When too much energy is never enough
Do we really need new super fuels to hyper-activate an already over-activated planet?
Random thoughts of a deep green conservative
IT USED to be that fossil fuels were seen as a modern miracle. After all, as someone once pointed out, with just a cupful of the stuff you could propel a whole family up a steep hill in a heavy steel box on wheels in just a few seconds.
But in typical human fashion, we’ve had too much of a good thing, and fossil fuel residues are now killing the planet through human induced global warming.
So last week when MIT, one of America’s premier research institutions, announced they were a step closer in creating clean fusion energy, many science commentators seemed to heave a big sigh of relief.
The next big tech fix was nearly in the can. Not only would there be enough unlimited clean energy to light up the whole planet, but also enough to leave it behind if we completely wreck it.
Fusion is complicated, but in brief, it involves splitting hydrogen atoms in high temperature liquid plasma.
If you can get the hydrogen hot enough, and squeeze it hard enough, you will, in theory, achieve a net gain in energy. The only residue is water.
If this suggests something like perpetual motion, you’re not far wrong. It has always had difficulty attracting serious government research funding.
But what also struck me about the starry-eyed MIT news was the lack of virtually any counter commentary. I believe there should be.
We need to ask a big question: do we require new super fuels to hyper-activate an already over-activated world?
After all, we know what happened to Icarus when he flew too close to the sun — the boy’s fatal downfall is one of western cultures most enduring myths.
Yet as a species we seem destined to repeat and repeat it.
So are there alternatives?
Well, we know fossil fuels will soon be history. But generating and storing clean renewable energy isn’t, from a scientific and manufacturing point of view, so hard. We’ve been developing the technologies for the last 60 years, and have the basics well worked out.
A good starting point, endorsed by the the UN Environment’s chief scientist, Jian Liu, would be to progressively divert the nearly trillion dollar global annual spend on fossil fuel subsidies into relatively low tech, locally networked and passive energy storage systems.
This is also part of a suite of proposals being put forward by proponents of the Green New Deal in the US.
But the philosophical argument runs much deeper, and it is this: in the longer term the world doesn’t need more energy to have a relatively equitable and comfortable standard of living for all.
In fact, many believe the opposite is true, especially given the planet’s rapidly diminishing resource base.
There is no natural law of economics, politics or philosophy that says we need faster transport, more food miles, more mining for new materials or degradation of soils for food crops.
We don’t really need bigger television screens, brighter lights, faster cars, vast amounts of plastic packaging or gourmet pet food dredged from the sea-floor by super-trawlers.
These things don’t give us deeper, richer lives. They give us short-term convenience and transient thrills.
And from an environmental point of view they have only created an uncontrolled and malign addiction to economic growth.
And while some fear that turning our backs on fossil fuels will usher in a new dark age of less mobility, ignorance and isolation, we need to remember the great advances we have made in global communication and the internet.
For the first time in history we really do have the ability to act locally and think globally.
Furthermore, many scientists and a few radical economists are now making the broader causal link between global warming, the increasing scarcity of resources and growth economics.
And certainly survey after survey confirms that the majority of ordinary people are concerned about the state of the environment — and are sick of corporate green-washing.
And the best sign of all is that young people all over the world are taking to the streets to demand an equitable environmental future — recently culminating in the idea of a Green New Deal that is currently taking Washington by storm.
Of course the big tech-fix science/corporate lobby will continue to argue that human beings have an existential duty to keep aiming for the stars, to project ourselves into the universe — primarily by using lots of energy.
And while I have no objections to people flying to mars, I have no desire to live there. We need to sort things out here on planet earth before we head off into the wild blue yonder.
Rather than promoting bigger and cleaner explosions like fusion as cutting edge science, we need to take a more considered and humble approach to harnessing the gifts of nature.
Because once they are gone, we can’t get them back.