Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Faustian Bargaining

The very concept of "energy independence" for America, parroted by liberals and conservatives alike, amounts to utter delusion. There is not, and will never be, even a rough equivalent to fossil fuels when it comes to powering industrial society in its current form.

So far, the most harmful and immoral manifestation of this delusion is the belief that biofuels and biomass will allow us to continue our journey as it is outlined on the Perpetual Growth itinerary. Developing a biofuel infrastructure to replace our current oil infrastructure would be the equivalent to inviting your car to the dinner table. John Michael Greer offers the best argument I've seen that this is tantamount to sticking your hand in a monkey trap.


Jett said...

While I agree that bio-fuels are no substitute for fossil fuels, don't you think that fusion energy has the potential to deliver the energy densities required to meet our energy needs? I'm not suggesting that we continue to carry around 3500 lbs. of steel, glass and rubber everywhere we go, but isn't fusion energy the next step forward?

Mauricio Babilonia said...

It's true that while fusion may have such potential, there is the substantial issue of not having a functional method for using it as an energy source (current reactors use fission, if I'm not mistaken.)

That's not the point of Greer's writing, which I hope you might find the time to read. He's arguing that the free energy of the moment, fossil fuels, have led us into a Faustian cycle of dependance that we seem unable or unwilling to let go of. Richard Heinberg has pointed out (in his book Powerdown, I believe) that even if we were to find another abundant source of free energy, our current system of infinite economic growth would eventually succumb to things like a loss of biodiversity, population pressure, habitat loss, and depletion of other resources. Et cetera. There's an important behavioral and ethical question here of whether we really should want to be so beholden to any energy source as we are currently beholden to fossil fuels.

Also, I wouldn't argue that alternative sources of energy, biofuels included, are harmful or immoral per se—I'm sure we will continue to develop and use energy alternatives into the distant future—but I must persist that the idea they will somehow allow us to continue our current experiment unabated is unrealistic.

Jett said...

Yes, commercially viable fusion energy is still a number of years off. They've just last year committed to funding the ITER project.

I enjoyed the article. The image of the monkey trap is a good one. I liked the point about the thinking that creates the problem won't be the thinking that finds the solution.

I've got a 16-year-old who has just become a motorist. While I try to encourage less use of fossil fuels, I'm learning first-hand many of the reasons we remain so dependent. I figured an honest look at my own family's decisions to ride the bike or drive would help get underneath the energy issues we're facing.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Really interesting blog. I'll be wrestling with the same issues in about 7 or 8 years. 8-)

I've thought and read a lot about the question of our dependance on machines and the automobile in particular. Besides the obvious, I think there's an element of positioning one's self in the social hierarchy. To not have a car is to be of lower social status, and I remember this being especially true as a teenager.

Jett said...

Thanks for stopping by and also for turning me onto John Michael Greer. He's got some good stuff.

Yes, status is a big part of car ownership. As a consultant, I keep my feelers out for new work and my first qualifying question is whether or not I can ride a bike to work. The recruiter's first impression is I can't afford a car, but that opens the door to point out that cycling is a choice. Atlanta's traffic (35-minute average commute) leaves most people jealous of my commute.

Of course, when I was a teenager, status meant something very different. There were zero girls I could take to the beach riding bikes.

Eight year-olds are a great age. They haven't hit puberty yet ;-).