Browsing for Alternatives

When we talk about energy, we often seem to be stuck thinking of energy as something we have to pull or explode out of the ground. When I think about “energy” and “power,” I think about industry, huge electrical plants. I may even begin thinking about nuclear energy, but it takes longer for me–even environmentalist me!–to consider solar, wind, or hydro-generated power.

These are all “alternative” energy sources. Yet they’re alternative mostly because they’re relatively scarce. In a different sense of “energy,” these are all primary energy sources. We call petrochemicals “fossil fuels” not because they are old and buried in layers of rock, but because crude oil was, originally, living matter, dead organisms like algae bound up, highly compressed, and intensely heated into the oil we know and love.

We have living organisms because of solar energy, not because of fossil fuels. And it took millions of years of geologic pressure for those living organisms to turn into petroleum. It is often argued that using fossil fuels has enabled humans, as a species, to make great advancements in technology and standard of living. I think there is some validity to this, though I’m hesitant to allow this argument to justify our current overconsumption.

While it is true that Western society seems to have benefited from industrialization, I am (a) unconvinced that this is a universal truth for all human societies and (b) now that we’ve launched ourselves into the technological age, it’s high time we use that technological prowess to generate power in ways that won’t disrupt ecosystems.

Our current “energy problem” is this: there is a growing demand and a shrinking supply of readily available fossil fuels. However, this problem is only a problem if we limit ourselves to fossil fuels. If we can consider other kinds of energy sources and ways of reducing energy demands, we’re looking at an entirely different problem.

Here are two interesting examples of this kind of thinking:

Yes, donkeys in Western Turkey and refrigerators made out of clay are not going to solve the world’s energy needs. But that’s not what they’re claiming to do. They’re taking small bites out of a large problem. Or, another way of looking at it, they’re solving small problems with small solutions.

We tend to like big solutions: this much X could meet the world’s energy needs. But I think the growing trend (or at least I am hopeful that this is a trend) is to look at specific ways we use energy and specific ways we could meet those needs without fossil fuels, as this is what the future looks like: a world without fossil fuels.

But maybe it is also a future with more donkeys carrying solar panels, and I’m okay with that.


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