The Vicuna of Tomorrow: The justice of fossil fuels – Michael LaBelle

The energy policies adopted during the current decade (1970s) will determine the range of social relationships a society will be able to enjoy by the year 2000.

Ivan Illich, 1974

Mapping the energy consumption since the 1970s indicates we chose a high consumption route with low social benefits. An equitable energy transition requires observation of overall consumption of our energy resources. Regardless of energy technologies, whether powered by fossil fuels or the sun’s rays, social inequality is dependent on society’s ability to ensure an equitable consumption of resources. Certain groups, whether divided by country, region or social strata, need to ensure an equitable range of consumption. Rather than seeing our natural resources as limitless, we need to perceive the consumption of these resource as finite as time. Even if these resources exist in the future, we threaten the viability of the future by over consuming our resources. 

Framing our present climate crisis, we can consider society borrowed against the future of the environment and society. We are now stuck in a downward spiral dealing with the effects of climate change due to the overconsumption of fossil fuels. Another view from the 1970s is provided by Kurt Vonnegut in his book Jailbird, which is when the main character recounts the story of the tragedy of how life ended on another planet.

But they ran out of time on Vicuna, he says. The tragedy of the planet was that its scientists found ways to extract time from topsoil and the oceans and the atmosphere – to heat their homes and power their speedboats and fertilize their crops with it; to eat it; to make cloches out of it; and so on. They served time at every meal, fed it to household pets, just to demonstrate how rich and clever they were. They allowed great gobbets of it to putrefy to oblivion in their overflowing garbage cans. 

“On Vicuna,” says the judge, “we lived as though there were no tomorrow”

.…But by the time he was fifty, only a few weeks of future remained. Great rips of reality were appearing everywhere.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird. 1979, p 100

Looking back over the past 50 years provides us with a clear picture of the choice humans took. They burnt the fossil fuels to speed up economic development and live like there was no tomorrow. It was the pursuit of fast economic development with an understanding that this type of energy consumption was lifting millions out of poverty. The perspective of the past fifty years can be seen in the total energy consumption in Figure 1, China, India and many other developing countries rely on fossil fuels to create economic growth and improve society. Through this narrative it seems governments did not have a choice but to build a fossil fuel energy system. Looking at the choices made it is only recently that renewables begin to tick upward while only coal begins to level off. 

Figure 1 2018 Global Energy Consumption1

The scientists have found more and more efficient ways to extract fossil fuels from the Earth. Most recently, this is in the form of shale gas using hydraulic fracturing technologies to create fissures of natural gas and oil. This technique ensures lower economic costs and a perpetuation of fossil fuels as the main driver for many national economies. The United States switched from being an oil and gas importer to exporter because of this technology. The prosperity of countries and society is dependent on these fossil fuels and the business of science behind it. The fossil fuel economy moves ahead regardless of the impact on future generations. Just like on the planet Vicuna, we live as there is no tomorrow and only now we begin to see the rips of reality in the form of disappearing icecaps, desertification, and firestorms consuming towns.

Human Development and our Energy Footprint

The Jesuit priest, Ivan Illich outlined the choices we had in the 1970s. He laid out two scenarios for society to take which would determine how we live in the year 2000. Similar to the projections of the International Energy Agency (IEA), he provides a ‘low energy policy’ which allows for a wide choice of lifestyles and cultures. The second scenario is a ‘high energy consumption’ where social relations are “dictated by technocracy and will be equally distasteful whether labelled capitalist or socialist.”2

The low-energy policy ascribes to a rationed approach to energy consumption with an upper national limit, thereby ensuring greater energy efficiency and a higher level of equity for society. The upper echelons of society must also limit energy use just as the lower (or even 90%) portion of society limits their energy consumption due to cost. Social well-being is connected to per capita energy use. However, for a low energy route, there needs to be a limited use by elites of their energy consumption, with resource management and a “thermodynamic thrift” for industry. Low energy consumption by all of society (and industry), according to Illich, produces a more equitable energy system

Looking back the world chose the high energy scenario in pursuit of economic and social development. No limits on consumption and behavior akin to the planet Vicuna where our use of oil-based plastics is akin to our overflowing garbage cans with plastic packaging and objects. Our present wealth derives from our scientific discoveries which opens up an equity gap where the seen route to economic and social prosperity is to also participate in the pursuit of consumer goods, rather than the pursuit of equity.

In 2000 Illich’s choice can be shown. The connection of economic growth to the use of energy can be seen as coupled with energy consumption and economic output. Represented by the connection between MWh of consumed energy compared to the Total Primary Energy Footprint (TPEF) of a country. Accounting for a country’s footprint is “a well-established method to trace the total resource needs and environmental impacts of a country’s consumption”3 In the below map we can see the degrees countries have and have not decoupled their economic growth from energy consumption. 

Figure 2 Map of decoupling economic growth from energy consumption3

The identification for the threshold for the energy footprint aligns with Illich’s identification of “the need for limits on the per capita use of energy must be theoretically recognized as a social imperative.”2 The disparity in the 1970s were identified by comparing the energy in transport. “250 million Americans allocate more fuel than is used by 1,300 million Chinese and Indians for all purposes.”2 The dramatic economic growth of China and India since the 1970s can be seen by the huge increase of energy production and consumption, so that by 2014 these countries economic growth were directly connected to their energy consumption. To economically grow the economies through a quick route required a tremendous scaling up of energy production to deliver economic growth for their societies. While the developed countries also pursued this route, they are now leveling off and decoupling this growth.

This macro perspective of the GDP to energy footprint ratio covers up the internal disparities between the elites of each country and the dipropionate consumption of energy. If in the 1970s, the disparity was observable at the macro perspective between countries, in the 2000s the internal disparities even in developing countries is observable. But so too are the huge transport networks in China and India observable for moving the population around at a quick pace. The impact of the choice made in the 1970s in the year 2000 is clear. The world chose the high energy scenario leaving huge inequalities at global and local scales. This inequality now spreads into the future for generations who must grapple with our overconsumption of fossil fuels like there was no tomorrow. 

The tragedy for our Earth, reframing Vonnegut’s perspective of events on Vicuna, was the technological developments that resulted in the mining of time through fossil fuel extraction. There are two central ways to assess an equitable energy transition. Drawing from Sen, these central ethical issues for the analysis of equality are: “(1) Why equality? (2) Equality of what?” To date the representation in the above map indicates the spatial inequality of countries and who has and who is consuming unsustainable levels of fossil fuels. The pursuit to decouple energy consumption from economic growth is perceived to be the pinnacle of a sustainable energy system. The goals of 2050 to be ‘carbon neutral’ are held up by politicians, scientists and the believers in climate change as a means to save our Earth. This argument answers Sen’s first question, ‘why equality?’ This question was important in the 1970s when we could have chosen a low or high energy scenario. Fifty years later, this question is moot. 

Equality of Time

The question now is, ‘Equality of what?’ Because for Sen, different perspectives lead to different views on equality “liberties, rights, utilities, incomes, resources, primary goods, need-fulfillments, etc.”4 Sen sets off his approach from the notion of a ‘utility function’ where the gain of liberty for someone is due to the loss of liberty for another. Nonetheless, through Illich’s interpretation and considering the one system’s approach of the Earth, there is a cap on natural resources and a limit to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. The distinction is important, as there may not be a utilitarian limit to liberties and rights for people, but there is a limit to natural resource consumption. The technological methods may differ – consumed in a car, factory or power plant, but energy consumption is tied to the amount consumed in a period of time. The faster the consumption the faster the economic development, and in all countries – at some point in time – the closer we come to running out of time to retain a biodiverse ecosystem supporting life.

The discussion needs to shift from a spatially uneven development of Earth’s societies and resources – since the Earth is one system not restricted by fences and border guards. Now the question is one of uneven remaining time on this Earth. As the Climate Change cycle speeds up, floods, drought and temperature shifts, the spatially uneven process is not one of economic development but retention of habitable living areas. Coastal zones are reclaimed by the sea, forested areas burn while shifting temperatures zones alter how people live and influence whether they can stay in their homes. 

The question in the 2020s is Equality of time, not equality of place. Like the creatures of Vicuna, we’ve ate, burned, polluted and drank our future away. There is always a future, but in fifty years we just consumed the future health of all beings on Earth. The hang-over from this era of over consumption is now upon us. Spatially inequality is marked by not only who has benefited the most from fossil fuel consumption, but which communities can stay intact and in-place. 


Our global society lived like there is no tomorrow. The energy policies adopted since the 1970s, emphasizing fossil fuel use, were backed by powerful technological developments and political guidance to ensure economic development over sustainable development of the Earth’s resources. Inequality increased as countries and societies saw the rise of elites consuming unsustainable levels of energy and products. The social inequality we examine is not caused by the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but through the consumption of fossil fuels to power a hyper-environmentally unsustainable economic development. The energy system, including transport and manufacturing, is created to ensure higher income social groups are able to benefit from low energy prices and in turn low cost consumer goods trickling down in the form of used clothes, appliances and polluting second or third-hand cars. What we perceive as wealth in our garbage cans or recycling bins, of mountains of plastic and discarded food, is paid for by our common future. 

As Vonnegut puts the nearing collapse of Vicuna, “.…But by the time he [the judge] was fifty, only a few weeks of future remained. Great rips of reality were appearing everywhere.”5 With these great rips of reality seen in our changing Earth from the extinction of species to melting polar ice caps, comes a more fundamental debate over the inequality of time rather than spatial inequality. We should not see we have thirty years to finally build an equitable energy system by eliminating CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Rather we need to implement three key steps to repair the rips in time: First, repair the environmental damage over the past fifty years when we chose a high energy scenario. Second, we need to build a low-energy system that is equitable by reducing over consumption by the ‘haves’ and assist the ‘have nots,’ so all groups equally draw from the same resource budget, and not utilize the future’s resources. And finally, stop fooling ourselves that we can have a technological fix to our energy requirements. Social values and the value we place on environmental resources must change. Social inequality is not caused by a shortage of natural resources, but the distribution of these. Distribution relies on humans and their social institutions. The collapse of Vicuna was because they ate their time, it seems we’ve eaten ours.


1Jenkins, Kirsten E.H., Benjamin K. Sovacool, Andrzej Błachowicz, and Adrián Lauer. “Politicising the Just Transition: Linking Global Climate Policy, Nationally Determined Contributions and Targeted Research Agendas.” Geoforum 115 (October 2020): 138–42.

2Illich, Ivan. Energy and Equity. Great Britain: Calder and Boyars Ltd., 1974.

3Akizu-Gardoki, Ortzi, Gorka Bueno, Thomas Wiedmann, Jose Manuel Lopez-Guede, Iñaki Arto, Patxi Hernandez, and Daniel Moran. “Decoupling between Human Development and Energy Consumption within Footprint Accounts.” Journal of Cleaner Production 202 (November 2018): 1145–57.

4Sen, Amartya. Inequality Reexamined. Oxford University Press, 1995.

5Vonnegut, Kurt. Jailbird. The Dial Press, 1979.

The Balconies of Lives: Representing Eastern European Energy

What is energy? This broad question is one I tackle each day. And for each person, it means different things. In the social sciences, I like to say it is the way we go about our day. How we live, how we move, and what we consume. It is not only in the physical consumption and use of energy, but how the environment around us responds to our habits, desires, and ways of living.

The task to represent what energy is, and what this means through a cultural lens just became harder for me. Now, after finishing my book, ‘Energy Cultures’, focused on Eastern Europe it is with the publisher, Edward Elgar. But I still have the task of finding and choosing the cover image. I’ve selected a few with two described below.

This first picture is of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Visaginas Lithuania. This is a great picture because it represents both the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union. It is in Lithuania, a former USSR republic. And it shows the planned industrial architecture of the nuclear power plant and the surrounding nature neatly manicured around the industrial facility. Lithuania, now an EU member state, symbolizes both the dramatic political-economic changes of the region, but also a reorientation of the society.

The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Visaginas, Lithuania. Screenshot from Adobe Stock, since I didn’t pay for it.

The second picture, and the one I’ll probably go with, shows a typical modern residential building in Wroclaw, Poland. What struck me here was the representation of the built infrastructure and the everyday energy consumption of the people. It is in our daily lives that we create a culture, and we create our own energy cultures through our lived experiences, even when we don’t think about it. The utilitarian building here with the recessed balconies is reminiscent of the panel houses dominate in Eastern Europe. Each apartment displays a limited but functional living space. The lack of expression of individuality in these buildings also confines the inhabitants to a defined way of living. Shading on the side of the building, bars on the railings, provide a representation of jail constraining the dwellers.   

Building in Wroclaw, Poland Source: Wiktor Karkocha

It turns out the focus on balconies also caught the attention of documentary filmmakers. ‘Enter Through the Balcony’ provides a more in-depth perspective of the conversion of balconies in Ukrainian life. The trailer does a good job of capturing this push for more personal space and against the structure imposed by the state. That is, by the state giving people accommodation, they needed to accept smaller living spaces. But in their everyday lives, they pushed out for more space and representation of how they live, despite what architects and the state-imposed on them.

Representing cultural practices in the energy system only requires looking at two sides of how people live and what they do. There is surface level practices, such as how people drive, walk, or take a bus. But there are also the deeper structures that force people to live their lives or influences their choices of transport modes. Such as government funding for roads or public transport. Even deeper is understanding the interplay between government funding and ownership and interests in transport companies or relations between countries and firms. For example, Russian nuclear power plants provide huge amounts of electricity to power public transport and reduce oil imports. Under the Soviet System, when nuclear technology was essentially free and used as a geopolitical tool (as it is today) but oil could be used for generating hard currency, the choice of energy infrastructure also influenced the types of transport available for people. Restrictions on buying cars also limited personal transport options. The cultural practices of society were influenced by the energy infrastructure.

Energy, and understanding, ‘What is energy?’ provides the means to explore and engage with our everyday lives. This engagement exposes the role of the state and the power of those leading the state. It also shows what society expects and accepts in their everyday. The built environment and our balconies are only one representation of this. But how to represent this in one picture or one object? How do we succinctly represent our everyday practices? Maybe I can just use a picture of me on my Budapest balcony where I write in every season but winter. In the early spring and late fall an electric heater helps me start the day. Thus, even the production of this blog represents the production of own everyday energy culture in Eastern Europe.

My writing space in my Budapest veranda. With pre-socialist windows.

Not so Fast! The Carter Doctrine and cheap oil in the Covid-19 era

The tremendous economic and security gains the United States made in domestic oil and gas production in the past 10 years fostered a global power rebalancing. The withdrawal of the US military from the Middle East corresponds to the rising US self-sufficiently in oil and gas. Shale oil and gas underpin this dramatic reconfiguration. According to Tina Soliman Hunter, Professor of Energy, Environment, and Resources Law, at Macquarie Law School, University of Macquarie, this disengagement may now end. The once spurned US military protectorate of the Middle East may hold renewed value to ensure a global economic recovery and benefit US shale oil producers.

The Covid-19 economic collapse created a price plunge of global oil and gas prices. Marked by negative oil prices in April 2020. The overall trend moved from above $50 a barrel, to a June 2020 price of somewhat above ten dollars. Before the pandemic the US had recently become the top oil and gas producer in the world, reliant on hydraulic fracturing technologies to extract oil and gas from the plentiful shale formations. This performance created a pricing band for global oil which the US could influence from its production capacity. The theory was global oil prices would be influenced by this shale pricing band.

Professor Tina Soliman Hunter, Professor of Energy, Environment, and Resources Law, at Macquarie Law School, University of Macquarie in Australia

The rapid and swift drop in global oil and gas resulted in the band breaking. Low prices now favor those with conventional oil wells, which can’t easily stop the flow of oil out of tapped wells. Middle Eastern producers sit at the bottom of the pricing scale. The cheap oil of the region may now be more valuable to sustain a weakened global economy and necessitate the US military presence to ensure access and low prices for US and global consumers. For Professor Soliman Hunter, it is a return to the Cold War era of the Middle East limiting external interference in the region.

Support for the traditional US oil allies of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait means a reassertion of the Carter Doctrine. A doctrine that followed previous policies but was elucidated by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.  The doctrine states the US will use military force to keep out external influence. In the 1980s this was aimed at the Soviet Union after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Looking at the Middle East today, and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria both the determination to exert influence and the retreat of this intent are apparent.

There is an almost corresponding rise of US as a major oil and gas producer with its declining role in the Middle East. It is hard to separate the actions of the US and whether President Trump blew this agreement up for the hatred of foreign US engagement and international coalitions, or because of the US self-sufficiency in oil and gas. Nonetheless, Middle Eastern dynamics around military engagement and the price of oil and gas were shifting under President Obama. In addition, the shale revolution underpinned the US economic recovery after the 2008 financial crisis. Keeping oil and gas cheap. Is it possible a similar cheap fossil fuel policy will underpin the Covid-19 economic recovery?

Source: EIA, 2019

According to a Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas report, the US may be reliant more on sustained investment into the oil and gas sector, rather than low prices. With limited ability of consumers to take advantage of low prices, due to stay-at-home orders, and a general curtailment of economic activity, low energy prices hold limited benefits for the economy. Rather, it may be the lack of financial spending in the oil and gas sector that will reduce economic activity even further. 

“In the current environment, the sharp reduction in capital expenditures by oil companies explains why this oil price decline, on balance, actually hurt U.S. investment spending—and hence, economic growth”

The US the shale boom previously acted as a price floor and ceiling. Not allowing oil and gas prices to drop below or rise above a certain level. Shale fracturing to extract oil or gas could either done or not done, depending on the price. With a general band around $50 to $60 per barrel, oil producers could withstand previous pricing wars with OPEC countries, by using more efficient techniques, but they could also act as regulators to high global oil prices. The new dynamic exposes how much the US is reliant not only on low prices from shale production, but on the investments going into the shale plays. 

Professor Soliman Hunter demonstrates this link. “Shale relies on continued hydraulic fracturing, so there’s always on costs, ongoing costs. So you need to continue to fracture in order to get continued field development. And so when there’s no appetite for that, and there’s no sort of economic drivers to continue, then essentially your incomes going to dry up.” And not only the income for the company disappears but also for the workers and the communities where these workers live and work, along with the larger economic ripples through communities.

Professor Soliman Hunter talks about shale and its reliance on continued hydraulic fracturing.

Due to the US competitive price advantage from shale wells, the country essentially had a freer rein in global politics. There was reduced reliance on OPEC countries to maintain low oil prices underpinning the country’s economic growth. The use of the military to ensure US economic domestic and international dominance could be seen as waning. In fact, the ripple effects of shutting down shale and conventional wells in the US demonstrates the economic reliance on investments into oil and gas well developments. This further calls into question the ability of the US to economically move away from domestic fossil fuels for climate change targets.

Internationally, the fall in price may reset the US relationship back to what it was before it was a giant producer of oil and gas. This changing role of the US from global consumer to producer shifts the geopolitical perspective and assumptions underpinning the Carter Doctrine. For Professor Soliman Hunter, this was questioned, “in the last half a dozen years, I’ve looked at the Carter Doctrine and thought, is that really relevant now that the US is producing, you know, 12 to 13 million barrels of oil and gas a day?” With the US the top oil producer why would it need the Middle East to sustain its oil hungry nation? According to Professor Soliman Hunter, 

“The US has just become the biggest oil and gas producer in the world. And in three months, that’s been wiped out, their gains that they’ve made in the last 10 years have been wiped out, as shale producers cannot sustain that. So, where does that leave us in terms of the value of the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular?”

Professor Soliman Hunter explains the Carter Doctrine.

The US military presence in the Middle East can act both as a protector of oil supplies and limit conflict risks. Lower prices through geopolitical stability can ensure some economic recovery. However, tension in the Middle East, can also increase prices and benefit US producers, if oil climbs above the break-even points for domestic producers. Military tension can influence the price both ways, and influence the US economy, along with oil producers as well. The abrasiveness of the Trump administration may just benefit from the unstable relationship with Iran and any military tension. The Persian Gulf Wars may be done, but low-grade conflicts also move markets and ensure the US stays a top oil and gas producer, benefiting its economy and security.

The current state in June 2020, is the huge rise and self-sufficiency of oil and gas production in the US is stagnate. Production is shut down and shale wells abandoned due to their higher operating costs. The US shale industry is broken and it accomplishes previous attempts by Russia and Saudi Arabia to reassert their former dominance over the global oil economy. It is hard to see a clear short-term path when US shale producers reclaim their global influence. Nonetheless, falling company investments into oil and gas field development expresses the significant economic impact technologies and innovation have in the US economy. A US transition away from fossil fuels may be even further away than projections may hold.  Geopolitically, it remains to be seen the importance of the 40-year-old Carter Doctrine in an era with more renewables but drastically low oil prices. Nonetheless, US military presence can influence markets both ways. Professor Soliman Hunter succinctly summarizes the future. “This is a new world order now, where this is going to lead us. I have no idea. But it’s exciting.”


Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “How Falling Oil Prices in Early 2020 Weakened the U.S. Economy.” Accessed June 8, 2020.

LaBelle, Michael. “MyEnergy2050: Oil and Gas Markets in the Covid-19 Era: Interview with Tina Soliman Hunter.” Fossil Fuel Markets, n.d.

Plante, Michael D., and Kunal Patel. “Breakeven Oil Prices Underscore Shale’s Impact on the Market – Dallasfed.Org.” Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, May 21, 2019.

U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). “U.S. Total Energy Exports Exceed Imports in 2019 for the First Time in 67 Years.” Today in Energy, April 20, 2020.

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