Alternative Energy: Business as Usual. With Less Carbon.


I’m looking at the party-line storybook future, and it seems that they all lived happily ever after!

It’s a win-win.  Big Carbon gets to stay in the game for another generation by offering a golden “natural gas bridge” to a better future for mankind and the planet. For our sakes, they will drill baby drill any blessed (or cursed) place on earth til the last drop. And we should thank them for fracking us into tomorrow. (Or maybe not.)

The ALT folks ramp up, best they can, without much love from petroleum-romanced governments, but the assumption is that once we survive and make it to the other side of the bridge at exactly the same level of consumption, remaining carbon stays in the ground, ALT carries the day and in the long run, we’ve not broken stride at all. It’s business as usual with less carbon.

And the beauty of this model is that there was never any of the messy, inconvenient whining about our energy, water, nutrient, forest or other “footprints” insisting that we make do with less of everything in the “developed” world.

Conservation is such a bummer. So let’s avoid ever talking about it. Or population stuff–such a buzz kill! No our future is a win-win. Big Carbon is happy. Big ALT is happy. Western Consumers are happy, and the new ones in India and China can play too!

IMG_0230energyModel3_480I’m sorry. That story of a big-as-ever foot-printed future that is “sustainable”–or desirable–is a work of fiction. The world’s biomes will not stay viable enough for long enough under this plot-line to reach the happily-ever-after final chapter where our hero walks hand and hand with flower-garlanded Mother Earth surrounded by butterflies and bluebirds and every one of her people drive poop-powered HumVees.

In this draft of the future, there are too many taking too much for too long to give us eternal golden eggs like the ones our brief fossil fuel romance have provided. Big ALT is not a permanent solution at global scale since it will ultimately be limited by escalating demand for vanishing stocks of metals and rare earths for construction and replacement.

Sorry, Big Carbon–your fate is already visible in today’s divestment movement.  So the Good for Biz model is a happy fiction. The real future is not so rosy, and we are not doing ourselves or our children any favors pretending this blue marble can support 10 billion of us extracting, consuming and disordering the planet at the present Western World pace.

And who is talking today about what comes after Big ALT? Why are we not hearing NOW about pushing back from the table, voluntarily, pro-actively so remaining carbon and expanding ALT goes farther? Do we have to wait on our governments to insist that the engines of our economy throttle down before it is too late? Can the steady-state economy of the future be driven from bottom to top?

We could eat less meat; drive fewer miles; keep the unnecessary electricity turned off for x hours a week. I would be willing to conserve, to tighten my belt, to do without and with less.

But if our corporate-national and corporate-global machinery keeps saying bigger, shinier, faster and our species procreates like bacteria on a dead carcass right down to the bone, we’ll hit the wall. That’s not a happy ending we want our kids to be a part of. In OUR lifetime we are writing the final paragraphs for this particular chapter of Earth history. Fellow writers: how shall we make it end, do you think?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I get real discouraged by these truths. Too many paradigm shifts necessary to happen without it being driven by a catastrophe. Population control on top of everything else.