Bumping into Limits

Perhaps many of you reading this watched the CBS 60 minutes show last Sunday on cold fusion power and its renewed potential.  If not, you can view it here.  I must admit I am still pretty strongly among the unbelievers.

One reason I am still not convinced is that any fusion reaction leaves different chemical elements than what it starts with.  So if you have D2O and you process it through cold fusion then you must get some form of helimu (He).  Why they did not look for the helium in addition to the excess heat is surprising.

But for the sake of this essay, let’s suppose that they have found the key.  Then like they state in the 60 Minutes piece, it is a very big deal.  Because it represents a rather limitless source of power that is both clean and plentiful and potentially very cheap.  Wow.

Such a discovery has very deep importance to steps that we are taking as a world now.  The mutiple threats of global warming, CO2 build up, rapidly declining amounts of fossile fuels, rapidly developing new large population nations.  All of these could be solved by this single discovery.

One problem that this presents is that we are investing in some very long term strong alternatives to carbon based power – wind, solar, geothermal – to name a few.  And also we are investing in changing the energy usage equation by increasing efficiency of everything from motors to lighting.  Those investments could be curtailed if we have this different future.  Do we want that?

What has me reflecting is the idea that with this “flick of the technology magic wand” we eliminate the problems to all visible extent.  But most likely not for very long.  The fact is we are now living at a time when human interaction with the earth happens on a global scale.  We light it all up, we have explored nearly all of its surface and waters, we routinely do terraforming projects that are visible from space.

So if we are able to use technology to once again remove a limitation we face, won’t there be more.  And aren’t they likely to come up pretty quickly?  If we were to record moments in time when humanity faced limits that required care on our part for survival we would see, I suspect, that these are occuring with ever greater frequency and with shorter time spans between them.

For example, there were –

  1. a crisis of food and pollution that came around the time of the industrial revolution.  The one was solved by better farming technology.  As we also built factories so we could all have better underwear, towels and such, we ended up polluting the cities of that time so bad that people were sickened from the dirt in the air and water (let’s date this one at 1850)
  2. a crisis relating to the scale of war that occurred in the 2nd World War from both the atomic bomb but also the ability to deliver mechanized killing anywhere in the world through the use of airplanes and rockets. (date – 1945)
  3. a crisis relating to feeding the world’s rising population occurred again in the 1950-1960s but was solved through better chemicals, better genetic strains of crops and better.  (date – 1965)
  4. combination of oil, climate change, loss of biodiversity (already discussed) (date – 200x)

So my question is if we pull this one out, do we really solve anything unless we deal with the long term fact that humans are dominating the planet.  Is this fact something we can deal with and pull back from, live in harmony with the rest of life and the planet’s resources?

How does this really change anything?

Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Spiritual Threads

Myth and Transformation

I have been asking myself the question – “How are we supposed to live in this age of carbon limits and energy sustainability?”  And it seems to me that we cannot accept or require that each person live under some intricately defined limits and rules but rather perhaps we can live in fairness to one another if we could agree to live sustainably by some broad but quantifiable definition.  (Others have asked this question – Peter Singer wrote a book with this title but it was more focused on how we treat living animals than energy)

By systainable, I mean that for our energy lives perhaps we all agree by 2020 or some date that we live where we produce as much energy as we use.  It may be that such a goal can only be achieved by some fraction of society by that time.  Perhaps some progressive phase in of this objective such as the wealthiest 10% of the country must achieve this by 2020 and then the top 25% by 2030, the top 50% by 2040 and so forth.

But key to this is how we begin to make the transition.

I have been reading a terrific book entitled – “The Constant Fire” by Adam Frank.  Adam Frank is a PhD astrophyscist by training (something we share in common) but this book is highly approachable.  In it he carefully lays out how we have put science up on a very high pedastle but in fact it is only the latest (and quite long running) of man made mental constructs that allow us to better understand our universe.

In the past we had the world held up by a turtle or a very strong man and a charriot pulling the various elements in the solar system about in the sky.  Science allows us to make more numerous and more accurate predictions than these previous systems.  But it is hubrious for us to think that our science of today has the last word.

The title of this essay – “Myth and Transformation” relates to the need for us to transform across all of the human family.  We cannot continue to keep buring fossile fuel, polluting the planet, using limited resources.  As a species we have come to dominate the planet in a way never before achieved.  if you look at Earth from space, you know that human beings dominate the planet.

In visible light you see our cities lighting up the night.  In radio light you can listen to radio, watch TV and listen in on internet traffic over various frequencies.  The planet is changing visibly in terms of the geography as well.  The northern polar ice cap is disappearing and that has not happened in a very long time.  Large ice areas in the antartica are also diminishing.  Overall our global temperature is changing and this can be determined from space using yet another frequencey of light.  (Note – radio, visible light, heat or infrared light are all forms of light and obey the same scientific laws)

The evidence is quite strong that if we do not change our directions we will change our climate and biosphere in ways that could damage our planet’s ability to support complex life like human beings.

Ok, Ok, Frank.  But Myth …

It turns out that as we can see Science as our most modern and pervasive myth, we can perhaps be humble enough to use other lessons from human history and our myths in the past.  Myths have been a fundamental way we have been able to make changes.

In early human history boys as they transition to manhood and participated in the hunt (which was dangerous generally) were inducted into this activity through stories and myths.   They might be taken into caves and shown paintings of the hunt and the harm that can come during such times.  The myths of the hunt were its heroics, triumphs and so forth and by the telling courage was given to the boy about to become a man.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr puts it this way in “The Cycles of American History” – “Science and technology revolutionize our lives but memory, tradition and myth frame our response”.

Technology can help us know of the need to change our interaction with our natural world.  Science can make models and projections of what will happen if we do not change.  But still we will not change based on these “fact based models” alone.  We need our myths and traditions (probably including our religious traditions) to help lead the transformation.

More on this in the next essay

Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Spiritual Threads