Cosmic Futility

Like some contraption from the steam punk genre the internet runs on coal. It's obvious really, but I had never quite internalized this basic truth with regards to our now ubiquitous interactive media machine. By all accounts the internet consumes more power, globally, than air traffic. As we all know, most electricity is created using coal.

Australia, a land of waving fields of grain and snow white sheep gamboling in grassy fields (discounting, of course, the red desert heart) when I lived there in the 1970's, is now the world's leading exporter of high-sulphur (i.e very dirty) coal. Newcastle, north of Sydney is home to the largest coal exporting facility in the world. The Hunter Valley has been ravaged by strip and pit mining. As I noted in The Planetary Mind, posted 2010-02-04 a new word, Solastalgia, has been coined to describe the psychological trauma of the local population that has seen its neighborhood transformed from verdant valleys to dark satanic mines within the span of a generation.

As Peter Maass suggests in his Crude World - The Violent Twilight of Oil, Knopf, New York, 2009, we are going to keep on grubbing for fossil fuels for as long as they remain the high density/low cost energy source. Google has committed to an initiative called Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal. One way to achieve this is to find a way to include pollution costs in the price of fossil fuels; Carbon Credits anyone?

More likely we will continue to plunder the earth until every last drop of oil, chunk of coal and fart of gas has been extracted from it in the time-honored tradition of the Easter Islanders who, after a thousand years on their island finally cut down the last tree in the early 17th century and then realized that the newly carved giant stone head and torso statues, which were literally the cultural bed-rock of their society, were forever marooned in the quarry at Rano Raraku - for tree trunk rollers were the only means of moving them.

Clive Ponting begins his A Green History of the World, Penguin, New York, 1993 with a chapter headed 'The Lesson of Easter Island'. I used this book beginning in 1996 as a core text for the tenth grade world history class at Oak Grove School in Meiners Oaks. Perhaps my students internalized the lesson, but there is absolutely no indication that current world leaders, captains of industry and the vast majority of consumers consider their fate to be twinned with the Easter Islanders, whose society went into a rapid decline and regressed to profoundly primitive conditions after the total deforestation of their land. Ponting writes,

"Without trees, and so without canoes, the islanders were trapped in their remote home, unable to escape the consequences of their self-inflicted environmental collapse."

(I now volunteer with UCLA's Rock Art Archive which is headed up by Jo Anne Van Tilburg who has, for over twenty years, been documenting the Rano Raraku statues.)

Well, perhaps those in the Transition movement have internalized the message, but they are at our society's ragged fringe and are unlikely to be effective in changing the energy calculus. More promising perhaps, are those like Google, who are attempting to change the paradigm from within the mainstream.

Nomi Morris who reviewed the Gulf Oil Disaster as part of her "Behind the Headlines" series at Theater 150 (May 10, 2010) asked the small audience whether they thought the oil spill signaled the beginning of the end for oil - more likely, it seems to me (as it did to Churchill in different circumstances), "Now this is not the end. ... But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." In any case, the spill has fallen off the news cycle and only a secondary catastrophe can ensure its re-instatement in the public eye. Effectively, we have re-calibrated the bottom line of the disaster meter from the Exxon Valdez' 11,000,000 gallon spill upwards...well who knows...perhaps ten-fold into the 100 million gallon range. The spill itself edged the 29 dead West Virginia coal miners off the front pages so many weeks ago and, more immediately, eclipsed the tragedy of the 11 incinerated oil workers on Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig.

We have entered the era of deeper, dirtier and more desparate drilling that will forestall Peak Oil and plunge us into the 'violent twilight' of fossil fuels where coal becomes king and reckless mining, open pits, flattened mountains and scarred landscapes are tolerated in the maintenance of our cheap energy addiction. As long as growth is required for economic stability we are doomed to repeat the experience of Rapa Nui.

Alternative energy sources come with their own environmental baggage. Saul Griffith who was born in Sydney in 1974, and is the subject of a New Yorker piece, The Inventor's Dilemma by David Owen, May 17, 2010 estimates that we currently consume electricity at a more or less constant rate of sixteen terrawatts: capping green house gases such that we would limit global warming to a further rise of 2 degrees celsius would require that 13 of those 16 terrawatts be produced by clean, renewable power. Doing that would require the production, Griffith estimates, of:

"100 sq. meters of pv's; 50 sq. meters of solar-thermal reflectors, and one Olympic swimming pool of engineered algae (for biofuels) every second for the next twenty five years; one 300 foot diameter wind turbine every five minutes; one 100 megawatt geothermal plant every eight hours and one three gigawatt nuclear plant every week."

Ain't going to happen. Sierra magazine May/June 2010 reports that there are proposals for 52 solar power plants in the Mojave generating 39,000 megawatts. Each megawatt requires between 5 and 14 acres of cleared desert - say 390,000 acres. Diane Feinstein has already introduced legislation attempting to protect a million Mojave desert acres. Biofuels can use engineered algae, but a more attractive solution for loggers under the long awaited Kerry-Lieberman energy bill known as The America Power Act is to burn wood for commercial biomass electrical generation. I suppose there's a certain symmetry to clear-cutting forests for 'Green' power which can then be used to graze the farm animals required to provide the nitrogen for our organic food production (see Back-Yard Romance posted 2010-05-13).

Wind farms are inherently controversial generating fierce NIMBY reactions from even the most staunch environmentalists. We considered a wind turbine on our property (they're cheaper than PV) but were discouraged by the prospect of avian carnage. Let's not even talk about nuclear.

There really isn't a clean, scalable renewable energy alternative given our massive addiction to electricity fueled by the earth's diminishing underground store of solar energy.

Depressed? You could try sending one less e-mail tomorrow, but the futility of such a gesture is almost cosmic in magnitude.