City Hippy

The diary of our struggle to live a green and fair life.

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Monday, March 28, 2005

OPINION: Not a Drop to Drink

Charles Dickens gave us one of the most memorable sentences in English literature when he said, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Arguably it's the worst of times in the United States if you choose to call yourself an environmentalist. If you believe this singular planet we inhabit is more than a simple commodity to be exploited, you have a right to be mildly despondent. Certainly if you're one of those Americans who now considers the American government the principal element of a worldwide environmental problem ... well. But what about the "best of times?" Be patient dear reader as Mr. Dickens would say. We still have the worst of times to contemplate.

We are running out of oil. Now that's a big problem. The when is still being debated, but not the if. Who says? The oil companies for one. But there are others like the U.S. Geologic Survey, the U.S. Department of Energy, and many independent studies. The most optimistic say the spigot will be a trickle by the end of this century. The most pessimistic say we will face some very bleak consequences within ten years.

But what about all those alternative energy sources--wind power, hydroelectric power, geothermal, and solar cells? Perhaps physicists may even discover the subtle secrets of controlled nuclear fusion! Then we'll have fuel that will last practically forever, and best of all no carbon dioxide--no greenhouse gases--will be produced. Hope does spring eternal. In my part of the country ethanol is touted ( by the politicians ) as the new renewable energy source. You can find a lot of "corn" in the Midwest.

What the politicians don't know or don't want to tell their constituents is that ethanol as a fuel may require more energy to produce than it provides. Its use could be quite limited. Unfortunately, nothing just mentioned is ready to become a substitute for oil. Leaving the SUV in the garage may be the least of our problems.

Some thirty years ago Chairman Mao dragged the People's Republic of China through the unmitigated disaster called the "cultural revolution." Self-sufficiency was the cry. Mao advised the Chinese to build backyard steel furnaces. This was genuine faith-based science.

In short, finding alternatives to oil and reducing greenhouse gases is ultimately not a backyard endeavor. These will be major national and international undertakings, requiring cooperation on a global scale. It will undoubtedly require leadership from what we euphemistically call the "first" world countries. Now are we ready for the best of times?

A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey reported that global warming is "poorly" understood by the public, and the environment ranks number 13 on a list of 22 items that Americans consider the most important issues facing the country. Concerning global warming, U.S. elected officials, the survey suggests, will likely not provide the necessary leadership because of economic costs the average citizen may be "willing" to pay.

On the other hand, the German government has made a policy decision to make the transition to renewable energy by 2020. It seems that the elected politicians have made this collective judgment, with considerable help from informed and involved citizens. Finally, "scientific analysis" has been the basis for establishing this policy.

What is to be done?, for example, has more than one million people around the world that have joined various "meetup" groups, encompassing everything from vegetarianism to environmental activism. There are numerous 'action" networks posted on the internet. The good news is that an increasing number of these groups have become politically astute, are comfortable working outside traditional structures but, at the same time, are familiar with how governments and global corporations work. Even more important is how these groups have slowly learned the methods of presenting the issues in understandable ways.

The "best" of times has clearly not yet arrived, but to leave you with one final word from Mr. Dickens. Let us be moral. Let us contemplate existence. And the sooner the better.


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