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2050 — The Energy Of Evolution
Chapter 1: Dependence and Vulnerability
We have as a society become almost completely dependent on our ever-increasing need for energy. When looking at the monitor while writing this you would almost take for granted that it shows the fruit of the typing, but that takes energy. The lamp that is on to read the notes on the side, lights because it gets power from a wall outlet. The cold beer before calling it a night is being cooled in the refrigerator right now that, to no surprise, runs on electrical power. The phone that rang just now, the MP3 that's playing on the side, the radio, the TV, the microwave, all of them need electrical energy and most of them are common ground in almost every household in the Western world. Just how bad has it become? Without a continuous flow of electricity coming into our houses, our lives will come to a grinding halt; that is how ‘bad' it has become.
The short list above should illustrate to anybody who still doubts that modern society depends solely on the supply of energy, that this makes us very vulnerable in our way of life. We are not only dependent upon the continuing flow of energy, but also vulnerable to those that wish to hurt it. Their impact on our energy supply may be bigger than we realize, since our society needs every bit of available energy. They may hold us hostage by seizing control over only part of the energy supply.
We need to take action in two ways to avert this type of hostage situation. One is to re-evaluate the extent to which we depend on energy flowing to us uninterruptedly and start thinking about how to decrease our dependency on it. The other is even more difficult; we need to start thinking about expanding the scope of our abilities to generate energy and make it available to us.
The reason for the second action is deeper than meets the eye at first glance. In fact, our very survival may come to depend on it. We need to evolve, or we will perish in the end. Moreover, for our evolution we need energy, lots of energy.
Humanity's steady increase of dependency on energy is not something new, though. Ever since humans began to try to take control over the world around them, it has been a struggle for the control over energy. The fire in the cave to cook food and keep people warm allowed them to live in otherwise uninhabitable places. They then used the same fire to make metal tools from raw iron ore that allowed them to do more work and stave off attacks from neighboring groups of people, making them safer in those places.
Most likely, this is the reason why Neanderthal man could not make it in the end. He failed in the most critical area, which was gaining control over energy sources. He stuck to hunting until he was beaten at even that by more efficient methods used by Homo sapiens. Opposed to hunting, Homo sapiens changed to growing a major portion of his food instead and gained the edge that drove Neanderthal man into extinction eventually.
From that point on mankind, now consisting of only Homo sapiens, increased his control over energy sources in steps and started looking for new ones to control in addition to the one he already did. Most of the time that process went two steps forward and then one step back again. Fire will cook your food and warm your cave, it will even help you clear a stretch of forest really quickly to start growing food on, but it will also level your wood -and-straw hut in a parch-dry summer in Southern Europe, killing your injured little boy in the process, a step backwards in terms of survival for the boy.
Mankind continued searching for an energy source that would have even more advantages and cause less problems. With advantage comes some disadvantage also in general; mankind struggled, but managed to increase control over energy sources he found until an energy source was used to its maximum capacity. The power of water, the wind, the Sun, steam, coal, oil, gas and eventually even the atom were sources of energy that mankind discovered and managed to grab control of.
With the control over energy came wars, as the control over energy did not just lead to power, but also to a more comfortable way of life, worth fighting each other for. The Romans used the energy of the Sun focused through mirrors to set the ships of their opponents ablaze from a distance. That form of control over the energy of the Sun gave them the edge in their wars against Egyptians and Persians. Somehow it is always the negative, destructive side of a new form of energy creation or gathering that gets mankind up and working. If there had not been a search for a weapon to end World War II we might not have nuclear power today. It sounds like a negative approach, but we need to see beyond this.
We need to look at this as the one step back we have to take to make two of them ahead, until we get it right. With the increase of control over energy and its production mankind's level of civilization has grown to what it is today. That did not happen without trouble. As it has been said before, some of the worst conflicts in history, some of the grimmest deeds in history were about energy. Let us take a closer look at some of the less obvious steps back by mankind in an attempt to make two steps forward.
We should not even kick in open doors like the Gulf conflicts, but what about the Crusades? What to think of the reason for Christian knights to go and fight over Jerusalem? That was not just Christianity itself, or the tomb of Jesus. They played a role, no argument there, but there remains the additional reason of the Ark of the Covenant. According to legend it contained the stone tablets with God's Ten Commandments to mankind. These tablets were not to fall in the hands of the ‘Muslim hordes' as the Roman Clergy referred to them, but neither was the Ark that contained them . It was believed to be able to generate energy without limit, whoever would possess it would control its immense power, truly a great treasure to possess even then, worth more than gold for sure. Touching it could kill a man according to the Bible, yet men would give their lives to find and possess this Ark. The search for it continues to this day; it has probably been going for over two millennia now.
Mankind truly understands the value of energy; that he has proven beyond doubt throughout history. It was not just the Crusades that were about the Ark . Jerusalem was destroyed several times before that, even back into BC years and each time the invading army made every effort to try and take the Ark along with them, leaving no stone unturned to get to it.
The list of examples goes on and on, the bottom line does not change. Mankind is dependent on energy supply to evolve. In itself this is logical, as our bodies no longer have to adapt to the outside world. Our evolution has shifted to adapting our surroundings to us instead of ourselves to them. But with that the need for energy continues to grow, at an increasing speed.
Recently, we have started running into a boundary. We can not produce enough energy to sustain the level of evolution we are trying to get into at the moment. Connecting every device we can to the Internet, we have the whole world at a click of our mouse, but this will soon require more energy than we currently have available. It is getting time to take two steps forward again. But considering the amount of energy we are talking about we really will not want the step back that goes with the steps forward. It could be devastating. But let us not worry about the one step back, it will take care of itself, of that there can be no doubt, we can probably not avoid it. Let us first take a closer look instead at what direction we can make the two steps forward in and then see if we can avoid falling back one step in the process and really make some advance for a change.
A little while ago a documentary featured on the Discovery Channel in which an estimate was made on the world's total energy need. The result was that in 2002 on average roughly 30,000 Gigawatts, or an annual total of 1 EptaJoules (that is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Joules (21 zeros)) of energy was consumed world-wide. The expectation is that this amount will increase to three to four times this value over the next few decades. How are we going to get this energy if we are already struggling with our power supply today?
Right now, most energy we consume comes from fossil fuels like oil, natural gas or coal. The reason for that is as simple as it is disastrous: It is the cheapest way. Durable energy forms are expensive almost by definition, so why would we bother about them, if we can get our energy much cheaper? And in order to ensure that their energy remains cheap people will even go to war on other people, in order to influence the market price in their favor.
Only France decided a few decades ago to really invest into nuclear power, because they wanted to remain independent of the oil power structure in the seventies. But even there the voices to close nuclear power plants instead of building new ones are gaining ground. The position of the old-fashioned energy sources is not letting go even there.
There are obvious downsides to following the path of this simplest solution. The first and foremost of them is that our current resources will end and they will end soon. While we keep discovering new supplies, still the total amount of fossil fuels will last us a generation into the future at most, according to recent estimates. After that we will simply have to look for something else, because there will be no more oil, coal or gas to use as fuel or it will be too expensive to get above ground for use. But why would we wait for that moment to hit us in the face? The point that there is not enough left to last for a decade is approaching fast and will only start to drive the price up, a process that is certain to harm our precious little economy.
Another downside, at least as important to some, of no import apparently to others, is our natural environment. Burning up all the coal and oil we currently do produces huge amounts of carbon- and sulfur-based waste products, which are still being emitted in gaseous form in large quantities, even though man by now has started realizing that he needs to breathe too. New technologies are thought up and put in place to reduce pollution, with considerable success, but there is still the heating up of the atmosphere by a lot of waste heat. In itself this would not form so much of a problem, if some gases emitted would not be storing this heat, like carbon dioxide does, causing global heating with melting polar ice caps and drastic climate changes as a result. If you add to this the fact that a good portion of the world's population is living on or near sea shores, a rise of sea level by 5 meters only would cause unimaginable logistical problems for all these people to relocate to higher ground.
Basically, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. We need energy to sustain our way of life and evolve further as a species, but in the process of filling that energy need we do just the opposite; we destroy our future chances of life. Do we have the technology to solve this equation? Could we even manage to produce four times the energy we do now, using all modern technology we have in addition to the burning of fossil fuels, let alone instead of burning them? What possibilities do we currently have to gain energy, other than the ones mentioned before? In other words, will we continue to evolve, or will our evolution come to a brutal halt? If it does, we will perish as a species, as a standstill in an otherwise growing world will be fatal to survival, nature is harsh in that respect.
We need alternatives, new ways of producing energy and new ways of solving the problems around the techniques we currently have. Just how deeply are we dependent on energy? Is our dependence less than total? Where can we gain time by saving energy, thus mitigating our need for additional energy somewhat and where can new supplies of energy be found and put to use? We need to take a closer look at techniques for ‘creating' energy, their merits, their downsides, their impact. We must also look at the way in which our current actions are determined by the quest for energy.
One by one most known ways of energy production and storage will be picked out and examined more closely, and we will look at possibilities and problems we find with them. We will examine new, unexplored ways of producing energy, ways that seem out of the box but may prove to be of critical value to us some day. We will try and map their possibilities and consequences. How will they affect our lives, our politics, our health, our transportation, our food supply?
Another thing to look at may not be so obvious . There are consequences to alternative energy for those that have vested interests in the current energy market. An oil broker will not willingly see his income wane away because we think another energy form is better for the environment. And generally power lies where the money is, so we will have to find a way to solve that too.
We will have to appeal to the oil broker through what he cares for most, his wallet. If we find and offer him an alternative market for his oil, he might be willing to change to that market if it will make him equally much or even more money, if we do not offer him an alternative, he will have no reason to go along with any change. Just a thought: oil does not have to be burnt as fuel to provide some value to the supplier; after all we will continue to need our Tupperware, our monitor casings, our CDs, our disposable cups. There is a lot more we can do with plastic, let us think about the re-application of what currently serves as fuel into other, more durable and less harmful products. That way the oil market can continue to exist as long as there is oil to be won. And plastic can be made to be recycled more easily, thus providing us with a lasting resource instead of heaps of garbage lying out there in nature.
We must try and develop a ‘vision' for the world in half a century, starting from the vantage point of energy. The world will have to be re-structured, a new, more durable way of dealing with energy and its waste products will have to be created, or we will fall back into the dark ages. And on that we can agree: we do not want to go in that direction again. A new species, so far ‘inferior' to us could step in and make us go into extinction in the end like we did with the Neanderthal man.
It is a do-or-die exercise; it is all about the long-term survival of mankind. Then again, are they not all? Going to the Moon was also do-or-die, we needed to prove we could go beyond the border of our little blue world, survive in space, to eventually go out there to stay. We managed to do it, and we are planning to do it again. We want to go to Mars also, we will do that too without doubt, it will take us some time, but we will.
Like all processes of growth and exploration, it will be a process of one step at a time. We therefore examine our alternatives one by one and choose when we need to and what we need to, but stand by the choice we make for the sake of the world we live in, for the evolution of mankind. The next step will be taking a closer look at a controversial form of energy, nuclear energy. Let us build a case for it if we can, not by highlighting what is dangerous about it, but how we can keep it in check and what benefit can be drawn from it. We must really look at it as objectively as can be done. Only then can we make two steps forward without falling one step back again.