The energy race is bad news for the planet

Posted October 5th, 2010 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

Missed a second post last week. Don’t we all feel the pressure of work and life’s demands on our time and energy? It is a plague of our era and one of the reasons we have trouble bringing about real change, because real change requires time for reflection, it requires critical thought and meaningful deliberation and conversation. It requires time for relationships because it is out of relationships, combined with healthy doses of solitude, that creativity emerges.

Things to take time for...

One of my old colleagues started a project using what she terms, ‘communal contemplation’ and dialogue as a way to ‘engage impasse.’ Imagine making space in one’s life for such a thing.

Anyway, whenever several days come between posts, I feel overwhelmed by all I want to share here. Today, I will focus on energy, something we require to get out of bed in the morning (calories), to go to work, to run computers, to turn on the lights, to show movies, to recharge the batteries of all the hi-tech gadgets that have become our latest society-wide addiction, to make water come out of our taps and then clean it and send it back into our lakes and rivers, to cook our meals (or run things through the microwave), and on and on.

Where does it come from? In the industrial age, it comes from sources deep in the earth, of course. And to get to that energy source also requires energy, lots of it. As we tap out oil, we turn to natural gas. As we move towards ‘energy independence,’ we turn more to our abundance of coal, shedding mountaintops and contaminating pristine valleys and rivers in the process. And still demand and imminent demand soars above supply, and so we drill more, contaminate more, and the losses to our natural world mount.

We have inveighed here about the Alberta oil tar sands fields and how this most environmentally destructive project in all the Americas is mostly to service our ‘needs’ here in the U.S. Now we read that this type of excavation and toxic contamination is about to come to Utah – Utah – within the Colorado River watershed.

Marcellus shale distribution - Source: USGS, Science for a Changing World

We have also lamented the largely out-of-control expansion of natural gas wells in the Marcellus Shale Field, which runs through New York, Pennsylvania and other eastern states. We’ve seen the videos of folks living near these wells, or who for economic reasons allowed companies to put a well on their land, finding their groundwater contaminated with the chemicals used to force the gas out of the rock, and methane gas coming out of their faucets – folks lighting up the water with a match.

The technique, called ‘fracking,’ has become enormously controversial. The contamination threatens literally millions of people. For example, fracking is being done in the Delaware River Basin, a water source for the city of New York. Think the government cares?

“The Obama Administration declined a request to use its veto power to temporarily halt gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin, which supplies half of New York City’s water. Five percent of this country’s water supply, providing drinking, cleaning, and agricultural water to fifteen to seventeen million people, comes from the Delaware River, recently declared the 2010 “most endangered river” in the U.S. by American Rivers.” – Alison Rose Levy, in The Huffington Post, Sept. 23

Video: fracking with Terry Greenwood

You see, the government knows, obviously, what we know. Energy demand is rising faster than supply and to keep things from collapsing they will keep digging and drilling and extracting to keep this industrial and post-industrial economy going for a little while longer – because they also know that we do not have the alternative sources to replace these forms of energy – and will not have any time soon.

We are running headlong towards this immovable wall of limits. But in order to address it fundamentally, in a way that would begin to move us back towards something sustainable and realistic in terms of those limits, we would have to change the underpinnings of the global economy. We would have to move beyond the era of capitalist exploitation, extraction, consumption, waste, and profit based on those things.

This is not a political platform that will win you elections. It would take incredible bravery to even talk about this, much less attempt to move us in that direction.

Even the move towards so-called ‘renewables’ brings conundrums. Since the sun’s energy is the most constant and renewable and immense source of energy the planet has available to it, why not tap it, build solar generating plants to replace coal-powered plants.

Oh, the inconvenience of limits! Turns out that solar plants require more water than coal plants and guess what? We are running out of water. Indeed, as we have noted here before, water may be our most immediate and threatening limit all across the planet. I can get through my day with a lot less electricity, but water?

Here’s the scary article which brought this to my attention: Rising Energy Demand Hits Water Scarcity ‘Choke Point.’

“In arid settings, the increased water demand from concentrating solar energy systems employing water-cooled technology could strain limited water resources already under development pressure from urbanization, irrigation expansion, commercial interests and mining,” wrote Jon Jarvis, then head of the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region, in a February 2009 internal memo. “Solar generating plants that use conventional cooling technology use two to three times as much water as coal- fired power plants,” Schneider noted.

The article points out that the issue is even more critical in other countries, and states that Yemen may be the first country to literally run out of water. That’s a crisis in any case; but in a country in so much turmoil, it spells real disaster.

“We are about to see water wars in the future,” said U.S. General Anthony Zinni. “We have seen fuel wars; we’re about to see water wars.”

Thanks, General. Hope you can come up with another alternative.

So, we come back to the point that is the origin of this project – we have to learn how to live differently, and we have to do that now.

We have a new initiative that will begin exploring that more deeply – what does this ‘different’ life look like, why would we want to live it,  and is it even possible? We will be doing this in conversations among friends and colleagues in various places around the country. We will share these reflections on this website.

Don’t give up. This is going to be hard, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.


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One Response

  1. Steve Salmony

    On standing up for God’s science….

    One day soon, I hope experts in population science and human demography in particular as well as other knowledgeable people with appropriate expertise in population dynamics will carefully examine as well as openly report extant science of what could be giving rise to the recent skyrocketing growth of absolute global human population numbers. Experts are blindly ignoring, consciously avoiding and willfully hiding science in their silence. Experts with power to make a difference that makes a difference will not continue much longer, I trust, to deny their responsibilities to science and their duties to humanity by refusing to speak out about what they believe to be true regarding the unsustainable consumption, hoarding, production and overpopulation activities of humankind in our time, and by choosing instead to give credence to all manner of preternatural thinking, contrived logic, ideological idiocy, stupidity and madness. By remaining electively mute, they also silently consent to whatsoever is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially attractive, culturally syntonic and favorable to selfish interests of the wealthy and powerful.

    Are a tiny minority of influential people going to get away with their forfeiture of future human wellbeing, life as we know it, environmental health and the integrity of Earth’s body?

    Speaking out loudly, clearly and often regarding whatsoever could somehow be true will not sink humanity or the Earth as a fit place for human habitation. On the other hand, if the brightest and best among us conspicuously deny what could somehow be real about the human overpopulation of Earth in favor of support for patently unsustainable overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation acitivities by the human species, such as we see overspreading the surface of the Earth in our time, then what chance of a good enough future can the children realistically be expected to behold?


    If it pleases you to do so, consider an exchange of ideas between a friend and me from yesterday.

    Friend —

    Steve, I’m not sure that I get your point. What science is being suppressed or withheld? I’m thinking that the realities of things like overpopulation, overconsumption, etc. are axiomatic points. Or, as has been said before: You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

    Me —

    Dear Friend,

    You have asked the question very few people have been willing to ask. Thank you for doing so.

    Inside and outside science, despite all the talk about independent-minded research, objective analysis, intellectual honesty and moral courage, there is something very few experts will acknowledge: human population dynamics is common to the population dynamics of other living things. In place of this scientifically-driven understanding they widely share and consensually validate the politically convenient, economically expedient, socially attractive and culturally syntonic idea that human population dynamics is different from the population dynamics of other living things. Their closely held misperception of what could be real is catastrophic because human beings are now known not to be exceptional in this way. Thanks to recent research we can understand how human population growth not only occurs like the population growth of other species, but also presents humanity with a non-recursive biological problem. It means that global human population growth is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop, a relationship between food and population in which food availability drives population growth, and population growth fuels the mistaken impression that food production needs to be increased evermore.

    The best available scientific evidence appears to directly contradict the work of most current and former experts in the fields of population science and human demography, who erroneously hold the preternatural view that the human population dynamics is different from the population dynamics of other species. The textbooks our children and most of us have read are replete with all manner of pseudoscientific evidence regarding ways the human species is somehow different from other species with regard to population dynamics, among other things.

    At least to me, the willful failure of many too many experts to honestly and openly communicate about human population dynamics has profound implications for future human wellbeing and environmental health.

    Thank you for protecting global biodiversity from massive extirpation; preserving Earth’s ecology from irreversible degradation and its finite body from relentless dissipation; and securing a good enough future of children everywhere from reckless endangerment.

    Sincerely yours,