Brave, Poor Europe!

Abbreviated version of a chapter from my new book, “The Predictable Collapse of Techno-Civilization,” published in English translation on Amazon.

Wedged between two superpowers, the old continent is seen by the U.S. and Russia only as an overconfident trouble­maker and annoying competitor. As an idealistic admonisher, Europe is used to raising its voice much louder than its actual power allows.[2] Certainly, Europe can still boast of granting its population more democratic freedoms than most other states. The concert of conflicting opinions and convictions resounds louder – and often shriller – here than anywhere else. But idealism often appears too mantra-like in its invocation of values.

First and foremost, this idealism now concerns putting an end to fossil economy. I would like to conclude by paying special attention to this topic, because it illuminates the contrast between historic Europe of the past two hundred years and the Europe of the present century. How will Europeans survive the shift away from fossil energy?

The decisive role played by these energies in Europe’s rise to the status of a world power is beyond doubt. In global perspective, England was an insignificant island until the 18th century, before it began to use coal on a large scale. A hundred years later, Germany caught up with and eventually surpassed the British world power because it exploited its own huge reserves of coal. Europe’s rise would never have taken place without the ex­ploitation of this energy reservoir. Its amazing inventions would simply have remained without effect – as ineffective as, for example, in China, a state that was also richly blessed with inventions centuries before fossil revolution.

With access to underground coal deposits hidden in the ground until then (coal had already been mined near the ground in wood-poor England), a radically new perspective was opened. The curve of the national product soared so-to-speak overnight. While the global GNP – converted into 1990 U.S. dollars – was still around 650 billion around 1800, it had tripled to 1.98 trillion by 1900. At $28 trillion around 1990, global GNP expanded fourteenfold in less than a single century (Maddison).

This trend pretty much mirrors the exponential increase in world energy consumption (variously composed of hydro, wind, biomass, coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, etc., depending on the stage of industrial development). In 1800, this consumption amounted to about 400 million tons of oil equivalents. One hundred years later, it was already 1.9 billion tons, almost five times as much. In the next ninety years, until 1990, consumption increased by a factor of sixteen to 30 billion tons (McNeill). A peculiarity of exponential growth is its constant acceleration: It starts slowly and then gets faster and faster. This explains why half of all fossil energy ever used (as well as half of all fossil CO2 ever produced) has been burned (emitted) in the last 35 years.[3]

The connection between the two exponential curves should be obvious. Of course, coal and oil would never have come to fruition without the invention of the steam engine, diesel engine and later the electric motor and fossil power stations. But conversely, these machines have been able to make their triumphal march solely because mankind had in the meantime lit the fossil fire. Industrial revolution and the use of fossil raw materials form an indissoluble unity. And, of course, this also applies to the increase in the world’s population over the past two hundred years. The eightfold increase would be inconceivable without the fossil turnaround.

This insight inevitably leads to the question, of what fate awaits Europe if it decides to stop using the very treasure that made its world-historical success possible in the first place? What kind of future can we expect if we abandon the further use of fossil sources – fist of all the burning of coal, which is particularly harmful to the environment?

The consequences of abandoning coal can no longer be overlooked. Europe, above all its industrial powerhouse Germany, is becoming dependent on gas, but gas must be imported – for the most part either from Russia or the United States. The reserves available on European territory are not sufficient for its supply – and what is more, they will be exhausted in the foreseeable future. This is a radically new situation.  Two hundred years ago, it was the wealth of domestic deposits that enabled Europe’s incredible rise; now it is the forced abandonment of domestic (coal) deposits that offers a very different perspective, namely the pre-programmed downward spiral of the old continent.

The old continent is already caught in between two energy-rich superpowers, neither of which will be willing to give up the use of fossil energies any sooner than Europe itself. As a military power capable of standing up to Russia and the United States, Europe barely exists anyway. But now it is additionally weakened because the survival of its industries – the basis of its wealth – is directly dependent on the good will of the two superpowers. If they turn off the gas tap, the lights will go out; the local economy will face existential risk, without the two powers themselves suffering an equal amount of damage (for them the elimination of European competition in global markets would even be beneficial).

Donald Trump had seen through the dependence and impotence of Europe and therefore proposed to his compatriots that the United States withdraw their support of NATO, the protective transatlantic alliance. To the American president NATO was no more than a burden without any advantage for the United States because it is they – on this point one can hardly disagree with him – that bear the main burden of defense. Meanwhile the Europeans prefer to strengthen their economy while the European intelligentsia likes to feel morally superior to Americans. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, tried to undo the damage, but that has done little to change Europe’s irrelevance in the global power poker. Politicians in France and Germany have got the message, they are calling for an independent European military force, as the U.S. can no longer be relied upon.

Is there any prospect of its realization, given that the two superpowers can so easily thwart such ambitions by simply turning off the gas tap?[4] Leaving aside all the internal squabbles that have plagued the multiethnic European Union from the beginning, the new emergence of a world power Europe drawing on the energy of its rivals for its very survival must be considered highly improbable.

But if this is so, what will happen to a weakened Europe, which will have to assert itself not only against the two superpowers, but against the emerging world power China as well, which, due to its great economic clout, can draw resources from all continents?

A preliminary – hopefully not final – answer to this question is already available. King coal is on the march again. “Today, coal is the world’s fastest growing energy source” (Bardi 2013). If competing nations want to maintain let alone increase their standard of living, they cannot give up fossil fuels. Not even coal, unless they can switch to gas, oil, or nuclear energy instead. But to save the environment (not just the climate), all countries must give up pollution-causing coal first, and then all other fossil fuels and, of course, nuclear energy. Left to their own devices, they will not be able to do so. Being caught up in the unholy race of nations for greater economic and military power, they will not be willing to accept a much lower lifestyle compatible with renewable energy. That means that our relent- and merciless progress will finally drive them to collapse.We cannot avoid the conclusion that only a world government can force all of us to reduce resource consumption and waste production. Once such an authority is established, we may even hope that the pursuit of power – military and otherwise – will no longer be man’s primary concern. Even if at present this seema to be an unlikely perspective, even beauty and philanthropic ethics could once again play an important role.

[1] On his visits to the USA Umberto Eco lamented this mentality and made fun of it in an ironic way.

[2] I therefore agree with the ancient historian David Engels when he sketches the following perspective for the future: “We should accept the strengthening of the central power of the European Union as inevitable and promote the reshaping of its institutional structure at the expense of regionalism and nationalism”. We should be aware of “the advantages that the Mediterranean experienced under the rule of the emperors of the 2nd century A.D.” Despite the abandonment of the democratic ideal, this period was described by Edward Gibbon as >the happiest and most productive in human history<” (Engels, 2012).

[3] See William E. Rees (2019).

[4] Replacing gas with nuclear power is no alternative. France and many other countries continue to use nuclear energy, but its total share of the world’s electrical energy supply is only slightly more than ten percent. Apart from the fact that nuclear energy is at least as dangerous to the environment, nuclear supply cannot be expanded significantly. The mining of the remaining uranium deposits will soon consume more energy than is generated by its use (see Bardi 2013).