Friday, December 7, 2007

Musings: The Downside of Addiction

It was almost eerie to be out early this morning, between rain showers, with the sky very dark and lightening flashing frequently in the southwest. The crescent moon, barely risen above the Sleeping Giant’s stomach, was quickly consumed by billowing black clouds.

The big Kona storm that swept through the state seemed to remind most everyone — mostly because their power was off or a road they used was flooded or closed by fallen trees — of human vulnerability in the face of nature. And that vulnerability becomes even more pronounced as we increase our dependence on technology.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my MacBook and high-speed wireless, and a cell phone is good in a crunch. But after going through Iniki, when I lived without power for 10 weeks, I learned a valuable lesson that still serves me well when the winds are howling and the lights are flickering: you just can’t be attached to the stuff. And that includes the technology. Because the more you feel things have got to be a certain way, the more likely you are to suffer.

Yeah, maybe your life is disrupted for a day or two or three, but so what? It ain’t the end of the world.

We’ve all come to take a cheap, constant supply of electricity and gasoline for granted; in fact, we think it’s our due, that it’s one of the entitlements that come with living in a first world nation. And that’s the attitude that has us invading Iraq and blowing the tops off mountains in Kentucky.

Yesterday, I read an article in the New Yorker — you can see an abstract of it here — about the new synthetic-fuels boom in Canada. Yup, with real oil pushing $100 a barrel, the push is on to extract synthetic crude from the Alberta tar sands and other once marginal sources.

Of course, the money to be made is huge — and so is the destruction.

“With unconventional oil extraction, however, the damage to the environment tends to be higher all around—more land gets disturbed, more pollutants are produced, and then there are the greenhouse gases,” the article states.

We’re talking about tailings ponds filled with mercury and other toxins that cover 11 square miles, and excavation pits that are slowly consuming Canada’s boreal forest, considered one of the largest intact ecosystems on earth.

We’ve got the native villagers suffering “a peculiarly high number of cases of a rare cancer” in one town that lies on a lake fed by the Athabasca River, which runs through the mining area, and we’ve also got the promise of more greenhouse gases, according to the article.

Alex Farrell, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group at UC-Berkeley, found that all the current climate models are based on the assumption that we’ll be using conventional crude. But once you start doing such energy-intensive conversions as turning coal and tar sands into synthetic crude, the green house emissions double.

And that means all the warming, storming, flooding and melting scenarios will happen that much faster.

Not surprisingly, given our insatiable appetite for energy and fears that cheap sources of crude are peaking, or have already, the article reports that “there is a great deal of support in Washington for measures that would, in effect, subsidize high-carbon fuels.”

So here we go, down another slippery slope of consume-consume-consume and never mind the cost, whether it’s environmental or social or even if the whole damn climate is at stake. After all, there's money to be made — and addictions to be satisfied.

In the weeks following Iniki, I had a generator that I turned on, once my earplugs were in place, to run the washing machine and vacuum cleaner and occasionally the toaster. But it was too loud, stinky and expensive to keep running all the time, so I did without refrigeration, hot water and lights and managed to survive just fine — once I realigned my expectations with reality.

It was a good lesson, having that mini power plant in my backyard, because it taught me just what it takes to have the luxuries of electricity. Now, though, with all that racket and stench confined to the big power plant at Port Allen and people I don’t know dying for oil in Iraq and places I’ve never been to being destroyed to extract coal and tar sands, it’s easy to forget the ugly, dirty, deadening side of my totally legal addiction.

Until the winds whip up again, and the lights flicker, then go off.