially in the 20th century and up to the present day.

41The current problems in politics, the economy and society can be interpreted as rings of material and spiritual forces in the cultural body of humanity, as a clash between the spiritual pre-modern and the materialistic modern outlook.

Spiritual reversal: It is interesting that it is again French philosophers who at the most abstract level are the leading critics of the Modern in the world, as if French philosophy wants to put right the damage René Descartes and his followers did to the world about 350 years ago. Jean-Francoise Lyotard wrote around 1979: “The ‘crisis’ of scientific knowledge, the signs of which have been multiplying since the end of the 19th century, does not derive from a random proliferation of the sciences, which were themselves the outcome of the progress in technology and expansion of capitalism. It comes from the inner erosion of the principle of the legitimacy of knowledge” (Lyotard, 1979). Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault also belong to this French group of philosophers who want to show us the ways out of the Modern in postmodern society (Deleuze, 1968).



42The accumulating problems are now so evident on the material plane that hope is fading that another spiritual reversal will right the situation; especially on the material plane the need for action is urgent.

43The energy conflict and the global inequality in development opportunities are the driving forces of the global threats. The answer to the energy question together with the resolution of the global development conflict currently form the key conditions for sustainable development. However, without a new spiritual orientation, the dilemma cannot be solved.

9. The age of peak oil: production, consumption, perspective

44The worldwide energy supply in 2010 is still nearly 90 per cent derived from fossil energy sources (oil, natural gas and coal). In order to achieve comprehensive climate protection and to promote a sustainable economy, it is essential to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Although this has been know for decades, it is forseeable that fossil fuels will still be the main primary energy sources, from which our energy supplies are obtained, for too long (Table 5).

45According to estimates, the available reserves of fossil fuels are sufficient for a further 60 years approximately, in the case of crude oil and natural gas, and for approximately 230 years in the case of coal (Slaby, 2003). Other estimates are lower for crude oil and assume a statistical range of 45.7 years (2009 estimate of the oil company BP Plc) (BP, 2010). Total OPEC production will rise continuously for the next 25 years, according to the New Policies Scenario (International Energy Agency, 2010, p. 101) of the International Energy Agency.

46It should be noted that estimates of reserves have several input parameters, which are continually changing (Odell, 1976). If certain conditions apply the result will be an increase in the length of time before supplies are exhausted, while others result in a shorter period. In this regard, the parameters that predominate are those of which one can assume that they will develop in such a way that supplies will be available for longer than is currently estimated. One parameter is based on the technical methods currently available for extracting fossil energy sources. An improvement in these methods will increase the proportion of proven reserves that are economically viable. Currently only around one third of the crude oil present in deposits is extracted. The remaining oil is classified as being technically and economically unusable, and is left in the ground.

47Another parameter is the current price of energy. If it rises in relation to general price levels it suddenly becomes worthwhile spending more on looking for new energy sources (exploration) and extracting the energy found. The projected oil supply in the New Policies Scenario calls for cumulative investment along the entire oil supply chain of $8 trillion (in 2009 dollars) in 2010-2035 (International Energy Agency, 2010, p. 101). As it can be assumed that energy prices will continue to rise relative to other prices, it can also be presumed that the available reserves will last longer than currently expected.

48In considering the diverse possibilities of replacing fossil fuels with other energy sources, it is usually assumed, when estimating the reserves, that the proportional composition of the energy source mix will remain the same. Clearly, however, this will not be so for the near and medium term. The expansion of renewable energy sources will ensure a decline in demand for fossil fuels. In consequence, fossil energy sources will be available for longer at the resulting lower level of demand. A similar effect is achieved if the energy sources are replaced not by other energy sources but by investment in materials (e.g. better insulation instead of energy for heating) or in people (e.g. a two-litre car instead of an eight-litre car).

49Sometimes the debate on the economics of energy manages to avoid the physical realities for the time being. An “oil peak”, a peak in the net amount of oil-derived energy, is reached when the energy expended per unit volume of oil extracted is equal to, or higher than, the amount of energy that can be obtained from it. Offshore oil and tar sands can only be exploited at great expense. The costs of conversion to a suitable secondary energy source have increased enormously. The more expensive the extraction of oil becomes due to geological and physical factors, the more questionable it becomes to continue seeing oil as a source of energy. Only by looking through financial-economic spectacles can one overlook the fact that it might still be possible to make money in this way but that over time it will no longer be possible to extract energy.

50Therefore, in the final analysis it will be the energy demand variable that will truncate the period for which fossil fuel reserves will be available. Global primary energy demand is expected to be 36% higher by 2035 than in 2008 (International Energy Agency, 2010, p. 77). As such large and populous countries as Brazil, China and India are undergoing strong economic development and will experience substantial increases in energy use, it is difficult to underestimate the importance of this parameter. However, according to the World Energy Outlook 2010, 93% of the increase in global energy demand is for the account of the Non-OECD countries. Fossil fuels maintain their central role with a share of 74% in the primary energy mix projected for 2035 (International Energy Agency, 2010). In absolute numbers, total demand is increasing. Preliminary data from 2010 indicate China as the world´s biggest energy consumer (while China´s per-capita energy use is still one-third of the OECD average) (International Energy Agency, 2010, p. 87).

10. Allocation and global consumption of primary energy

51If we restrict worldwide inequalities to the use of available energy resources, we can see the following developments, which are shown in Table 6:



52A - Energy use is increasing continuously around the world. All energy saving efforts and other improvements are apparently compensated for by the higher energy consumption of emerging economies. Even in those countries where energy efficiency has been increased, so that more energy can be obtained from a smaller input of primary energy, energy use is also rising as a rule. The reason for this is the total higher level of consumption by the country’s inhabitants, which outweighs the energy savings achieved by improving the efficiency of primary energy use (Rebound Effect).

53Total world energy use virtually trebled between 1965 and 2008, and rose by almost 60% between 1985 and 2008. World electricity demand is projected to grow by 2.2% per year between 2008 and 2035, from 16.819 TWh to about 30.300 TWh, according to the New Policies Scenario of the International Energy Agency (International Energy Agency, 2010, p. 217).

54B - Per capita energy use is also growing continuously around the world. Global population growth is thus not the only cause of rising energy use. The new green movements that emerged after the oil crises of 1973/74 and 1979/80 had as their goal the reduction of energy consumption. A good 30 years later it is clear that in the regions of the world where these movements were particularly strong (western Europe and the USA), all they have achieved is to prevent per capita energy use from rising further. However, the high total consumption of both these regions, especially the USA, has been maintained. Greater energy efficiency prevented an increase in total consumption but a reduction in energy use to a global average level has not even been attempted, let alone achieved.

55C - The worldwide gap in per capita energy use is still extremely wide, but the “developing” countries are following the wealthy countries’ lead. In 1965 an inhabitant of the USA used around 25 times more energy than the average east Asian. In 2008 they only used around seven times more energy than an average east Asian (still a considerable difference). The reason for this is well-known: east Asian states are booming, resulting in huge growth in energy consumption.

56D - Economic growth in those countries that have a lot of catching up to do (e.g. Brazil, China, India and Russia) will cause a further rise in worldwide energy use in the coming decades. We can only expect to compensate for this by combining two courses of action:

571. The old, mature economies, whose economic growth started in the 19th century (USA and western Europe), reduce their energy consumption and thus give the emerging economies room for manoeuvre.

582. The huge worldwide expansion of renewable energy offsets growth in energy use and takes the place of fossil and nuclear energy sources.

11. Energy growth – an unsustainable development path

59If one considers the flipside of this rapid rise in the exploitation of resources, in particular fossil resources, which has been in progress since the 19th century, it is clear that the damaging consequences of worldwide industrialisation have been gradually exacerbated as the number of countries that have followed this development process has increased.  

60In view of the extremely high exploration and development costs of new oil reserves, there is a growing danger of the ecological effects and risks being ignored or played down. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could easily have been avoided if management considerations, which saw security measures on ecological grounds as a burden, had not resulted in the failure to install a system of safety valves. The tendency to overlook the immediate side effects and risks of fossil fuels tends to increase rather than diminish with rising cost pressures.

61It is thus possible to identify three areas: limits in the energy industry, consequences of environmental policy, and the implications of global politics. In all three areas conflicting interests can be found, of differing degrees of complexity, which together contribute to dangerous global destabilisation caused by the energy issue.

62Table 7 gives a detailed overview of the regional distribution and development over time of CO2 emissions, in order to make clear for the individual countries what efforts have been made or what reductions or increases are to be noted.



63The two countries that make the largest contributions to CO2 emissions, China (24.2%) and the USA (19.1%), demonstrate the overall problem of fossil energy use. On the one hand there is China, which is undergoing a major economic development to become a booming industrialised country. In 1965 China’s contribution to CO2 emissions was only 5.8%, while that of the USA was 31.6%. In common with the USA, nearly all mature industrialised countries have failed to make any significant reductions in their CO2 emissions in recent decades. If one considers the 17 countries that were responsible for more than 1% each of CO2 emissions worldwide (Table 7, right column, percentage in bold) and that together caused 76% of CO2 emissions in 2009, one can infer the following from the absolute figures: in only five of these 17 countries did CO2 emissions decline between 1995 and 2009 (Germany, Italy, France, Japan and the Russian Federation). In the other 12 countries, CO2 output in 1995 was lower than in 2009, meaning that reduction efforts had not yet taken effect over the 14-year period.

64The diverse societies of the world have not, however, got what they had hoped for in exchange for the ecological and climate changes, brought about at such a high cost and caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions. The long-standing positive correlation between energy use and prosperity only obtains to a limited extent.

65The Human Development Index (HDI) combines three components in one index: per capita income, life expectancy at birth and indicators for the level of education. This is an attempt to calculate a different indicator for the state of development of a country, instead of the unsuitable GDP indicator. The table opposite shows the countries at the top of the HDI rankings in relation to energy use per capita. Because the energy use per capita was not available for some countries or was wrongly delineated (for example, Belgium and Luxembourg were seen as a single entity for energy use but not in the HDI index), these are not included in the table.

66The table shows that a high HDI index is not necessarily positively correlated with high per capita energy use. Only in Norway, Canada and the USA are more than 7.5 tonnes of oil equivalent used per head per year. In all other countries, consumption is between 3.0 and 5.8 tonnes. This disproves the hypothesis that in highly developed countries increasing energy use is positively correlated with further improvements in a country’s development.

67The link between increased prosperity and global economic growth rates, which has held true for a long time, can no longer be maintained. Exponential GDP growth rates can nowadays not even be achieved through the consumption of resources. Growth in industrialised countries is already linear (Afheldt, 2004) and annual growth rates asymptotically approach zero, even though such countries are at a high level. Because of the great need to catch up, growth rates of 8% (like those in the period of European reconstruction after 1950) are still possible in developing countries over the short term, but they will subsequently drop rapidly. Continued resource consumption can no longer guarantee a country’s long-lasting exponential economic growth; it can only continue to reduce its ability to persist.  

68Fundamental wisdom, which is the same in nearly all cultures, remains unaffected. An example of this is the belief that prosperity and human happiness are to be found in human contact, in creative expression and in giving spiritual and empathetic care. In “The high price of materialism”, Tim Kassers confirms, by means of substantial empirical evidence, that the belief that a continuous increase in material wealth leads to a higher quality of life is mistaken, and that, as a rule, the opposite is true. Real prosperity “begins at the point where growth ends. Real prosperity, specific to individual human beings, is to derive pleasure from nature, from art, from beauty and from learning. It is houses with human proportions and towns with streets and squares where residents are happy to be; it is enjoyment of the pleasures of life, the ability of human beings to make something of themselves…, not least it is the revitalising of the human spiritual-cultural dimension, which is greatly stunted by the pursuit of ever-greater quantities of material goods” (Miegel, 2010).

69However, such an outlook might appear cynical to those who live in material poverty and who have no access to life’s daily essentials. For the large numbers of people who live in poverty around the world, the aim is to obtain the means of satisfying their material needs and of taking an active part in the development of the world’s cultures. Western civilisations have the task of learning to share, discovering anew lifestyles of material sufficiency, and restructuring their models of prosperity.

12. The decline of the Old World: responsibilities and conflicts

70The economic concept, whereby with the energy price level on the one hand and the possibility of externalising ecological oncosts on the other, a non-sustainable energy source can still have economic competitive advantages, is the central premise for continuing to safeguard the market position of fossil energy sources.

71In spite of all the scientific source material, whether from internationally-recognised climate and environmental research institutes, or from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), or whether it be the many extreme weather events and rising temperatures of recent years, politicians and company executives have still not got it into their heads that the quality of life and the very lives of the majority of people on planet Earth are threatened by eco-climatic change.

72When we consider the immediate ecological consequences, it is clear that the real worldwide problems of the environment and the politics of resources caused by the use of fossil fuels have not yet been properly addressed. The warming of the Earth’s climate has far greater consequences for the population patterns and structures of food production and distribution of nearly seven billion people around the world than ecological consequences closely tied to oil reserves, availability of other resources and CO2 emissions. The migration of agricultural areas, crop failures, floods and many other factors will cause worldwide migratory movements and conflicts, the first of which can already be observed. The CO2-intensive industries and lifestyles of western European-style models of prosperity are chiefly responsible for this.

Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases from 0 to 2005 and Global Temperature Time Series

Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases from 0 to 2005 and Global Temperature Time Series

Source: IPCC, 2007

73It is clear that there is still insufficient appreciation of the extent and importance of the environmental political effects of the increasingly intensive use of fossil energy sources. The material and energy hungry Euro-American consumption models continue to be exported and marketed fervently all over the globe. There is still no substantive worldwide political will for a massive reduction in energy and resource use. Hard facts indicate that in most countries we can only see as lip-service the political tub-thumping about reductions in CO2 load and the assertions on climate-friendly policies. It is time to consign to history the failure of the politics and economies of the second half of the 20th century to create a just world with a global distribution of prosperity and the excessive consumer frenzy of the industrialised societies with its fatal consequences.

74In a time when it might be possible for a large number of previously insufficiently developed countries successfully to complete their escape from poverty, it is clearly evident that the necessary energy cannot possibly be allowed to be derived from fossil sources. This consequence leads to a structural confrontation between the interests of the old, highly developed industrialised countries and the new, up-and-coming emerging economies. The old industrialised countries enjoy housing and infrastructure that are already well-developed and that depend on high and continuing energy input. Developing countries and emerging economies have their eyes on a similar standard of living. However, they have to realise that the expansion process in the industrialised countries has, for at least 200 years, placed such a heavy burden on the world climate due to the use of fossil resources that other countries are barred from following a similar kind of development path. Developing and emerging countries rightly point to the fact that the industrialised countries were and continue to be the largest consumers of energy and producers of CO2 emissions. Furthermore, the global ecological burden that has steadily accumulated over the past 200 years was to a large extent caused by the industrialised countries. The less developed countries must also note that the old industrialised countries can maintain their level of consumption, which other countries still want to reach, only through continuing high energy input and CO2 output. Even an efficiency revolution cannot save the situation, as rebound effects will compensate the successes.

75Fossil energy systems must and will be phased out.

13. Patterns for solutions: depowering old thinking – empowering sustainability

76There is no question that the future belongs to renewable energy.

77Planet Earth’s entire energy system is driven by means of solar radiation. Water, wind or photovoltaic power – they all derive their initial energy from the solar radiation that reaches the Earth. The productive power of the biosphere is equally solar powered. The fossil energy stores of the Earth, too, originate from solar energy of millions of years past stored in biogenic carbon compounds. When these compounds are consumed, the CO2 bound within them is rapidly emitted into the atmosphere, with all the resulting ecological consequences for the whole of life on Earth. A few economic players have profited hugely from this form of energy exploitation in recent decades, but the majority of people have not. With the creation of a powerful infrastructure and the accumulation of economic and lobbying might, these profiteers have also managed, in a relatively short time, to consolidate their economic and political influence in infrastructure. In future, however, energy production will no longer have to depend on the centralised infrastructure of a few energy companies and states.

78The political interests that will no longer be needed in the future are providing the opposition that must be overcome. This is because, as Hermann Scheer said, future energy forms will no longer depend on the centrally managed infrastructure of the major energy companies. Decentralisation and polycentric energy systems will increasingly replace centralised energy production. The resistance of today’s players, who still monopolise the existing infrastructure, will slowly evaporate in the face of the new possibilities for energy production. This is where the solution to global inequality of development potential will also lie. Energy economic dependencies can be overcome if energy can be produced regionally and locally. Solar energy has no market price. The sun provides it for free and it just needs to be collected. The system of life once again develops that which the evolution of living things has always supported: a dynamic balance on the basis of the cooperative integration of the forms and conditions of life at local and regional level.

14. Life principles: sustainability, diversity and polycentric solutions

79Natural capital is the baseline for the economical creation of value. However, sustainability is still not a relevant factor for competitive success in economic contests. A new perception of market risks is needed in order to adjust relevant market mechanisms. Only long-term ecological lifecycle costs at systemic levels of economic activity and their ecological impacts are able to demonstrate true economic performance. In consequence, it is necessary to ban externalisation as an agent of competitive success. In addition, the forceful implementation of a statutory duty is needed for the internalisation of externalised ecological costs in the value-added chain.

80The productivity of ecosystems varies globally, regionally and locally very widely. Local and regional conditions all over the world are formed by ecological and cultural, as well as socio-political diversity. The socio-cultural and economical terms and conditions are accordingly different. This results in the necessity of a pluralistic as co-operative creation of value, incorporating subsistence economy, market economy, and civil society. Pluralistic economies are needed, in close international co-operation, and which are aware of the value of local and regional distinctiveness.

81Many ecological, social, economic and political conflicts and instabilities, including especially access to energy, resources and education, are the result of a lack of infrastructure. The systematic and broad build-up and linking-up of infrastructure at all levels, from regenerative energies, through communication, mobility and logistics, pharmaceutics, and education, will strongly foster the dynamic stabilisations of international and regional economies. Sustainable infrastructure needs to be oriented towards polycentric solutions, following the ecological archetype by co-operatively integrating decentralised and centralised designs, in order to achieve a dynamic balance between centrality and decentrality (according to regional and ecological premises, population density...).

15. Exit to enter: distributive justice

82Sustainability requires a balance in the distribution relationships between the regions, nations and continents. “The balance of international distribution requires that every economy avoid imbalances in foreign trade by producing essentially to meet its own needs and only trading any surpluses that may result” (Scherhorn, 2010). Aristoteles had already defined clear rules for all independent economic entities with their own production, their own borders and their own budgets (from the home economy in the ancient world to modern economics): “Unlike the company, it should not produce for profit but to meet its own needs, and it should avoid being dependent on the export of goods and services just as much as it avoids being dependent on imports. A long-term export surplus is just as damaging for foreign trade relations as a long-term import surplus.” According to Polanyi , this distinction between foreign trade relations and market relationships is “perhaps the most prophetic piece of advice that has ever been given in the field of social sciences” (Polanyi, 1944). A new, balanced economic order must be complemented by an effective distribution policy, in order to sweep away the massive international imbalances in access to those goods that are essential to daily life. The last decades distorted what an economy could be. To restrict markets to an expansive financial capitalist idea of short-term maximisation of commercial and financial profits is alien to an intelligent concept of a market. Empathy and freedom seem to be adequate to serve as a pure ethical base for an economy. Without such a normative base, it is possible to argue that nearly everything is unchangeable. Provided that empathy is not sufficient yet, the policy must enforce with power for distributive justice in the face of the few who stand in the way of access to life’s essentials for the many.

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List of illustrations

Title TABLE 1: GLOBAL POPULATION (since year 1000 AD 1000 – in millions)
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Title TABLE 2: HISTORICAL STATISTIC FOR THE WORLD ECONOMY(1000- 2003, per Capita GDP - 1990 international geary – khamis dollars)
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Title TAB. 3: HISTORICAL RELATION (per Capita GDP Africa in relation to 12 European countries and to US – in %)
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Title TAB. 4: HISTORICAL RELATION (per Capita GDP Latin - America in relation to 12 European countries and to US – in %)
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Credits Tab. No. 51 (consulted on 11.11.2010
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Title Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases from 0 to 2005 and Global Temperature Time Series
Credits Source: IPCC, 2007
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Cite this article

Electronic reference

J. Daniel Dahm and Stephan Bannas, “The decline of the Fossil Age is the rise of distributive justice”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], Policy Briefs | Working Papers, Online since 24 February 2011, connection on 29 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

J. Daniel Dahm

J.Daniel Dahm is a geographer, ecologist and anthropologist. His field of expertise range from sustainability and globale ecology to theory of science, and from civil society development to ecological economics and development policies. He was fellow for Science in Innovation at the Natural History Museum, London, for many years research fellow of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy, and research leader at the Institute for Household and Consumer Economics of the University of Hohenheim. In addition, he is founder of the 'goodgoods. The sustainable consumer goods show' in Hamburg and chairman of the Expert Committee. Daniel Dahm holds various positions in NGOs and foundations, e.g. he is member of the advisory board of the Federation of German Scientists, member of the German Association of The Club of Rome, curator of the Utopia Foundation, Chairman of the jury for the Internorga Future Award, Co-founder of the Desertec Foundation. He is author of numerous publications in the field of sustainable development.

Stephan Bannas

After a study of Economic Sciences, Catholic Theology and Philosophy Stephan Bannas worked as an European political and economical advisor. His focal tasks were technology planning and energy economics. After that he worked as a High–Tech–Consultant in Studies on Spin–off effects of the Space–Technology and build up his own business group in Finance-management and the Tax Adviser Industry. Stephan Bannas published several books: one book on the subject of the energy politics of the United states, one book for German tax advisers on the subject of Business Consulting in the tax adviser practice. Two more book are concerned with his theoretical national economic work, which investigates the relation between economic development, the wealth and happiness of nations and the economic regularity. Stephan Bannas is laureate of the Theodor Wessels Preis, an award of the alumni of the Institute of Energy Economics at the University of Cologne.

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