Imagine if you will that the world is a teapot. Everything outside the teapot is outer space and everything inside the teapot is the earth. The teapot its self is our atmosphere. Inside there is water and maybe a rock for us to stand on along with all the worlds plants and animals. A teapot hurtling through space would quickly freeze solid with out some sort of heat. The sun is like the burner under our teapot.
So like a burner under the teapot, all energy systems (geothermal and nuclear exempted) on earth originate from solar energy. Coal for example was sunlight that was used to grow plants and animals millions of years ago, hence the term "fossil fuel". Hydroelectric power also comes from sunlight that vaporizes water at low altitudes that then precipitates at high altitudes where we capture the energy difference as gravity pulls it to the lowest energy state possible.
Given the premise that almost all of our energy comes from the sun, what happens to it after it warms our teapot? Some of it is lost to space, there is a steady rate where heat and light energy bleeds off. This is more or less a fixed rate, though the greenhouse effect is slowing the rate, it is important that much of it is trapped or else our teapot would get very cold very fast. Imagine the whistling hole as this energy loss, (though only energy is lost not steam).
Now the real differences between the energy sources we consume is a factor of time. When we rely on solar energy directly for energy, like agricultural products or solar voltaic harvesting, the energy is near real time, meaning we are consuming solar energy that entered our teapot very recently. Wind power is also near real time, as air currents are a product of solar heated air. Hydroelectric takes slightly longer to convert the original solar energy into useful energy sources, but the range is probably between one and ten years.
Fossil fuels on the other hand take millions of years to form. So in essence we are taking million year old sunlight and adding its energy to our teapot right now. We are not bleeding off more heat, so this extra energy is lingering in the system unless we find a way to enlarge the whistle. This extra energy translates to amplified weather patterns and a generally warmer planet. The old notion that the earth was simply too large for us to effect it has been proven catastrophically naive in the face of the massive scale of human industry.
While this description is simplistic, it captures in essence the problem we face with climate change. It is impossible to add energy to a more or less closed system without consequences. We have added a tremendous amount of energy that for better or worse was removed from the system millions of years ago and stored as potential energy. Worse yet, other byproducts of the consumption of this energy is actually acting to trap more energy by changing the way the atmosphere behaves.
The arguments against acting to change energy consumption habits on a global scale all boil down to economics. I find these terribly short sighted, as the economic consequences of not acting are far worse. Threats to property alone, for example, the result of amplified weather patterns far exceed the cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels. We will face economic consequences one way or the other, the question is actually a dime now or a dollar later.
Monday, November 11, 2013
I am working on a change in writing style, moving towards accessibility and narrative. This is a little taste of my new project. As always comments and critique are welcome.
In the still darkness that can only be found hundreds of miles from the nearest city light, a landscape softened by the season’s first snowfall slowly becomes visible as my eyes dark adapt from the bright spark of the cigarette lighter. I sit in muffled silence, allowing the cold to nip at whatever exposed skin can be found under the layers of clothing that I hung from my tired frame for this midnight escape. The only light that can be found is either far off in the distance emanating from one of the far flung neighbors, or from the ceaseless blinking of the technology inescapable on our own farm.
I love this feeling, absolute quiet besides the dripping of melt water from the roof, absolute darkness or as close as it comes today. I sit and revel at the day’s work, reflect on the work of my life in general, and without any sense of urgency or dread ponder my future. In the stillness of this moment so enshrouded by complete darkness any effort would be fruitless; it is just to be enjoyed.
Then the shadow of a ghost flits past, I freeze unsure if my poor hearing actually made out footsteps muffled by the snow and by my own stocking cap. I make a mental note to check the snow in the morning and set back about my myriad of thoughts. Then as if from the barnyard cat across the valley I hear the slightest mewing. Thinking I might get a visit from this forlorn tom, chilled by the progression of the season, I sit motionless and quiet. The neighbor’s cats are not particular to people, they prefer to find their own sustenance most days, stalking the ever abundant rodents that plague both farmhouse and field.
Despite my muffled hearing, I detect a change in direction in the sound, now far too fast to be the result of even the most athletic feline. The mewing, its rhythm and note unchanged, adjusts in volume, quiet for a moment, then louder once again. I realize that the first glimmer that went by was a mother doe, and the mewing was her calf in tow, but several minutes behind. Both went by the tips of my boots no more than three feet in front of me, neither seemingly aware of my presence.
I am reminded of the true nature of the world. In which predator and prey are truly one, secretly aware of their interdependence. I ponder my own place in such a world. Humans waste so much time convincing ourselves that we are different somehow, that we have risen above the base carnal instincts that allowed our ancestors to survive and flourish. But in truth, by negating our rightful place in nature, we are only negating ourselves.
Like the deer across the yard the thought crosses my mind “am I predator or prey?” From the standpoint of evolutionary biology, we are both. From the standpoint of society there are most certainly people who have chosen to allow their predatory instincts to manifest themselves, and those who have become victims of the predatory instincts of mankind.
The deer clearly know what side they are on, it is apparent in the haste of their steps and in the urgency of the calf’s muted call. And in the quiet dark I get a sudden quiver of fear. What if their urgency is warranted as one of the cougars that also inhabit these parts is tracking them to my porch in the complete stealth that can only come with a true predator’s instinct.
But this simplistic “mother nature red in tooth and claw” interpretation of the actions of people ignores the single adaption we have developed that truly does set us apart. Humans cooperate. All of the complexities of modern life are built entirely on cooperation. The advent of agriculture is a cooperative agreement between the farmer and those fed by his surplus. Without this simple agreement, we would still be scavenging the landscape as hunter-gatherer groups of limited number.
Today this agreement is silent, implied, taken for granted. The same abused agreement ripples throughout society. Money for instance, is only worth anything at all, because we all agree it is. The moment a dollar bill cannot be exchanged for a carrot or a slice of bread its entire value is lost.
Suddenly I envy the deer. Its existence is simple; don’t become food, find food, have offspring, help them until they can find food. While people find millions of ways to create self important tasks, the deer simply has four states. The deer even has it better than the cougar, despite winter scarcity, grass doesn't run and hide. The cougar patrols on a relentlessly empty stomach, constantly in search of its next meal.
Humans who have completely abandoned the agreement with the farmer, feel this emptiness. There is never “enough” because tomorrow when they wake up, they will be hungry again. We all wake up hungry, it is an inescapable fact of biology. Some chew their breakfast and wash it down with no more fulfillment that the sterile anthropogenic packaging it came in provides. They discard these remnants as easily as they discard the very agreement with the farmer that gave them the power to do so in the first place.
I would rather sate my morning hunger with the eggs our flock provides, with the vegetables brought down from the only true source of “more” the sun. And in turn I will step out into the morning light and feed the chickens and maybe sow a few more seeds. Every day is a new bargain with nature, a new agreement between the sun and what few organisms are kind enough to play by human rules and are willing to work with me.
To the human contemplating the tag-board box their preassembled “breakfast sandwich” came in, I can offer nothing to assuage the emptiness of that meal. I only ask that you not attempt to fill it with “more” if you assume that “more” can come from anthropogenic sources. No matter how much value is arbitrarily assigned to a suit of clothes or a new car, it will not cure the primal empty felt deep inside. Another million dollars profit today is worthless tomorrow if it doesn't come with a meal.