The graph above is the rough shape of humanity’s usage of fossil fuels, on a scale that starts 50 centuries ago, and extends to 50 centuries in the future. We are currently half-way through the reserves, more or less; but although we’ve been burning the black gold for about a century and a half, the rate at which we’re using it up has rocketed skywards. If we carry on as we have been, we will run out in about thirty years’ time.
Not only that, but when we run out, we will need to have discovered and be ready to pump, refine and transport an amount of oil equal to twice* the amount of oil consumed throughout the entire history of mankind! And even that will only delay the inevitable.
So: given the problem, what’s the solution?
The way I see it, there are three options:
1. The head in the sand approach
Just forget about it. Listen to the optimists who drip comforting anecdotes explaining the problem away as though it doesn’t exist. Chances are I’ll be dead by the time it’s a real problem anyway. Those remaining behind can deal with it.
Result: World War Three, ‘The Energy Wars.’
2. Invest in alternative sources of energy
It sounds good, but even if this option is viable we can’t afford to hang about, we have to start NOW.
But, is it even viable? Sure, Mankind is pretty smart, we’ve survived this long. Even though the magnitude of this problem is immensely larger than anything in history, maybe we will figure it out. Me, I’m not smart enough to figure it out all on my own – I can just leave it to the smart ones. I can delegate to the government, after all, they’re the ones "I’ve chosen" (yeah, right) to think about these things, to be responsible for the problem, to sort it out.
Hmmm… delegation sounds a little too much like option (1) to me.
So, what can little old me actually do to help with option (2)? Well, I can think about what I know about alternative energy, and try to encourage any that I think are good options. I can assist those nebulous ‘market forces’ by buying into it. I can try to goad my ‘democratically elected leaders’ into action by lobbying the government – and hope that there are enough people doing the same to actually get them to sit up and take notice, instead of continuing in their usual pastime (fiddling, as Rome burns).
Hang on a sec, need to back up. What do I actually know about alternative energy sources? Seems to me that there’s a danger here of jumping from the frying pan into the fire, if the wrong alternatives are backed.
Biofuels? Don’t make me laugh. To provide the current energy requirement of the USA would take up all that nation’s arable land. It may be an infant technology, but given that the world’s population is growing (increasingly fast) that land will be needed for food, not fuel.
Nuclear power, maybe? Can of worms. There are those who promote it as a ‘clean’ and ‘cheap’ energy source, but they conveniently forget that we still haven’t figured out what to do with nuclear waste, nor how to decommission worn-out nuclear power plants inexpensively. Once those costs are factored in, it doesn’t seem all that ‘cheap’ at all. Many plants are built near coasts – even though global warming promises to raise sea levels. A power plant’s not much good if it’s flooded. The thing that scares me most of all about nuclear power – apart from the fact that George Bush doesn’t seem to even know how to pronounce the word – is the number of the things that will be needed. Hundreds? Thousands? Although they’re sold as being ‘safe,’ Chernobyl (to use just one example) proves that they aren’t 100% safe. The more nuclear power plants there are, the more the risk goes up that one (or more) of them will go kablooey. Not a nice thought.
Wind power? Tidal power? I’d rather live next to a wind farm than a nuclear power plant. Worth investing in, in my opinion. Once such generating systems are built, they’re free, apart from the maintenance cost. And, they’re clean.
Solar power? This would seem to me to be the best long-term bet. The technology we have is nowhere near mature enough yet, it would need a huge amount of investment to figure out how to make use of the sun’s enormous output. But, the potential rewards are immense. All life on Earth depends on the energy received from the sun: and when you consider that what hits our tiny planet is an incredibly miniscule fraction of all of the sun’s output, there’s power and more to spare, for ‘free’. We just have to figure out how to get it.
The bottom line for option (2) is that we don’t yet have technologies that can replace energy derived from that finite and increasingly scarce resource, fossil fuels. We probably will come up with these technologies – IF we have both the time and the political will. Both of these are themselves resources that are currently in short supply.
3. Figure out how to use less energy
Apart from lobbying The Powers That Be to increase research and development, the best thing that I can do personally is to try to minimise my own energy requirements. Turn things off when I’m not using them. Don’t buy more and more battery-operated gizmos. Drive less, walk more. Buy a bike.
Turn this computer thingy off.
* Yes, twice. Exponential growth kinda sneaks up.