The Energy Pillars of Society: Perverse Interactions of Human Resource Use, the Economy, and Environmental Degradation

  • John W. Day
  • Christopher F. D’Elia
  • Adrian R. H. WiegmanEmail author
  • Jeffrey S. Rutherford
  • Charles A. S. Hall
  • Robert R. Lane
  • David E. Dismukes
Review Paper


To meet the COP21 2 °C climate target, humanity would need to complete a transition to renewable energy within the next several decades. But for decades, fossil fuels will continue to underpin many fundamental activities that allow modern society to function. Unfortunately, net energy yield from fossil fuels is now falling, and despite substantial growth in renewable energy, total global energy demand and fossil fuel consumption are still increasing. Recent studies document promising trends in net energy yield from new renewable energy, particularly wind and solar. However, most studies do not fully consider the complexities of multiple factors including production intermittency, storage, the need to replace a massive infrastructure network, and lack of fungibility of different energy sources. Also, oft-overlooked, is that human impacts have caused widespread degradation of natural ecosystems and the provisioning of ecosystem goods and services, especially affecting vulnerable areas like coastal zones and arid regions. An accelerated renewable energy transition to meet climate targets and replace declining stocks of high net yielding fossil fuels will compete with resources needed for crucial investments to mitigate already locked in climate change and environmental degradation impacts. Integrative approaches that include all costs can help balance interdependent factors such as net energy dynamics, resource allocation, and ecosystem degradation. Energy-climate investment pathways produce economic output and quality of life tradeoffs that must be considered. Accordingly, developing future energy policy requires a systems approach with global boundaries and new levels of appreciation of the complex mix of interrelated factors involved.


Climate change Fossil fuels Renewable energy investment Biophysical economics Ecosystem degradation and management Net energy Energy transition 



This work was supported by the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [Award Number 2000005991]; the Coastal Sustainability Studio [Award Number 1512], and the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, both at Louisiana State University. Additional support was received by a National Science Foundation funded workshop: Implications of Net Energy for the Food-Energy-Water Nexus, hosted at Linfield College (Co-PI’s Thomas Love and David Murphy) [Award Number 1541988]. We also acknowledge the comments of two reviewers that greatly improved the paper.

Author Contributions

All authors contributed to the conception, writing, and development of this work.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 1693 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • John W. Day
    • 1
  • Christopher F. D’Elia
    • 1
  • Adrian R. H. Wiegman
    • 1
    • 4
    Email author
  • Jeffrey S. Rutherford
    • 1
    • 5
  • Charles A. S. Hall
    • 2
  • Robert R. Lane
    • 1
  • David E. Dismukes
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, College of the Coast and EnvironmentLouisiana State UniversityBaton RougeUSA
  2. 2.College of Environmental Science and ForestryState University of New YorkSyracuseUSA
  3. 3.Center for Energy Studies and Department of Environmental Sciences, College of the Coast and EnvironmentLouisiana State UniversityBaton RougeUSA
  4. 4.Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural ResourcesUniversity of VermontBurlingtonUSA
  5. 5.Department of Energy Resources EngineeringStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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