November 15, 2008

An ordinary day

It's a perfectly ordinary Saturday afternoon. Except that it's not. It's November in New Jersey and the temperature is in the 60s. The economy is in the toilet and we've just elected Barack Obama as President of the US, a milestone as momentous as anything I've seen since Neil Armstrong took his step onto the moon.

When Armstrong walked on the moon... When what was good for GM was what was good for the country. That may still be true, but not in the way that was intended at the time. Now GM, once the titan of the worldwide auto industry, could be bought and sold by Microsoft, Apple or Google with the money they keep in the bank for a rainy day. Now GM, Chrysler and Ford, the backbone of US industrial might, are beggared by the poor decisions and shortsightedness of their management teams. Let's face it - if those companies had been building cars that people wanted, instead of making people want cars that were and are bad for them, the environment and the country, GM wouldn't be near death and it and Chrysler wouldn't be knocking on the federal government's door for a handout.

Still, as a society we need to be concerned about our long-term health and security, economic, environmental, and, dare I say it, even military. The US can't be in the business of making up fancier and fancier ways to gamble money and remain a going concern. At the base of it all, we need to grow things, we need to make things, we need to invent things, and as the basis of all of those things we need energy. We need energy to run our economy, to heat and cool our homes, to cook, transport and grow our food, to transport our precious selves about, to entertain, inform and educate. The basis of all life is energy, and we've been even dumber about energy than we have been about cars.

Ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution, what we've done is dig up old stored energy. It was cheap, it was easy, and our ancestors can be forgiven for thinking that it was relatively safe...except to the coal miners, and oil drillers and all of the other people who died extracting fossil fuels from the ground. The thing about fossil fuels is that drawing them down is like taking money out of the piggy bank. Sooner or later, you're going to pull that plug out of the pig's belly and nothing's going to come out, no matter how you tip the pig. Sure, we can look to extract oil from rock, from sand, from beneath the north polar icecap, and we'll find some. It will be harder and more expensive and the price will head back up as soon as the buyers get over the shock that Americans would rather drive less than pay $4/gallon for gasoline.

We need to start tapping the energy that streams by every day. People talk about fossil versus wind versus's all solar. The sun's been shining on the earth for 4 billion years, give or take, and for about 3 billion of those plants have been taking that sunlight and making more plants. The plants die, fall to the bottom of the ocean, get pushed between continental plates or whatever, get seriously smushed and turn into black stuff - chunks that we call coal, goo that we call tar and liquid that we call oil. We dig it up or drill for it, whatever bits the intelligent dinosaurs didn't use up before us, and burn it. It's really kind of silly when you think about it. There's all of that fresh solar power out there every day and we go to all of the trouble to dig up stored solar power from umpteen hundred million years ago. We need to get serious about cutting out the middleman (or dinosaur or whatever other intelligent critters have been here before us) before it's too late.

President-elect Obama wants to build infrastructure. He's darn right about that, and what needs building first and the most is a replacement energy infrastructure. Forget about all of that black goo, just like T. Boone Pickens, let's go straight to the source of all energy on earth today, let's get it from the Sun. Someday, when we're smarter and less pressed for time, we'll make our own Sun.

Posted by scott at November 15, 2008 01:37 PM