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Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Posted: October 23, 2010 01:12 PM

New Clear Energy

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Humanity is on a collision course with reality, and the window of time in which to act is rapidly closing. This isn't a product of "dismal science" or political posturing, but merely a reflection of the hole we have steadily dug for ourselves over the past two centuries. If we don't make wholesale changes immediately, irreversible thresholds will be crossed and our very existence will be a tenuous prospect at best. And the alarm bell rings out with one key word: energy.

Societies are defined by their energy inputs, which also largely determine how a given people relate to the world around them. Energy is embedded in subsidiary issues including food, economics, population, pollution, and even politics. It works as a force both literally (e.g., calories and kilowatts) and metaphorically (e.g., capacity and capital) alike. Human development throughout history has been keyed to the available energy sources at hand.

In the past two centuries, the advent of highly exploitable and relatively cheap fuel resources has substantially remade the map of the world. The rise of the petroleum economy has been a sine qua non of the technological progress and economic expansion of the industrial era. In this brief time span, humankind has likewise seen its population increase sevenfold, and has had to find ways to keep pace with food supplies and communications technologies that are also largely dependent upon the same fossil fuel sources.

Also in this time frame we have seen the birth of the "anthropocene" as the era in which humankind has significantly impacted the carrying capacity of the biosphere -- with notable episodes including the breakup of Arctic ice that is the planet's thermostat and weather initiator, an unprecedented loss of biodiversity, the steady erosion of arable land, and an ongoing depletion of freshwater supplies. The toxification of our environment has been engendered to such a degree that it can be measured in the incidence of industrial-era ailments and diseases. So-called natural disasters increase in their frequency and severity due to human-spurred climate change. The cycle thus expands exponentially as the quest for more of the very resources that feed the problem only exacerbate it through warfare, waste, and wanton use.

Socially and politically, the fossil fuel era has increased the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and privilege along racial, ethnic, and gender lines. It has yielded foundational shifts in our military strategies, political campaigns, and mass communications. The resource-tinged nature of theology has likewise shifted, as have education and entertainment. Family units have been redefined in the carbon-based period, and the moral sentiment of individualism has ascended. Transportation in particular has seen a quantum leap both forward and backward with the pervasiveness of the automobile as an obvious outcome of the petroleum economy, and with jet flight opening up the world for those wont to utilize it despite the carbon footprint.

Undoubtedly this has been an exciting and even prophetic period in the history of the species, yet the limit of its wisdom and utility is fast approaching by most reasonable estimates. In addition to the realization of potentially apocalyptic externalities, there is also the growing apprehension of the fact that the availability of this dominant resource may have reached its peak. While this is a matter for geologists and hydrologists to debate in terms of the science involved, a nuanced reading suggests that more than just the availability of oil has seemingly reached its proverbial tipping point. Peak Oil may be in the offing -- but Peak Water, Peak Climate, and Peak Food are almost certainly well upon us. Moreover, Peak Population, Peak Pollution, and even Peak Politics are becoming increasingly evident realities as well.

If you're reading this here, I'm guessing that you already grasp much of this narrative. The pressing question before us today is more about what is to be done than how things got to be this way, although the two inquiries are surely interlinked. While resources decline, ideas are abundant, even if political will remains stagnant at best. Unfortunately, most of the en vogue notions have their own limitations, and in any event no one has yet conceived a viable energy substitute at the scale of fossil fuels that could power a global economy without further degrading the habitat in the process. Many of the contenders merely replicate the same centralization of power and wasteful consumptive patterns of the present moment (e.g., hydrogen, natural gas), whereas others substitute new problems for each one they claim to solve (e.g., nuclear fission, biofuels). Some are water-intensive (e.g., large-scale solar) and a few are just plain dumb (e.g., shale oil, tar sands). A few hold promise (e.g., wind) but the scale of their applicability is questionable.

Beyond the plausible lie the exotic, some from the realm of science fiction even as they possess untapped potential. Harnessing tidal forces is one that has widespread availability and lower environmental impact, but the infrastructure for it is yet remote. Iceland runs almost wholly on geothermal, but that is mostly due to a unique geology. Nuclear fusion is within reach but has yet to be shown controllable. Antimatter reactors are theoretically feasible but prohibitively expensive, even if they could somehow be made to work. Harvesting solar radiation beamed to earth as focused microwaves could be substantial in the unlikely event that the technological and political wills were mustered. Algae, methane harvesting, and pyrolysis are intriguing low-tech options. "Negative matter," singularities, and quantum derivatives are enticing as fiction.

More concretely, the very real prospect of seeking to mine the near heavens for new inputs seems all but assured, time permitting. The moon may possess enough raw materials for human colonization and serve as a low-gravity launching pad for excursions throughout the solar system. Mars likely has water and an abundance of useful minerals. Asteroids, moons, and comets are all potential resource storehouses. But no one can claim to know if any of this can be converted to usable forms in the near future, and even if it could whether Earth would stand to reap any of the benefits. At all events, the deus ex machina denouement of high technology miraculously saving the day is highly improbable, and often serves to undermine our urgency.

Where do we go from here? Will we find the fortitude to severely curtail our energy usage, scale our lives down to a sustainable locus, undo the software of dependency and centralization that remain at cross purposes to real change, and accomplish all of this without consuming ourselves and each other in the process? I hasten to add that if we are content to rely upon the judgment of the same decision-makers who have ignored the warning signs and subsidized the sore spots, then we will have no one but ourselves to blame in the end. On the other hand, each and every one of us has the power to make those small changes and seek the modest solutions in our midst, yielding a surprising additive effect that at least says "we are here."

The road ahead will not be easy. Perhaps that is the restorative balance in the offing to the era of Peak Leisure and Peak Apathy in which we have recently resided. Something has to give, and who better than those who have taken so much? This may be the greatest challenge we have faced in our tenure on this planet, outstripping times of widespread deprivation for the simple reason that we have gotten so used to being above that sort of thing, and concomitantly our very survival skills have waned in the process. Can we voluntarily and collectively decide to put our lives at a level that does not openly court extinction? In some ways, the social and political implications of such questions are even more daunting than navigating the resource realities. Still, whatever else, humankind has always found the energy to dig deep when we've needed it the most. The urgent task now at hand is to build a new foundation for our modest home.

 

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