A good read for the eco-serious is The Archdruid Report, a collection of perspective on industrial society which is written by John Michael Greer. The posts are characteristically druid-like - long, thoughtful, laden with wisdom - and although sometimes grim, are superb. The one on "Net Energy and Jevons' Paradox" targets the problem of peak energy and is a charmer.
Greer begins with a whammy; to build the infrastructure to produce a new energy source in meaningful quantities ("the production cost"), a great deal of energy will be needed. Additionally, if the new source can’t be delivered via an existing distribution network ("the system cost"), we'll need to invest even more energy to build this out as well. Immediately, one can see why some alternative energy options are being tried; for example, ethanol and windpower have some production costs but negligible additional distribution costs. In contrast, hydrogen requires both new production and distribution networks, so is proving to be a bust.
How will we come up with the surplus energy to make the transition? The Druid looks at two oft-thought methodologies, conservation and efficiency, lauding the first and laughing the second. Greer acknowledges that both approaches boost the net energy of the system but, unlike conservation, as efficiency goes up it also becomes economically feasible to apply the energy resource to new uses, and so people have reason to use more of it. This is known as the Jevon's Paradox, and just take a lookie 'round to see it in action - multiple TVs per household, the McMansions, more miles driven due to increases in automobile fuel efficiency, meat consumption. In every case advancements in efficiency not only encouraged more use, but also depleted the surplus in energy we require to make the transition to a new energy economy.
At one point, Herr Druid is a little bitter about these missed opportunities over the last 25 years and it's tough not to sympathize, particularly when many leading environmentalists are promulgating efficiency as 'better than nothing', and leaving the necessary choice of conservation to rhetorical op-ed pieces with a 'pare your lifestyle' down kind of tone. Greer is not without company in this regard; in a recent column, Jimmy Kunstler agreed with him that environmentalists need to do more in this regard. Our Robed One puts on the cream with cherry by observing that as the steady decline in net energy available to industrial society dwindles, from the historical 200-to-1 surplus of light sweet crude to the current single digits available today, we are continuing to make ironic self-defeating choices that drain the energy pool. Let's make no (more) mistake, we are running out of energy because of a focus on efficiency instead of conservation. :: Archdruid Report
Conservation and Efficiency
Efficiency works forever(?)
Conservation is the Best Energy Source
Alliance to Save Energy