Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Best We Can Do?

A superstitious soul might think Mother Nature was trying to tell us something. On April 5th, a mine explosion in the heart of coal country kills 29. Less than a month later an explosion on a deep water oil rig kills 11 more and ultimately destroys the rig itself. In addition to the lives lost, the rig disaster also left a ruptured well head spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico from nearly a mile deep while supposedly smart people scratch their heads and wonder why that blowout preventer failed to actually, you know . . . prevent anything. As the massive, and expanding oil slick threatens to hit the wetlands and coastal fisheries of Louisiana it seems well past time to ask if this is really the best we can do?

Many will say that these events are a tragedy, but something we have to live with because we 'need' the oil and 'need' the coal. No choice, they'll say. But is that true? Look, fossil fuels are called that because that's what they are: fossils. The end products  of a hundred million years or more of plant and animal life dying and interacting with heat, pressure and other assorted phenomena. These are not resources that are springing magically from the bosom of the earth. They are a distinctly finite sprinkling of combustible materials left from bygone days. The compost of another age. But no matter how you phrase it, this stuff is running out.

This isn't my opinion. It isn't a Liberal conspiracy theory. It's irrefutable fact. You only have to look at what extremes coal and oil companies are having to go to just to keep up the supply. We've tapped the majority of the land-locked oil reserves already and those will be running out faster than you might think. Especially with growing economies like China and India sucking harder on that particular straw every year. So now we're trying to drill wells a mile or more beneath the waves, looking for whatever more we can slurp out of the Earth's nooks and crannies, like butter from an english muffin. Coal mines are wandering for miles under the mountains and in some places they aren't even bothering with mines at all. They just lop the tops off mountains and sift through the remains.

Do you realize that for all the interesting ways we've come up with to use oil, gas and coal that when you strip away the techno fluff we're using energy 'technology' that is little changed from that first moment humans discovered fire? Think about it. In the hundreds of thousands of years since that fateful discovery, no one will ever know exactly when it happened, our primary energy sources have been the burning of assorted materials. Wood, coal, oil, gas, peat, grass, whatever. Is this really the best we can do? Are we actually satisfied with this state of energy production? All that time and "Can we burn it?" is the best we can do? I may be mistaken, but one of the only truly innovative and applicable energy sources we've come up with in all that time is nuclear fission. And that's all about starting a nuclear reaction, without letting it get out of control. So one mistake at the wrong time can have horrible consequences that make oil spills or mine explosions seem like minor traffic accidents. Chernobyl anyone?

So perhaps it's time to pull our collective heads out of the fireplace and start thinking outside the box we've been stuck in for millennia. Man has done a lot of amazing things and figured out a lot of unbelievable stuff, but we're still, when all is said and done, just tossing stuff on the bonfire to see what will burn or explode. I think it's time we tried something new, don't you?

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