quinta-feira, 31 de março de 2011

Lovelock's Lost Luck; Thoughts on Libya and Japan

Our road towards sustainability is a rocky one at best and on the road we are often distracted. The recent wave of unrest in the Middle East has resulted in the abdication of more than one dictatorial potentate. On the ground that means freedom and democracy for local populations. People power. That’s the good news. The message being aired back home is something else however. Again the talk is about western oil supplies. And it’s one thing to talk about whether or not we need oil; it’s another thing to talk about where it’s coming from. 
If our leaders won’t guide us towards alternative energy sources because it’s best for the planet, they might do so because there’s nowhere safe to buy oil anymore. But then along comes an ally like Brazil offering to pick up the expected slack with their new offshore oil discoveries called “presal”. If Iran and Libya are out Brazil could be very, very in.  That may be good news in the short term but not in the long term.
On the other side of the world the earthquake and tsunami in Japan couldn’t make the use of nuclear energy look any worse. That’s certainly a mix of good news AND bad. You might have been on the fence about nuclear uptil now. After all it’s relatively cheap to produce. And it produces unprecedented quantities of clean and powerful energy. Finally it’s a lot easier for us to insert nuclear into our energy portfolio than solar which just hasn’t been made cheap enough yet for mass distribution. The tragedy in Japan has changed all that though. Already around the globe the world’s richest nations are re-examining their nuclear facilities and cutting back funding for future installations. Germany has even indicated they might even start closing existing nuclear plants. The shockwaves from Japan signal the death-knoll for nuclear energy whether you’re for it or not. What would James Lovelock have to say about that?

So now what do we do? Fossil fuels are out or fossil fuels are in? Depends on who you know in the short run, I guess you’d say, and how much you really care about the earth in the long run. Before “presal” Brazil was expected to become the world’s first green superpower based upon its enormous potential for producing ethanol, or biodiesel. Never mind the land and even rainforest required for that. Now Brazil’s found presal and the US will come charging after it. Brazil is already oil self-sufficient- the USA is not- and the end result (sadly) is no more incentive now for the production of biodiesel there. Not even for their own domestic consumption (does anyone remember the “what’s best for the earth” argument?).  Libya might cease to be an oil exporter but the US doesn’t need them anymore anyway because of what Brazil will have to offer. The tragedy in Japan and the end of nuclear only makes oil more precious than ever for the US and her democratic allies.
Talk about a rotten turn of events.
Many of us now understand that we need to stop exploring for oil (and coal) immediately because any further burning of fossil fuels is just going to tip us over the CO2 edge and we’ll never have a chance at getting back to a cleaner, cooler planet. What we still require is a combination of people power and political will though. As an educated population we have to put the pressure on our leaders and let them know we don’t want the luxury of oil anymore and we are able and willing to adopt new energy practices in a supreme effort to turn things around before it’s too late. However as long as Big Oil (and Big Coal) continue to provide us with relatively cheap energy most people (and our leaders too) are going to go along with that, no matter where it comes from.
It’s the age-old argument of supply and demand. Demand might have begun to wane in the developed west during the last decade or so but it seems if we create more supply the demand will increase again proportionately. Trouble in the Middle East should mean less supply; higher oil and gas prices should result in less demand. And that should cause us to look elsewhere for our energy supplies or, better still, at alternative technologies. If there was no further supply then more affordable, and greener, energy sources- be they nuclear, solar, eolic or bio- would receive more attention and would surely in time, and naturally, replace fossil fuels.
If the people seem incapable of making the necessary changes can we expect our leaders to make those decisions for us? The writing is on the wall after all. The majority of people however, even in developed countries, will just continue to take what is laid before them, good or bad. But if it was made clear to us, or to our leaders- or, better, to both at the same time- that the production of fossil fuels is (undeniably) destroying our planet AND supplies are (definitely) running out then one would think we might then start taking steps towards making the necessary changes. We would react to the crisis if it was crisis that we perceived. What other hope do we have?
Crisis in the Middle East means crisis in the developed world. Nuclear crisis in Japan and the political tsunami it is causing in Europe and North America means crisis too. And crisis is good in the sense that we now urgently re-examine of our energy supplies and demands. Cheap energy from the Brazilian pre-sal deposits and Chinese coal mines should not be seen as a good thing. That’s the first thing to realize. At best they serve us only in the short term. At worse they give us a false sense of energy security that we can ill afford to have at this time in our earth’s evolution. If not for the new oil coming out of Brazil that very same country might have been encouraged to provide us with something truly beneficial in the short and long term…bio-energy. And that might have served as a model for emerging countries with questionable energy portfolios such as China.
So where do we go from here? The emerging energy superpowers China and Brazil might turn out to have nothing new to offer us. Our high hopes only mean business as usual. We’re back to square one. The powers that be that only care for the short term have done well so far this year. Though one card remains to be played. People power. If the abused and neglected masses in the middle east can cause incite change why can’t we do the same in peaceful and supposedly democratic first world countries? If our leaders lead the leaders of the world, why  don’t our peoples people the people of the world? Food, or fuel, for thought.

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