Become a Fan
Winds of change are stirring.
A couple of years ago I penned a short poem to cast the old argument between optimism and pessimism in a different light. I called it “Ah, Pragmatism!”
“Glass half full,” some say,
“Half empty!” others inveigh.
Depends what it is, I think,
Before I’d gurgle a big drink!
For some forty years, since the 1970’s, I’ve had little choice in characterizing my view of the long-term outlook for America and the world. Whether the glass is half full or half empty, if we look at the glass as the prospect for an improving quality of life, the word had to be “pessimistic.” As I watched society, both locally and globally, hurdle down the road toward a nightmare of deficit petroleum production and surplus demand, before my eyes the atmosphere loaded up with choking greenhouse gasses and the ecology fell into a state of disintegration.
But at long-last an aroma of hope wafts across the landscape. Around the world, in the U.S., Europe, Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia and even China, the winds of change are blowing and the sails of alternative energy are filling. That vessel is gathering strength, beginning to move. Everywhere there are efforts under way to identify combinations of energy sources that can power transportation, homes and commercial buildings at dramatically reduced costs. There seems to be a consensus that finding a single solution is not the way of the future, but rather finding fractional solutions such that in the aggregate these techniques provide the better part of it. Remnant oil may have to furnish the remainder.
Physicists, chemists, engineers and an army of garage mechanics are searching for more useful combinations and uses of materials to replace fossil fuels alone as the energy that moves the world. And there is progress being made in solar, both in photovoltaic cells and passive technologies, wind turbines, geothermal (from hot springs and from natural residual earth temperature), in electro-storage battery technology, hydro power, ocean wave energy capture, techniques for shifting power surpluses to power deficit areas through power grid extensions, hydrogen power through hydrolysis and/or chemical reactions, and undoubtedly there are other techniques forming behind the scenes that are still hidden pending secure patent protections. And these processes have the promise of exponential growth.
Everywhere, people are examining the cost of piling our household trash into landfills that promise only continuing problems for the future. Instead, these smelly residues of society are being looked at as sources of feedstock for new processes of bio-diesel and ethanol that have a neutral or negative cost (citizens who dump at the landfills are often charged fees). Everywhere, there seems to be an attitude of turning wasteful practices into beneficial ones, of turning around and tuning in to the natural processes of the earth.
So what is fueling this vehicle, this “wind of change” attitude, this aroma of excitement? The knowledge seeping into consciousness everywhere that life won’t long be sustainable at the rate we are pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is the backdrop factor. But the most immediate factor is the price of gasoline and heating oil.
There is the old joke about a balky mule. The mule driver picked up a two-by-four and whacked the mule between the eyes. When the mule regained his feet he pulled the load. A bystander asked, “Why did you do that?” The driver said, “He always listens to me, but I have to get his attention first.”
Gasoline at $4.00 to $12.00 per gallon is a two-by-four between the eyes for everyone who has an interest in having machinery run. We are all paying attention now. And that is the fuel turning the fan blowing that sweet smell of excitement across the land.
Perhaps these fractional technologies can be made to add up to the whole of the energy consumption we have come to expect or maybe not. My suspicion is that into the future the overwhelming fraction that oil occupies in this equation will not be fully supplanted by these technologies. It may very well be that the most important fraction will be from the demand side, where everyone concentrates on reducing demand for energy in a myriad of ways. Ultimately, the most effective way to reduce demand is to reduce the population. Most people don’t want this. But then, prior to $4.00 gasoline, most people didn’t want to curb their desire to drive Surburbans to the grocery store for a gallon of milk. The new realities may yet make an impression on potential parents, an impression that could improve our quality of life, an impression that could make all the difference for our offspring.
Optimism does indeed, ride a strange vehicle. That vehicle is $4.00+ gas.
© 2008 R. Leland Wald.rip