Sunday, September 06, 2009


Unacknowledged Dependence on Fossil Fuels

The ultimate dependence of our society on fossil fuels is unfortunately not acknowledged by the people who come up with various grand plans to save industrial civilization, the consumer society, and the car culture. I suspect that in some cases people just never think that far, because they are conditioned to assume the infrastructure for modern society will always be there, while in other cases people are disingenuous, and prefer not to bring the matter up and spoil our dreams (or theirs).

Here’s a specific example of this unacknowledged dependence on fossil fuels from Scientific American, a site run by people you would expect to know better. They have an article titled “Will a speed bump power the grid?” The idea — which is in itself a good one, though far too late — is that mechanized speed bumps would use the energy of a moving automobile to generate electricity. The underlying assumption is that the cars will keep rolling. But of course, cars of the future will be powered by hydrogen, biofuels, or electricity, right? Even if that happens, we still have the problem of how we will manufacture cars and build roads. And how are they going to make the mechanical speed bumps, which no doubt use a lot of steel? So this is not really a solution for anything. If people had invented and implemented machines like this long ago to conserve on fossil fuels, it could have at least extended the life of industrial civilization.

Another example is waste-to-power schemes. Consumer society has waste running out its ears, and we’re running out of places to stash the trash. So the idea is to stop landfilling the trash, instead use it as fuel, and generate electricity. Which is fine in itself. But how do you haul the trash? How do you build a waste-to-power plant? And if we look more deeply, we see an even bigger problem: Where does the energy content of that trash come from? The food waste was produced by an energy-intensive agricultural system powered by fossil fuels. The plastic is a petrochemical product. Go through a bag of trash and imagine how much fossil fuel energy is embedded in each item. So ultimately, waste-to-power assumes that the fossil fuel-powered economy will continue, because otherwise there would be no trucks, no plant, and not even a waste stream.

All schemes to keep modern industrial society going should be viewed through this lens of reality, yet we are constantly assured by governments and the media that fantastic new technologies are going to solve our problems, so relax. What we need is to have energy-savvy people take on the role of gadfly and point out this unacknowledged dependence on fossil fuels every time the media and “experts” start hawking some new idea. Either they have a replacement for fossil fuels, or they don’t. There is no in-between.

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