daybreak over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, photo by Chris Aikman

Dreams of the Future

At times the world seems to face multiple crises, all at once. These are such times. We have an economic crisis, a climate crisis, an energy crisis, a food crisis, a poverty crisis, a democracy crisis, a refugee crisis, a habitat crisis, and an extinction crisis. Can I stop now?

On a little reflection, these problems are interrelated: they all arise from a competition over limited resources. In particular, they mostly arise from a competition for energy, the master resource that powers all human activity. And an economy that is based on a single declining resource, namely fossil fuels, will only worsen as the decline advances. Isn't that obvious? We can't solve any of our attendant problems unless we can resolve the energy issue.

But consider this: the world contains everything that is needed for human happiness and prosperity. Every material thing we have is reusable or recyclable: we can waste material resources, but we cannot run out of them. Our food supply is inherently capable of feeding every planetary citizen, in abundance, if we have to power to cultivate, harvest and transport food. The only resource that faces irreversible decline is the supply of fossil fuels.

Every day, the world receives roughly 15000 times more energy from the sun than is used by all forms of human activity. Can we harvest one ten-thousandth of this ambient energy to grow our food, heat our homes, manufacture and move our products, and transport ourselves around? If so, then our energy and climate problems are solved! All the other crises become inherently solvable, and it is very important to understand why this is so.

Fossil energy is proprietary. It takes a great amount of capital to find its hiding places deep within the earth's rocky layers, and a great deal more capital to exploit it and prepare it for market. Those people, corporations or nations that can perform such tasks will inevitably amass great wealth and power, at the expense of all others. Surely we are all witness to this.

Sustainable energy is not like that at all. It does not have to be found: it is in sunlight, in falling water, in wind and waves and tidal currents, and in the geothermal regions of the earth's crust. Sustainable energy is distributed more or less uniformly over the whole planet: there are no "haves" or "have-nots" for this resource. It does not belong to anyone: it is part of the commons. Excepting perhaps geothermal, it does not require immense investment to harvest it. And once the harvesting equipment (photocells, wind and water turbines, wave action generators, or deep circulation networks) is in place, the energy itself is free. And inexhaustable. It is actually a misnomer to call it renewable energy, for we do nothing to renew it. It is sustainable. Even if it is intermittent, it is inexhaustible, forever, until the sun burns out! Anyone with initiative can harvest its benefits. For practical reasons, sustainable energy is best harvested by community-sized projects. This practicality is dictated by the scale height of the winds in the atmosphere, and by the depths we need to drill into the earth's crust to find hot rocks. Another practicality to be dealt with is storage, which can be best accomplished at a local to state/provincial level. Overall, though, there is no inherent advantage to centralizing sustainable energy harvest.

All of which means that a sustainable energy society will be a lot more equitable than a fossil-powered society. Is it any wonder that the political elites, the servants of wealth and privilege, are so reluctant to encourage sustainable energy harvesting?

The dream of a sustainable, more equitable society free of conflict is not only possible, it is surely inevitable. Once the fossil fuels are exhausted, it will be the only society possible. Once developed and emerging nations transfer their energy dependence from proprietary fossil sources to local, sustainable energy harvesting, a major driver of human conflict will fade into history.

We do know the one effective cure for population growth is prosperity, so let us use the prosperity of a more equitable society to stabilize the global population at some reasonable level. We need to be realistic, but not pessimistic. Statements that we need the resources of three or six Earth's to sustain a reasonable standard of living for the planet's population assume that we will continue in our profligate use of resources, particularly fossil energy. It will not be so. It cannot be so.

More perspectives:

Awakening the dreamer
Culture change

"The capacity to anticipate and chose our future
is a defining characteristic of the human species

- David Korten

"The future is not a gift: it is an achievement.
Every generation helps make its own future.
This is the essential challenge of the present."

- Robert F. Kennedy

"Everything starts with a seed. Sowing the seeds is always the hardest work.
You have to do so much of it in faith because nothing grows in our hearts or in the ground overnight."

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