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Looking at other inconvenient truths

Column by George Sibley

Environment – February 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

ALONG WITH PROBABLY a lot of the conscientious readership of Colorado Central, I’ve seen “the Al Gore Movie,” An Inconvenient Truth — although it’s been so culturally “mediated” that I didn’t really need to actually see it to know what it’s about and get the message. Gore’s Inconvenient Truth is that we humans are putting humongous quantities of heat-trapping gases into the planet’s atmosphere that are changing the global climate in unpredictable, often violent, and potentially catastrophic ways, and we only have about a decade left to get really serious about mitigating this situation.

That noted, however, I would like to put forth some more “Inconvenient Truths” that I would argue might be more serious than Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. In terms of their impact on our lives, these Inconvenient Truths are like mountains obscured behind the hill of climate change in the foreground.

Climate change might, in fact, just be a foreground consequence, a symptom, of these other Inconvenient Truths.

The first mountain behind Gore’s hill even has a mountainish name: Oil Peak. We are probably now somewhere very near the peak in global oil production, and it is all downhill from there. The Inconvenient Truth here is sometimes misstated as “running out of oil and natural gas,” but it isn’t that. We have a lot of oil and gas left. But we’ve consumed all the easy-to-get stuff. What we are running out of is the capability for finding and producing more easy oil and natural gas than we are consuming; the real Inconvenient Truth we are facing here is called “net energy.”

“Net energy” is the amount of gross energy production that is left for use after we subtract the amount of energy it takes to produce the gross energy. Back when oil was gushing, one unit of energy expended in production yielded maybe 50, 60, 80 units of oil energy for use; even today, we get around 25 units of Saudi oil energy for every unit of energy directly expended in production (not including “externalized costs” like environment and “defense” ). But for every unit of energy expended in the tar sands of Canada, which provide a growing percentage of our oil today (five percent now), we only get 1.5 units of usable energy. When we are reduced to producing shale oil, we will be very lucky to find a process that breaks even — a unit of usable energy for every unit expended.

And — biofuels? Given the energy-intensive ways we do agriculture, corn ethanol costs more energy to produce than we gain. The manufacture of solar and wind energy systems consumes a lot of energy before they are even installed. There is probably net energy gain over the life of a solar cell or turbine — but it is nothing like the 50:1 ratio that made America strong, or at least fat.

The Inconvenient Truth: Low net-energy numbers will drag us down. It is impossible to run a society like ours on negative net energy. We can — probably will — go back to coal, but that just worsens Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, and creates other problems the people of 19th-century London and Pittsburgh knew all too well.

Which leaves?

Well, there’s nuclear energy. Isn’t it amazing that the salvation of our way of life might rely on what we used to call “a Faustian bargain” ? But we have no idea whether there’s enough uranium, or even the industrial willpower in this age of environmental awareness, to develop enough “safe” nuclear energy to keep America running at speed.

And that brings us to another Inconvenient Truth — a truth about ourselves. Nothing in our history really indicates that we have the initiative, the will and the discipline as a people to take on a really tough challenge like…. Well, like really changing ourselves. We’ve been brilliant at inventing creative ways to devour the low-hanging fruit of the planet, and oil has been the low-hanging fruit on which we achieved the miracles of the 20th century. But do we have the initiative, will and discipline to pull back, look at the overall energy picture, and develop disciplined plans for spreading out what’s left over the long haul, with some acceptable measure of equity (meaning equitable enough to prevent revolution by those with “nothing to lose but their cars” )?

HISTORY SUGGESTS OTHERWISE. Reviewing a book on American Civilization, American philosopher George Santayana suggested that we should not get too puffed up about what we call capital-C “Civilization.” He posited that “civilized” just means “trained, faithful to some regimen deliberately instituted. Civilization might be taken as a purely descriptive term, like Kultur, rather than a eulogistic one; it might simply indicate the possession of instruments, material and social, for accomplishing all sorts of things, whether those things were worth accomplishing or not.”

So basically, by Santayana’s analysis, the apex of our American Civilization coincides with Oil Peak. Easy oil and gas have been the “instrument” that enabled us to soar to previously unimagined heights of material culture. That is the regimen to which we remain faithful; that is what we do and who we are.

And now we are being forced to confront the fact that there are no longer easy instruments for doing what we do, and therefore we have to confront the question “whether those things were worth accomplishing or not.”

My personal perception of these Inconvenient Truths is only partially derived from the non-response of our national government to Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth — that foreground hill hiding these mountains of Inconvenient Truth behind it. A larger part of it comes from my own incompetence in finding the initiative, will and discipline to address the mountains of unwelcome truth I know are back there.

I am part of a committee that is working on a Master Plan here in Gunnison, to advise and guide the City Council through the two decades that Al Gore and 99 percent of our scientists say is absolutely critical in reining in the carbon emissions that are contributing to climate change. That challenge is localized by the fact that our City Council has joined some 300 other American cities, ranging in size from Crested Butte to Seattle, in adopting the “U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement,” which pledges us Gunnisonites to try to achieve the Kyoto Protocol of reducing our greenhouse emissions to less than our 1990 emissions.

So how are we doing? What are we putting into our Master Plan?

DON’T ASK. I feel truly confounded by how difficult it is to generate specific objectives and action steps that say, in effect, “over the next 20 years we are going to change the way we live in Gunnison.”

After looking at our current really low level of renewable-energy utilization in one of the nation’s sunniest valleys, and the fact that virtually everything we need in the coldest place in the U.S. comes into the valley in big trucks or pipes, and the extent to which our economy depends on SUV tourism and electric ski lifts and methane-farting cows, I can see only one way that we could possibly meet even the Kyoto reductions by 2025, never mind the 50-percent reduction the scientists say we need. And that would be to entirely phase out the local use of the automobile.

A really popular idea, as you can imagine. It’s a lot easier to just agree with our contrarian publisher Ed (Colorado Central, August ’06) and say maybe the climate change isn’t our fault after all, and maybe it’ll change back naturally. I hope he can also reduce “Oil Peak” to a molehill that “really doesn’t matter.”

But meanwhile, we Master Planners, like our president, are behaving like civilized people, by trying to figure out how to tweak efficiency and “encourage” the use of renewables. Yet basically we remain faithful to our instituted regimen, and cling to our “instruments, material and social, for accomplishing all sorts of things, whether those things are worth accomplishing or not.” It’s who we are. For us true blue (and red) Americans, these majestic mountains of Inconvenient Truth are our cultural environment, the scenery we can’t see beyond. Prove me wrong — please.

George Sibley teaches, writes, and imbibes coffee and beer in gelid Gunnison.