Posted by: ericgrimsrud | February 20, 2021

Profound long-term effects of our energy choices

Both the racial problems of the USA today and the climate change problem of the entire planet were set in motion by what was originally thought to be appropriate sources of energy that would power our commercial growth.  In both cases, these choices were initially met with great enthusiasm and enabled the American colonies, first, and then the United States of America to achieve enormous commercial wealth. As we now know, however, both of these choices were set in motion before realizing the detrimental long-term effects that would accompany each of them. 

In order to acquire a needed energy source back in the 16th century, the American colonies of Britain began to use slave labor and greatly expanded that practice in the following three centuries. As a result, the black population of the USA rose to about 4 million by the middle of the 19th century, constituting more than 10% of the total population. The USA then fought a civil war over the tension caused by the differing views of how to deal with the issue of slavery. While the 13th amendment eliminated slavery in 1865, the problem of racial inequality in the USA went unaddressed for at least another century until the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. Since then, significant progress has been made but problems remain. Changing our nation from one in which only white people were deemed worthy of full citizenship into one that included equal rights for all of its citizen, including the numerous immigrants who have arrived since the 16th century, has proved to be a difficult task. The white population of the USA today has been decreased to about 59% of the total and in a few more decades whites are expected to become a minority race in the USA. The difficulty that some whites have in adjusting to this fact is thought to be one of the causes of racial tensions today.

The above summary of an important component of US history clearly suggests that our problems in the racial area were set in motion largely by our initial quest for a powerful source of energy back in the 16th and 17th centuries which would prove to be morally unsustainable in the longer run as the Western World increasingly took a distinctly dim view of the entire institution of slavery.   

Yes, indeed, the “chickens” we embraced back in the 16th and 17th centuries sure did “come home to roost” in this case and we still have a lot of work to do concerning its lingering effects on our social system.  

Next, in switching to the problem of global warming, we can see at the onset that this problem was also caused by a long-term conflict between our commercial and social interests. The details of this story are similar to those of the slavery issue summarized above. In the middle of the 19th century, many countries of the world entered what has become known as the “Industrial Age” in which the combustion of fossil fuels is used as a powerful source of energy for doing work. In this case, however, the major detrimental side effect of that change has been invisible to the human eye and, therefore, was not fully realized until the latter portions of the 20th century. We now know that the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels has been accumulating in our atmosphere for about 200 years. Due to the fact that the excess CO2 thereby produced is not removed in a timely manner from our atmosphere by natural processes, the CO2 content of our atmosphere has risen significantly. Today, our atmosphere contains almost 50% more CO2 than it did prior to the Industrial Age. Because CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas, that increase in CO2 has caused a great deal of heat retention leading to continuous increases in our global temperatures. If continued, the future of all forms of life on our planet will be severely impacted, as has been related in countless scientific papers of the recent decades.       

Thus, we are in state of concern today regarding the side effects of fossil fuel use just as the institution of slavery was in at the onset of the Civil War. Just as the southern slave states of the US were reluctant to give up their use of slaves, the producers of fossil fuels today and many of their users are unwilling to give up their hard-won energy sources, natural gas, oil and coal. Therefore, the USA still resides in a fossil-fuel mode even though the dire consequences of doing so have been clearly forecast for at least 30 years. Like the issue of slavery, that of fossil fuel use has now also become a moral one – will we allow ourselves to continue to live in a fossil-fuel-driven manner when we know that doing so will very likely make life exceedingly difficult for our grandchildren and probably impossible for their descendents? The answer to that question – if one has a progressive, freedom- loving conscience – is clearly “no!”, we cannot do that to our descendents just as we could not condemn our black citizens to a life of enslavement back in 1865. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take another civil war in America to decide this issue concerning the welfare of our descendents.

Next, let’s consider the future, where we will very likely be confronted with another relatively new source of energy which again might be accompanied by unintended consequences which we should try to understand and minimize at the onset. What I am now referring to is the use of nuclear reactions for power generation.

After pondering the question of where our needed energy will come from in a post-fossil fuel era, many scientists including me tend to believe that a major portion of that energy will have to come from nuclear power plants – assuming we want a major portion of the world’s existing population to survive. The words of the outlaw, John Dillinger, come to mind:  when he was asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, his response was “because that’s where the money is”.  And so it is with energy – most of it resides at the nuclear level of the atoms.  All other sources of energy provide a pittance of that which can be obtained from nuclear reactions and because mankind is going to need vast amounts of carbon-free energy after the fossil fuel era, nuclear reactors will surely play a big part of meeting those needs.

The bottom line:  It should be clear today that neither slavery nor fossil fuels are going to work anymore as energy sources that will ensure mankind’s existence on Earth in the current and up-coming centuries. Our efforts to harness various renewable sources, such as solar and wind, have been very impressive, but will not provide nearly enough energy to meet even the world’s minimal needs. Nuclear is now the only source that can come close to meeting those needs without bringing with it unacceptable side effects.

To be sure, the story of nuclear power generation in the 20th century includes some well publicized disappointments. But most of those can be attributed to the fact that the goal of previous nuclear research and development during and after WWII was centered on the creation of explosive weapons and not merely on the continuous generation of power. During the 20th and 21st centuries, we have learned enough to make nuclear fission processes safer and more sustainable for long-term use in power generation. At this moment in time, it appears that there is no other promising option on the table for extending the period of human friendly conditions on Earth. We would do well to get used to that likely possibility and support the reinvigoration of nuclear reactions for power generation. 


Responses

  1. Have we solved for a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island? Those are the instances (and the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan more recently) that have folks frightened of nuclear. We need an education process. Would love to see you write a piece for the New York Times Sunday Review section on this topic!

    • Janet. We have to get back to the development of 3rd and 4th generation nuclear power plants that shut down automatically when a failure occurs. An yes, we have to educate the public on the lastest versions of nuclear power. Eric

  2. Excellent article Eric. The historical parallels you describe are spot on. I also agree nuclear – state of the art AI, thorium technologies, etc. pose infinitely less danger to the environment than fossil fuels. As an aside, the quote regarding bank robberies actually was (falsely) attributed to Willie Sutton, a prolific bank robber who never injured anyone and who simply did it for the exhilaration. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willie_Sutton
    Thanks and keep it up the good fight.


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