Jim Duke: Guest Opinion
June 1, 2011
Throughout history, fire has generally been our greatest ally. It has not only provided warmth and protection from predators and insects, but was likely the single greatest tool in adapting early cultures into a variety of environments, expanding agriculture, food sources, and nutrition in general while reducing disease and parasites, advancing craftsmanship and tool making, and improving countless other aspects of human life. Many even credit fire with accelerating the evolution of the human brain.
Perhaps equally important have been its social, emotional, and psychological impacts. Of the ancient four basic elements, fire seems the most magical and mystical deserving consideration as a spirit. What is more calming and comforting than the friendly campfire which has mesmerized children of all ages throughout the ages? What can draw huge crowds or scatter them in terror faster than a fire out of control? Idiomatically, fire blazes a flamboyant trail from hearth fire to hellfire; fiery relationships burning with desire; I’m stoked; he’s fried; you’re fired! But forgive me, I’m just getting fired up while you’re probably already burnt out on this so I’ll simmer down and get to the point.
It wasn’t until we began to harness fire as a source of power that it started to become our most serious enemy, almost as if there was some sort of karmic retribution for demanding more from the earth than can be produced by our own physical efforts. Whether or not a punishment for greed and indolence, we have certainly exceeded our environmental credit limit. At any rate, it was at the time of the industrial revolution that combustion-related pollution started to become a real threat to human health and life.
It’s beyond the scope of this narrative to convince anyone that global warming is a reality other than to say that the evidence and consensus of the scientific community are sufficiently overwhelming for anyone willing to accept the truth. Unfortunately, it seems to be human nature to believe what is most convenient and comfortable. Despite increasing evidence, the percentage of the population concerned with global warming has decreased with our failing economy. We simply can’t afford to pay attention.
Assuming the reality of global warming, anything that adds more carbon to the atmosphere threatens our survival, so any energy source involving combustion must be viewed as a thing of the past. While combustibles from grains, biodigesters, waste to energy, and other sources of renewable fuels might be a necessary step in eliminating our dependency on petroleum, they cannot be viewed as a long-term solution. Actually, these methods merely skip the fossilization process, making it more convenient to add to our carbon load.
If one accepts the fact that global warming threatens our survival, one must also accept the fact that there is not a worldwide fuel shortage, but rather an excess. It seems we have plenty enough fuel to pollute ourselves out of existence. How much more do we really need? Yet people continue seeking alternative fuels while we are surrounded, literally in every direction, by cost effective, non-carbon emitting alternative energy sources. We have solar, wind, geothermal, and hydraulic – including tidal and wave action, as well as any number of small residential-sized hydroelectric units designed for small stream flows. No doubt the experts from Rocky Mountain Institute could fill several pages of non-carbon emitting options available through current technology.
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Too many well-intentioned environmentalists have been misled by our corporate America trying to milk the last nickel out of the fuel economy, as exemplified by the case of grain ethanol, where, unable to cram more corn carbos into an already obese population, they are now trying to profit from injecting this carbon into an equally unhealthy atmosphere.
No, the problem is not a fuel shortage, but a world economy and infrastructure based on combustibles compounded by a human nature resistant to change. And while, so far, there’s been far too little success in even achieving any widespread awareness of our problems much less cultivating the collective will to make the necessary changes, these are probably the easiest parts of the challenges we face. This makes it even more critically important that the well-intentioned efforts to address these challenges are not misdirected. We don’t need alternative fuels. Other than the occasional campfire or for brightening up our lingo, we need to let our good friend fire fizzle out with the past while there’s still a spark of hope.
Jim Duke lives in Carbondale.