|Energy and the Curse of Interesting Times
Reputedly, an ancient Chinese curse says, “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, for those working in energy related fields, times are interesting. We find ourselves at the center of a growing debate pitting the economics of energy against our desire to act as good stewards of the earth.
On one side of this controversy are those who see dark clouds on the energy horizon. For them, the dual thunderheads of threatened oil supplies and global climate change cast a pall over the future. Many believe the tempest is already upon us. The surge in oil costs is blamed on global demand surpassing supply. From now on, the thinking goes, it is all downhill for production and uphill for prices. As if this were not enough, there is the second storm cloud—global climate change, or more familiarly, global warming. The release of greenhouse gases is seen as causing the worldwide retreat of glaciers and snowfields, prompting speculation that the icecaps over Greenland and much of Antarctica may melt and lift sea levels by six to 25 meters. Florida would disappear beneath the waves, as would many inhabited islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people would be displaced—their homes, villages, and cities flooded.
On the other side of the argument are those who feel that such catastrophic predictions are overblown. These people look to history and note that there has never been a time without doomsday scenarios and impending shortages. They believe continued exploration, advancing technology and the exploitation of unconventional petroleum resources will offset diminishing energy supplies. As for global warming, they remember 1970s-era predictions of a coming ice age that never materialized. So, given the uncertainties of climate modeling and the costs associated with limiting greenhouse gas emissions, they wish to wait for more compelling evidence.
Hearing the issue discussed from all sides, many in the United States find themselves mired in ambivalence. In one instant they envision a future where energy is no longer plentiful; a future where the atmosphere has warmed, creating widespread drought; a future where the icecaps have melted and coastal cities are flooded. The image is a disturbing one, and many are motivated to take action—to stop burning fossil fuels and outlaw gas guzzling cars. In the next instant, the uncertainties and costs associated with relinquishing energy seem too great. For while other species use energy to feed their bodies, for us the greatest part of energy consumption goes to nourish our imaginations. All that we are, all that we hope to be, requires energy. We are not junkies “hooked on energy.” We are creative beings, reliant on energy to give substance to the things we imagine. So under the harsh prospect that such creativity and imagination might starve, the resolve of the instant before withers. In such doubt and uncertainty, the ambivalent among us look for guidance and reassurance. Some look to Mines for the expertise to resolve these issues. What advice should be given?
While pondering this question, it is worth remembering that this is not the first time humankind has confronted an energy dilemma. Energy shortage is apparently part and parcel of cultural development. Some societies do not survive their brush with scarcity; others do. The Maya, Anasazi and Easter Islanders used their energy resources to sustain complex cultures distinguished by magnificent art and architecture. When their energy resources were exhausted, these civilizations vanished, leaving behind only buildings and monuments to mark their passing.
The cultures of medieval Europe were more fortunate. On the eve of the industrial revolution, the prime energy source of the time was under threat. Great parts of the European continent had been logged for arable land, timber and energy. Much as today, governments recognized the impending crisis but were up against their own insatiable appetites for navies and iron weapons to guarantee national security. The citizenry required steel tools, timber, glass, lime and bricks for buildings, and creature comforts like home heating fuel, beer and distilled spirits. For these, and other things, the clearing of timberland for energy could not be halted, or even slowed. Eventually, coal was forced on a deforested Europe as the fuel of last resort.
Even as the forests of Europe fell to the woodsman’s ax, a great debate raged among the most acclaimed scientists of the day—Newton, Descartes and Leibniz—as to exactly what energy was. They called it “the living force.” But when it came to quantifying it, or measuring it, they were clueless. No one of the period recognized that work and heat are simply forms of energy, or that work can be converted entirely to heat—though heat cannot be converted wholly into work. Thanks to scientists, philosophers and engineers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, all of this is now common knowledge. We know the maximum work that can be extracted from heat, and how to build machines that operate near this optimum efficiency. We know how to store and liberate the energy of chemical reactions, and how to harvest the energy held captive inside the nuclei of atoms. We know how to convert sunlight, wind and waves into electricity, and transmit it over vast distances. We know how to turn coal into a liquid to fuel our cars. We know of vast supplies of “pre-oil” locked in rock and how to process it into the real thing. We are now alert to many of the environmental pollutants generated through unrestrained energy use, and have developed technologies to scrub combustion gases free of these harmful contaminants. We know that the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide intensifies global warming, and we have developed and are developing technologies to sequester the gas.
Whereas the people of medieval Europe had to settle for the energy future given them by happenstance and necessity, today the world possesses the knowledge and technology to design the future. This is the message that scientists and engineers have to offer: The experience of thousands of years has been turned into knowledge, and with it, we can shape a new world where we must neither deprive ourselves nor threaten the earth.
This optimistic, “technology will win out,” view of the future is not that of the majority. For many, technology is seen as the cause, not the cure, for our energy ills. Changing a worldview will not be easy. The effort will demand a state of mind characterized by a temperament of the will, imagination, courage and, above all else, an appetite for change. These are the qualities of youth, and thus, it is young people from Mines and our sister institutions around the world who must take the lead. They, and their young colleagues everywhere have had thrust upon them a great burden of responsibility.
The Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli said, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” This task falls to this generation’s scientists and engineers.
As Robert Kennedy observed in his “Day of Affirmation Address,” when it comes to setting the world upon a different course, the road ahead will be littered with barriers. First is the barrier of futility: in this case, the belief that the array of obstacles blocking the path to a secure and sustainable energy future are too numerous and too monumental to surmount. The second barrier is that of expediency: the belief that optimism and convictions must yield in the face of practicality. The third barrier is comfort: the temptation to abandon the race to claim financial success dangled before those who have the privilege of education. But to be stopped by any of these barriers is to suffer the curse of interesting times.
The force that will lift us over all these barriers is imagination and commitment. The hard-won knowledge of a hundred generations can be used to inspire. More than at any other period in history, the knowledge and expertise of engineers and scientists will be needed to see us through these interesting times. In due course, we at Mines will judge ourselves by our contributions in building a new world where safe and clean energy is plentiful and available to all.
Mark Eberhart is a professor of chemistry and geochemistry and teaches