Thursday, October 04, 2007

Making Other Arrangements

James Howard Kunstler provides some thought provoking visions of what the future may hold as we inevitably deplete what is left of the world's oil and natural gas.

The idea that alternative energy sources, or some technological breakthrough, will allow us to continue business as usual is, in his view - wrong.

He writes, "It is deeply and tragically ironic that the more information that bombards us, the less we seem to understand."

On the other hand there isn't much of a market in the mass media for people who want to tell us as Mr. Kunstler does - that, "We are not going to run Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, Monsanto, and the Interstate Highway System on any combination of solar or wind energy, hydrogen, ethanol, tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates, nuclear power, thermal depolymerization, “zero-point” energy, or anything else you can name."

In his world of the future it's not a question of alternative energy sources but rather finding alternatives sources of transportation, food, government and health care.

Somewhat amazing, but not really, that in this year of presidential debates there is no candidate talking about what we do when fuel becomes so scarce that commuting to and from the suburbs let alone flying ourselves and products around the globe becomes impossible on anywhere near the scale we have become accustomed to.

It's possible Mr. Kunstler is completely wrong but it's probable that at least some part of what he says has an element of truth in it, and to ignore that fact is a very risky bet indeed.

We need to renovate and upgrade our rail systems, totally rethink urban and rural planning, reduce dependence on cars, promote local farming, and recognize that quality of life is not dependent on the amount of cheap plastic crap we can buy at Wal-Mart.

It's not going to be easy to admit the infrastructure we have invested so much in, is no longer appropriate, but my prediction, given the ingenuity of humankind is that the world of the future will include true communities, real work and a much closer connection to the earth....which if you think about isn't such a bad deal at all.


Postscript 10/11/2007 - I anticipate some form of Biomass will be an important source of energy in the not too distant future as the price of petroleum and natural gas rises. In the coming decades elephant grass, switchgrass, hemp, corn, poplar, willow, or sugarcane will be used for producing ethanol and biodegradeable plastic products.

There will be significant trade-offs to consider - not the least of which will be arable land available for growing food vs. energy crops. One option that will become economically viable, if not ecologically desirable from a habitat standpoint, is growing these crops in the logged-out rain forests (assuming we can find a way to enrich that soil or find crops that can thrive in it).

Ethanol is no panacea since it takes significant amounts of energy to grow, harvest and produce this fuel, and although it works for cars, today's jet engines need fuel with a higher concentration of energy.

This PDF file of a NASA report on Alternative Fuels and Their Potential Impact on Aviation talks about some of the challenges involved. A summary of that paper can be found here

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