Friday, June 26, 2015

Earth, People, Energy

Energy. It's one of the most intractable preoccupations of world governments these days.

We learned in high school physics that you can't make energy; you can capture it, you can store it but you can't make it. Nature stores the sun's energy in ingenious ways: in the berries we pick and eat, in the coal and oil in the ground, in the wind that drives dynamos, in the snows that fall on mountain tops to melt in the spring and rush down again to drive hydro generators.

Two days ago, we made a quick trip to Saskatoon, I hosted a museum tour, we packed and hauled several carloads of stuff to the condo and by evening, any energy I had captured through eating and stored in my muscles had been spent and I was running on empty. What I was feeling is what the earth is feeling; too much energy demand, not enough charge in the batteries.

But my case was renewable. I could eat stored energy, rest to let my batteries be recharged with it and get up to face another day.

The problem is not so much that we can't capture and store energy enough to move our cars and trucks and trains and airplanes, it's that the processes required to capture and store it threaten to destroy us: greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming, pollution that makes air in China and Mexico city unbreathable, methane gas release that contaminates water supplies, destruction of arable land and life-giving forests.

So the challenge governments face is to capture more and more energy to satisfy the burgeoning demands of a growing population while cutting back on those processes that are—in the end—robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

We've made considerable strides in reducing our demands as in more energy-efficient homes, cars that consume less fuel per kilometre, light bulbs that provide more light energy and less heat energy, etc. But I'm pretty sure that the solution for phasing out fossil fuel energy consumption will require two things: a more serious effort to switch to non-polluting wind, sun and tides energy and a massive tax on energy use so that individual households and industries are actually required to reduce consumption or face significant consequences.

B.C.'s carbon tax is a move in that direction but if Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything) is right, the cap and trade alternative is a farce, a way to put a better face on industrial pollution without actually reducing world carbon emissions appreciably. The NDP government in Alberta has just announced tax disincentives to make carbon dioxide emitters get serious about reducing their contributions to global warming.
We all want to be comfortable and happy, entertained and “massaged.” For some, for instance, that currently means flying to exotic places and warm beaches whenever means and schedules allow. This won't be possible in a post fossil fuel, energy-efficient world. At present, it's only an option for the top 10% (more or less) of world citizens, the same 10% that are consuming multiples of actually-required energy.

In the future world, people won't live in massive detached homes; condos and apartments require far less energy per person than stand-alone homes. They may not own cars but rely instead on commuter trains to get them to work.

Question is, can we be happy living and working closer to home? Can we relearn what it means to take pleasure in small things, in making music, in community dances, in the parks and flower beds just across the road, in a new kind of culture that is far less demanding of energy stored in the earth than on energy delivered daily by a sun that has never yet failed to shine on us?

Can we rediscover the community that actually includes our next-door neighbours?

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