Peace and Energy

Peace-Science Conference, North Carolina State University, April 1975
(Revised November 2010)

L. David Roper


I begin with the following basic premises, which to me are self evident:

  1. We cannot hope for long-term peace in a nation until
    1. the useful matter-energy available to that nation is approximately equally distributed among its inhabitants and
    2. the available useful matter-energy is sufficient to provide adequate food and shelter for all inhabitants.
  2. We cannot hope for long-term peace in the world until
    1. the useful matter-energy available is approximately equally distributed per capita among the nations and
    2. the available useful matter-energy is sufficient to provide adequate food and shelter for all inhabitants.
  3. The creation and evolution of the Earth have unequally distributed useful matter-energy over the surface of the Earth.
  4. The useful matter-energy now available to the world is not sufficient to provide adequate food and shelter for all of its present inhabitants.
  5. The affluent nations are wasting a large amount of their available useful matter-energy by using it for purposes other than supplying adequate food and shelter for their and the world's inhabitants.

The useful matter-energy at any point on Earth depends on the amounts of different substances at that point, the spatial organization of the substances at that point (including chemical and charge organization of human brains), the natural kinetic energy of some substances at that point, and the incident electromagnetic energy at that point. Some of the useful energy is often called "energy capital" because it was deposited in the Earth some millions of years ago and after it is taken out and transformed and/or scattered it will no longer be useful. The rest is often called "energy income" because it is constantly being suppolied by the solar system (sunlight, wind, river, tide, plants, animals) at a fairly uniform rate. One of the many inconsistencies in the politics of energy is the fact that most of the politicians who advocate living on money income do not advocate living on energy income. We must realistically regard all useful matter as capital, because highly publicized schemes to use abundant nuclear energy to convert non-useful matter into useful matter through nuclear reactions must be regarded as dreams, not reality.

General Questions

If my basic premises are accepted, then the problem of achieving long-term peace on Earth involves finding answers to the following difficult questions:

  1. How can we and how should we proceed to redistribute the uneven useful matter-energy distribution?
  2. Can we and should we try to increase the available useful matter-energy or can we and should we try to decrease the population. or both? How?

Features of Answers

Conserving Energy Capital

It is, of course, impossible to give detailed answers to these questions, but I will suggest some general features that I think the answers should have:We should institute procedures for conserving the remaining energy capital. This could involve taxing out of existence inefficient automobiles, prohibiting automobiles in high population density areas (Ref 1), requiring all new buildings to be optimally insulated, providing incentives for insulation of older buildings, providing incentives for labor-intensive rather than machinery-intensive industry, and providing incentives for low birth rates.

Unfortunately, our present political leaders seem hell bent to extract and use energy capital rather than to keep it safely stored in the ground for the benefit of future generations. Undoubtedly our grandchildren will reflect on our current voracious appetite for energy capital and wonder why we were so greedy and did not save some for them.

Use Energy Income Instead of Energy Capital

We should move rapidly toward using energy income sources and away from using energy capital sources, since it is not clear how much of the energy capital sources will be required to initiate a self-sustaining peaceful economy based solely on energy income sources. It is probably a large amount - perhaps a sizeable fraction of the remaining energy capital resources. Some important energy capital and income sources with their expected lifetimes in parentheses (Ref 2)are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Energy Sources
Capital Sources
Income Sources
Crude oil (~30 years)
Direct solar radiation (a)
Coal (~70 years)
Plants (c)
Natural Gas (~30 years)
Animals (c)
Uranium (~50 years)
Falling water (hydroelectric)
Oil tar sands
Shale natural gas
Earth temperature differentials (geothermal) (d)
Ocean waves
Ocean temperature differentials (OTEC)


  1. All of the other income sources except the tides are the result of specific actions of direct solar radiation.
  2. This surprisingly short lifetime is calculated assuming a 5% growth rate in use of coal.
  3. Plants and animals are diverse in their possible uses as energy sources; e.g., food, fuel & work.
  4. Geothermal sources are listed as capital sources because they are the result of radioactive decay and/or Earth gravitational forces that have already occurred. These are quite large in certain places and thus could essentially be regarded as localized energy income.

Another important reason for preferring energy income over energy capital is that the former is more uniformly available over the Earth than is the latter. Thus, by using energy capital and matter resources to develop means for utilizing energy income we will be making possible a more equitable distribution of energy use.


We should move rapidly toward organization for recycling useful matter. Otherwise, useful matter will soon be widely dispersed as pollutants in the environment. Recycling matter requires a large energy expenditure, which is one of the reasons why we should worry about running out of energy capital before an economy based on energy income sources can be established. Table 2 shows the expected lifetimes of some of our useful matter (Ref 3) if we do not recycle.

Table 2. World Mineral Reserves Lifetimes
Iron (year 2500)
Tungsten (2000)
Chromium (2500)
Copper (2000)
Molybdenum (2200)
Tin (1990)
Aluminum (2150)
Gold (1990)
Manganese (2100)
Zinc (1990)
Cobalt (2100)
Platinum (1990)
Nickel (2100)
Silver (1990)
Helium (2050)
Lead (1990)

Of course, recycling can never be one hundred percent, so eventually, we will have to use energy income to transform ordinary matter into useful matter. Recycling will buy us time to learn how to best make such transformations (Ref 4).

The problems of equitably distributing useful matter appears difficult at first sight. However, the remaining portions of many of the rarer types of matter needed for industrial processes are located in areas of the world which now use less than their share of useful matter-energy. So there is hope that the areas of the world which now have more than their share of useful matter-energy will be forced to more equitably distribute the matter-energy resources in order to obtain certain types of scarce matter that they desperately need. It appears that, in order to force such sharing, multinational alliances of the poor nations will have to be forged, the beginnings of which appear to be occurring now. The tricky part will be to do it in such a manner that the affluent nations will not militarily attack the poor nations in order to obtain the needed matter without a quid pro quo.

Decentralized Diverse Energy Systems

The energy systems should be diverse, safe, sturdy, redundant and decentralized in order to minimize the effects of a failure in a particular system. Examples are: solar collectors for water and space heating of buildings; solar cells and wind generators to supply electricity for buildings and factories; digesters of organic wastes to supply methane and fertilizer at the site of waste production; energy storage devices such as hydrogen, batteries, water and flywheels. Such systems will help make energy more equally available to the Earth's inhabitants since small mass-produced systems require less capital investment and thus can be more easily afforded by the poor. We should strive to quickly design such systems and arrange the economics so that mass production of them is quickly achieved. Recent news indicates that some U.S. corporations are gingerly moving in this direction. The countries of Israel and Japan are probably further along, but still far from enough. We need a much more intensive, coordinated effort, and we need it now!

A Desirable Scenario

A brief possible scenario for the future that will more equitably distribute useful matter-energy among the Earth's inhabitants and thereby enhance the possibilities for peace is:

  1. As crude oil and natural gas become more scarce the industrial nations (IN) initiate conservation programs and begin to design and mass produce solar heat collectors, solar electric cells, and energy storage devices for use in individual homes, office buildings and factories. (The state of solar energy technology is comprehensively surveyed by Clark [Ref 5].) Where possible, consistent with maintaining environmental quality, other income sources, such as wind and hydroelectric, are developed. Recycling organization is achieved, including recycling of organic wastes to produce methane and fertilizer.
  2. In return for their scarce useful matter non-industrial nations (NN) demand that the IN help them set up decentralized energy and recycling system throughout their countries. The security of individuals having dependable sources of energy enhances birth control efforts in the NN.

Alternate Scenarios

An alternative scenario (Ref 6) proposed by Prof. Gerald K. O'Neill of Princeton University involves space colonies established at a libration point (point of gravitational equilibrium) of the Earth-Moon system whose matter-energy, after an initial Earth-supported period, comes entirely from the Moon, the asteroids and the Sun. This requires a hugh initial matter-energy investment, and if we wait too long may be too late. Eventually, if all goes well, a great deal of useful energy could be beamed down for use on the Earth, although by that time the population in space may be greater than than that on the Earth. This scenario satisfies all of the features listed above except the last one - a very important one. One could argue against this scenario because (a) it will probably benefit almost exclusively the IN rather than the NN; (b) its probability of technological success is not as high as the previous scenario; (c) it increases the "heat burden" of the Earth by beaming extra sun energy to the Earth; and (d) it is highly vulnerable to many different kinds of failures, including purposeful destruction. A less ambitious scenario puts Earth-beamed solar power stations in space without large-scale colonization, but it has essentially the same faults. It appears that the approach most likely to succeed would be to convert from energy capital to solar energy income here on the Earth, and then later, for fun, to move into stellar space. Who knows--maybe later on into galactic space?

The most popular scenario involves developing uranium reactors to replace fossil fuels as the diminish in supply in order to buy time to develop plutonium breeder reactors in order to buy time to develop fusion reactors. (Strictly speaking breeder reactors and fusion reactors involve energy capital, but the capital is do great that we can effectively call it income. Likewise, solar energy involves the billion-year capital of the Sun.) This scenario also satisfies all of our general features except the last one, which it maximally violates (Ref 5, Ref 7). The burden is on advocates of nuclear energy to show (a) that it can provide more energy than will be spent developing it, (b) that it can be operated safely, (c) that stable social systems can exist for tens of thousands of years to safeguard the radioactive wastes and (d) that democratic safeguards can be devised to keep plutonium and other horrors from being used for terrorist purposes.


Although the energy income scenario appears to be the most likely to succeed in achieving a peaceful world, one must realize that the nuclear scenario is the most likely to be attempted. Indeed, the attempt is already well underway. Therefore, we must prepare for the worst while making our maximal efforts to install man as the controller of technology instead of the victim.

Since it appears that we will not soon direct large efforts toward energy income systems, we are faced with the problem of how to eventually convert from a nuclear scenario to the income scenario. When the overall matter-energy costs of establishing nuclear systems are added (including past and future government research, rapid deterioration of devices, political activity, nuclear waste disposal, security against terrorism, etc.) it is not clear that nuclear systems will deliver a positive net energy. Therefore, it may be that the attempt to establish the nuclear scenario will be a drag rather than a help toward an eventual income scenario. The urgency to establish energy income systems before we run out of energy capital is thereby enhanced. My view is that the prevailing political propensity toward the nuclear scenario is not only dangerous to the goal of peace on Earth, but also may be dangerous to the goal of establishing long-term energy income systems that will enable civilization to survive on Earth.


  1. See Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity, Harper & Row, N.Y., 1974 for an interesting discussion of average speed of travel as a function of increasing speed of travel.
  2. One of the best references for information on energy capital and energy income sources is Energy, Earth and Everyone, M. Gabel, et al., Earth Metabolic Design, Inc., Box 2016 Yale Station, New Haven, CT 06520, 1975. See Appendix 1 for a more accurate way to calculate a resource half life.
  3. Data from Preston Cloud, "Mineral Resources in Fact and Fancy" in Toward a Steady State Economy, edited by H. E. Daly, W. H. Freeman & Co., San Francisco, 1973.
  4. See D. L. Meadows, et al., The Limits of Growth, Universe Books, N.Y., 1972 for a quantitative model in which recycling is assumed. One must realize, as Ch. 5 of this reference clearly shows, that extensive recycling will not keep the amount of useful matter from declining. In concert with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, there is no such thing as complete recycling. We shall eventually run out of useful matter unless we learn how to efficiently transform non-useful matter into useful matter; i.e., how to keep the entropy of the Earth rather constant at the expense of increasing the entropy of the rest of the solar system. Another perhaps more realistic possibility is to transport useful matter in from the Moon and the asteroids. (See Ref 6.)
  5. Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival, Anchor Books, Garden City, N.Y., 1974.
  6. Gerald K. O'Neill, "The Colonization of Space", Physics Today, Sept. 1974, p.32.
  7. David R. Inglis, Nuclear Energy: Its Physics and Its Social Challenge, Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., Reading MA, 1973.

Appendix 1. Resource Depletion

2010 change: See .


2010 change: Graphs replaced by the link .