Sunday, August 13, 2006

All or nothing

I’ve had a number of thoughtful comments in response to my post, “Al Gore’s Shell Game,” which I used to write about the debate over a proposed wind power project in the Carrabasset Valley region of Maine.

A recent commenter, posting anonymously, brought up some issues I wanted to address. I think they are germane to the discussion and it also presents me with an opportunity to clarify a couple of my original points.

I made the point that the wind farm project should go forward, because it provided us with an energy alternative and one that would lessen our use of coal, or petroleum and not contribute to global warming. This person took issue and shared the following comment.

This [the premise that wind doesn’t add to global warming] is just patently false. one does not just wave a wand and have the infrastructure appear. The raw materials for a wind farm and its transmission lines have to mined with machines; machines that invariably run on oil. The insulation that wraps the transmission lines is derived from petroleum. The cement required to seat the windmills on requires oil to manufacture and deliver. Ultimately all current and proposed components of alternatives to oil consumption are dependent upon oil for their manufacture to begin with.”

I would have to agree with this comment, as my enthusiasm for wind got the better of me. I know better and have written about those very issues, particularly last summer, when I was reading Jim Kunstlers, “The Long Emergency.” Kunstler delves into that very issue in the chapter about why there are no viable alternatives to oil, as a cheap and abundant source of energy.

Ceding a point to the anonymous poster, however, I’ll clarify my original point. While wind isn’t a “perfect” alternative, it is still an alternative that is worth trying. I have read extensively about peak oil and I’m aware of the issues that the end of cheap oil poses to our society and yes, our civilization. Anonymous goes on in his/her comments, “My own feeling is that the children of the future might actually be better served by just weaning off the industrial mammary altogether. Who actually proved that life is more fulfilling as a post industrial inhabitant compared to pre industrial standards? I've lived off the grid and in a less than permanent structure. It was the most difficult period of my existence. It was also the most rewarding. The drive to preserve as much of our current form of existence may actually end up obliterating the very set of conditions that allowed life to arise in the first place. I think it would be wiser to act to live on fundamentally less, rather than trying to preserve every fraction possible. For that, I say no to wind....”

This last part is where I have a concern and I want to speak to the need for every question to be settled by an “either, or” solution. I think this is dangerous and I believe that this tendency is where many of our current issues get bogged down.

I’m not sure how our society will ever “wean itself off the industrial mammary” without being forced to, either by the gradual decrease of cheap oil coming from the spigot, or government mandating that American consumers use less gasoline, build smaller homes and waste less petroleum by our current consumption-based societal model.

When faced with an "either, or" proposition like the one that anonymous presents, the average person, with little or no knowledge of peak oil, alternative options for energy, or experience living a simpler lifestyle, will reject the argument and continue their merry march to perdition.

We can choose to do nothing, which is where we are currently at, or we can begin to organize and bring the issues surrounding our current consumptive way of life into the public square. While I did take a cheap shot at Al Gore, maybe his movie will have the affect of making global warming a topic that ordinary Americans begin to think about and consider?

While wind and other alternatives, such as solar, are far from perfect, they certainly are superior to the members of the current administration, who are committed to having us revert to coal as an “alternative” to cheap oil. The damage that coal mining has produced (and continues to cause) to the environment (think Eastern Kentucky) is why we need begin to think outside of the box when it comes to producing energy.

I applaud those who have “gone off the grid,” however, not everyone is able, or willing to go to that extreme. I don’t think we have to demand that everyone cut their connections to their local public utility, or kill their televisions, to take steps in the direction of energy independence.

While thinking about the comments and pondering the “either, or” dilemma surrounding various discussions and issues, I came across an organization called Democracy Maine that sounds interesting. While I don’t know a lot about what they do, I did find their stand against extremism intriguing.

I plan on exploring the organization and hopefully, reporting back with more information.


Anonymous said... is good site on peak oil

Joe said...

While I appreciate anonymous' commentary and concern, I'm afraid that I think some of his/her arguments are non-starters. To wit:

The raw materials for a wind farm and its transmission lines have to mined with machines; machines that invariably run on oil.

Yes, but if we're replacing our current electrical generation in the NE (which does not burn coal) with coal-based plants, the raw materials have to be mined with machines that run on oil.

The insulation that wraps the transmission lines is derived from petroleum.

Same as from a coal-based plant.

The cement required to seat the windmills on requires oil to manufacture and deliver.

Same as for a coal-based plant.

Building a wind farm certainly does create an impact on the environment. The differences come when the wind farm is built.

With a coal, oil, or LNG fueled plant, fossil fuels are used to build the plant, fuel the plant, and to deliver the fuel to the plant. In many cases, the machinery used to simply extract the fossil fuels uses more resources and alters more of the landscape than do wind turbines. This doesn't even take into consideration the construction of the actual fuel-burning plants. With wind, no fossil fuels are used to fuel the plant or to deliver the fuel to the plant. Instead, freely-available energy is used.

Finally, once the wind farm is in place, there is little further negative environmental impact. It's a clean, emission-free fuel. Yes, there is a negative impact on sitelines, yes there may be some impact on animal habitats and a threat to birds and bats. Properly sited farms will mitigate these issues.

Fossil fuel-burning plants also need to be sited properly, but they produce a byproduct - the emission of pollutants. These pollutants damage sitelines (smog), introduce toxins into the food chain (mercury), degrade habitats, and contribute to global warming that will lead to large scale changes in habitats, be it coastal areas that are sunk under rising seas, or alpine habitats that are forever changed by rising temperatures. The impact on broad landscapes will be innumerable, and much more severe than the localized impact of wind farms.

So, again, while I appreciate the sentiment, I believe that this kind of argument against renewables is unconscionable. Pointing out the negative impacts of building a wind (or solar, or whatever renewable) infrastructure simply obfuscates the much larger negative impact of staying the course with fossil fuels.

Anonymous said...

My seeming polarisation on the subject of alternatives is a result of my view that most plans to deal with peak oil only address the symptom as opposed to the disease. PO is a symptom; much as global warming, population overshoot, ecosystem destruction and the full range of resource depletion are only symptoms. The disease is mankind's inability to understand and live in within the host's limits. Have no illusion, one can reason with the lizard brain into a compromise that seeks industrial-lite solutions to maintaining industrial capacities and consumption modes, but the host will have the last say.

My reasoning behind eschewing talk of alternatives within the context of sustainability is that ultimately they are not. It is quite possible that much above a stone age existence is ultimately too great a load on our host. Remember, all of the inputs for sustainable technologies are finite. Currently we are probably experiencing the acme of petroleum production. The same will happen to iron, copper, nickel, lithium, portland, gypsum et al. Why prolong the inevitable and increase the risk that the host will accumulate impacts to the point that most life is rendered impossible? Now is the time to seek that which is truly sustainable while providing for that which is most desirable for durability: knowledge.

Yes, having been born and living in the age of space travel, networked telecommunications and the widest selection of foodstuffs ever known to mankind has been a blast. However, one has to take responsibility for their actions. We do not live in a void. Part of that responsibility is to respect the prime nature of existence: replication of the species. I have what I fully understand is a fringe opinion. That does not make it unreasonable or incorrect. Civilisation does not have to disappear in order for man to come into balance with his host. It will have to learn to accept that the comforts provided by resource plundering will have been a blink in its history if there is history to be written at all past the coming years.

Anonymous said...

"Finally, once the wind farm is in place, there is little further negative environmental impact."

What is the lifespan of the rotors? What is the lifespan of the dynamos? How long are the pads stable in the force of those winds? How long will the towers last before developing stress cracks.

Wind was only the example at hand. The crux of my argument, which I feel has been missed, is that no amount/range of alternativing is going to be that which provides homo-sapiens with sustainablilty. We need to adopt a road to deconsumption. One which eschews all plundering of finite resources. One which may indeed resemble a much more primitive existence than is comfortable for discussion, but may be the only way in which we do not spoil the host to the point where no life is possible....

Joe said...

"The disease is mankind's inability to understand and live in within the host's limits."

Admitted, but the human population is currently, what? 2x - 3x that which is sustainable by the planet? Is step one in the process to eliminate 4-5 billion (or more) people?

Assuming that's not an option, it sounds like you are advocating trying to convince 6.5 billion people (or even merely 300 million US citizens) that they need to "live within the means of the planet." Color me skeptical about how successful that will be. (Most) people aren't going to change their behavior unless they see a direct threat to themselves, and there just aren't enough people (or even governments) who see a threat to themselves at this point in history. Basic human nature leads us to continue consuming as long as we can survive - and nowadays it's difficult to convince some people that they can survive without an IPod or cell phone, much less without driving on vacation.

So I'm coming at this problem as one that will require a decades-long process to solve. To me, a legitimate basic first step involves the way we generate electricity. Today we pull up fossil fuels, burn them and send some electricity out on the lines. Tomorrow, maybe we dig up the fossil fuels, burn them, and build a wind turbine that will send electricity out on the lines for decades (and reduce carbon emissions). Use our resources to tap the readily-available enery carried by the wind, the sun, and the water. The ideal solution? No. One that we might be able to accomplish in the next 10 years? I think so.

I say get people used to using (more) sustainable power now. Get them used to recycling perfectly good metals instead of landfilling them. Get long-term use out of the earth's resources, instead of one-time use. We need to do this now in order to be better prepared for further action when judgment day approaches.