We will loathe the day when we have to perform our commutes in an electric vehicle but it is a scenario that with each passing day moves closer to becoming a reality

We have just had a brush with $200 a barrel oil and super expensive rice but now in the aftermath of the sub-prime financial crash, saving the planet's eco system seems like the furtherest thing on people’s minds. At the peak everyone was suddenly concerned about saving fuel but with oil down below $50 per barrel it seems like we have been given a reprieve but at one helluva price. But what of life after the financial meltdown? Will we be still be living decadently or will we take this opportunity to restructure for a leaner cleaner future?

Economy or the environment?

But why was it only of concern when the oil prices hit a high, just because it hurts your pocket? Well in a capitalist world understandably it is the prime motivational force. The environment on the other hand has never been considered as a primary goal. Lets face it if oil is cheap, we would rather be brushing environmental considerations aside yet again. Environmental concerns have been around for a long time but it has always played second (or third) fiddle to building a vibrant economy and since capitalism is just about the only system around today, it literally is what makes the world go round these days.

Scientists are very clever people but to be brutally honest, they are very likely to make poor politicians or CEOs. Environmental scientists then are perhaps the furthest person whom we would have for our future Prime Minister or President unless your country is Greenpeace instead of Greenland. When they give press conferences about the stacks upon stacks of evidence that have collected about global warming, the press and audience soon falls asleep or runs to get a beer, quite unlike a President or Presidential hopefuls who have witty and politically correct one-liners to wow the audience.

Politics and economics have been traditionally good bedfellows. Ecology and economics or politics represents the classic odd couple. However today the overwhelming volume of evidence is speaking out loudly in the voice of hurricanes and cyclones, with more fury and devastation than ever. Global temperatures are rising and the polar ice caps are melting so fast that there is now a new shipping passage via the north pole.

Getting the “Green” message through

The problem also lies with society in general. Not many of us profess to be green and even fewer actually lead a completely green lifestyle. The sheer fact that there is human civilization precludes any green notion. Of all the creatures on this planet there is only one who is destroying our very home by merely existing. We are never part of the eco system, we behave like we own it and unwittingly destroy it in the name of progress.

Prior to the industrial revolution, prior to the time when someone discovered that the black primordial ooze from rock could burn and make heat and later electricity, global human population could not crack the one billion mark. Simply put there was just not enough surplus energy resource to have large scale farming, not enough transportation to get food to where its needed to feed large scale human existence, in short not enough energy to make the world go round.

Then came the miracle of oil. A cheap and abundant form of stored energy stored away eons ago only to be pumped out in the billions of barrels each day, putting trillions of tonnes of CO2 back into the atmosphere each year so that it could resemble an ancient atmosphere millions and millions of years ago.

Ever since the discovery of cheap abundant energy, the earth's population has bloomed to a heady six billion people thanks to the miracle of oil in just a few hundred years. It permeates our daily lives in so many wonderful ways that we don't even consider or even know or care about. Yet should it run out and it will in 50, 60 or 100 years time, how many of us will survive? Only the rich who can afford to pay the price of the food and petrol? How many of the six billion will have to perish?

For years politicians had a gaggle of advisors telling them that global warming is a cyclical thing and not caused by greenhouse gases. For years they have been side stepping the evidence and even coined a derogative term, “tree-hugger”. Even the press was guilty to a great extent panning such protests as borderline terrorism. More oil will make all those problems go away so they thought, even going to war to assure supply.

Ironically the environmental issues coincided with the last escalation of oil prices, fueling concern for the environment however tenuous, however vague in the layperson's mind. People sit up and notice because they assume that saving on costly petrol by using less also has a beneficial effect of reducing the rate of CO2 emissions. Recognizing that green cars like Hybrids have low fuel consumption, many make the association that these cars are environmentally friendlier but are they?

This green label thing has been carried too far though so much so that even CNG(compressed natural) cars are called green. The truth be told, these cars spew out as much CO2 as their petrol equivalents as the laws of physics are pretty hard to escape. A CNG converted car has a similar weight (even higher thanks to the added plumbing) as the original and thus uses a similar amount of energy performing the same duty. The only difference is in the price (and that is not the definition of green) just because CNG is not taxed as heavily and is marketed differently. It is at best an alternative fuel vehicle but one that is still considered a fossil fuel.

A cleaner picture..

For the longest time fuel to us meant whatever was available at the pumps namely petrol and diesel. This first and most ubiquitous kind of fuel is classified as fossil fuel as is coal and natural gas. Fossil fuels are those derived from sequestrated ancient CO2 in the depths of the earth in the form of hydrocarbons most likely from ancient plant life that had captured the sun's energy and converting CO2 into oxygen and cellulose or carbohydrate. And instead of this old plant material decaying on the surface and turning back into CO2 it got buried in the bowels of the earth for millions of years only to be discovered a short two centuries ago.

Several developments are clearer to us now than say ten years ago. Firstly petroleum is of a finite supply and we are now seeing giant oilfields dry up. Many believe peak petroleum is here or has already past and more worryingly China and India are just awakening economically speaking. Those optimists who said oil would last forever will need to revise their forecasts.

Secondly, the stuff we drill out of the ground and burn for energy is causing global warming by putting CO2 back into the atmosphere. Big oil and their lobbyists in governments may have muddled these truths citing that climate change is cyclical but now face an avalanche of data proving that we are in fact facing dire consequences, that we have altered the atmospheric balance and have consequently caused global warming. More importantly even the general populous now feels that there is some truth in global warming though they themselves feel helpless at their inability to help remedy the situation. 

But what can we do as individuals?

Human civilization is hopelessly addicted to petroleum. It has allowed us to enjoy highs upon highs. We can fly around the world, why we can fly to the moon, we light up darkness, we turn deserts into lush greenery, we can even make it snow in the middle of a desert. We have learned to live with excesses behaving as it is our god-given right.

This abundance of cheap energy has allowed economies to flourish because each individual has now the ability to lead the equivalent of two or three lives at the same time. We can do so much in the same day thanks to our mobility and telecommunications, something unimaginable in the 18th or19th century. Today we have so much money that we can buy enough stuff for two lifetimes. We are addicts.

Read Part 2


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