Should we spend or invest our fossil fuel inheritance?

In many ways, fossil fuels resemble an inheritance for the human race. We did nothing to create fossil fuels, yet we enjoy the vast benefits and wealth they generate. Nature produced fossil fuels from plants that stored sunlight energy millions of years ago, plants that did not fully decay but were condensed into coal, oil, and natural gas by geological forces. This gift of nature provided us with an energy savings account that has allowed us to build our modern civilization.

Now the question is whether we should continue to spend this inheritance, or to invest it. By “spend”, I mean to continue to burn fossil fuels for our everyday energy needs. By “invest”, I mean use fossil fuels to build solar and wind systems that can generate energy essentially forever.

You can liken it to two siblings spending their inheritance. One wildly spends their windfall inheritance on a lavish lifestyle until the money runs out, while the other wisely invests their inheritance and lives more modestly off the investment income, which does not run out. Solar energy is like that steady income. If you can live on your income, you can live forever.

Critics of renewable energy point out that we must burn fossil fuels to build the solar and wind systems, until they grow large enough to both power our society and take over building more solar and wind. These naysayers contend that spending fossil fuels to build solar will produce more greenhouse gases, and so we should prevent that. But their logic is exactly backwards.

Using fossil fuels to build renewables is an investment in our future. Without making that investment, we face a future of catastrophic climate change. The problem is not investing in renewables, the problem is spending fossil fuels to continue to power our society. Every time we use fossil fuels for ordinary energy needs, we draw down our inherited energy savings account. Every time we use fossil fuels to build solar, we are creating the means to live off our investments instead of our savings account.

So we should consider using fossil fuels for solar to be a proper use of our inheritance, while spending fossil fuels to continue to drive our SUVs is a waste of that inheritance.

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