On “An Inconvenient Truth”

I finally got around to watching “An Inconvenient Truth” tonight, and I have to say, I’m all riled up.

Stormy WeatherThere can be no doubt that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. That’s not what I’m all riled up about. I’m all riled up about what we can do about it and more worryingly, is it already too late?

One of the first things to really “shock” me in the film was the graph of the world’s population. I suppose I’d always “known” it, but I’d never really “known” it, if you follow me. Our population isn’t growing exponentially, it’s growing in some way that defies my knowledge of mathematics to explain it. It’s more like a straight line rising straight up than any sort of curve. In the 1950s there were only a little more than 2 billion people in the world – now we are over 6 billion. In another 30 years there will be close to 9 billion.

That is one hell of a lot of people.

What is perhaps more disturbing is the percentage of the population that is “industrialized.” Because that percentage is rising at an astronomical rate as well. And if you consider that the more “industrialized” a people are, the more energy they consume, well… you don’t need a degree in economic theory to understand basic supply & demand. With that many people, demand for energy will go up a lot. And there is no way our supply can keep up – even if there were vast, untouched resources on the same scale as the Middle East, it wouldn’t be enough to keep up.

Without change, we are going to consume more and more energy. As supply dwindles, and as demand increases, economic pressure will push us to consume every last bit of energy possible – and to hell with the consequences.

We will put the future of the human race – the future of our children – at risk, just for a few more years of energy, of the lifestyle we’ve gotten used to, that we’re “comfortable” with. And this risk is far more than the risk we used to be afraid of at the dawn of the Nuclear Age.

There are only 3 possibilities to deal with this problem:

  1. Reduce the population (thus decreasing demand)
  2. Relocate the population (I’m talking about space colonization)
  3. Invent new technologies to make better use of the limited energy we posses

Let’s address them in turn.

Number 1 is going to happen if we don’t do something yesterday. If things continue as they have gone in the last 50 years, we will see mass starvation and massive death all across the globe. One way or another, there will be fewer people around. But it won’t be a pretty sight.

The Moon and some electric power linesNumber 2 is my personal choice. Space colonization brings with it the ability to harvest energy from the sun – or even terraform other planets and use resources there instead of bringing them from Earth. At least then, if we screw up the Earth so bad, we ourselves won’t totally die out.

Number 3 is starting to happen – although still too slow in many people’s opinions. And new technology can only take us so far – we can only squeeze so much out of a limited resource, no matter how efficient we make the technology. Without deep, radical, fundamental changes in our understanding of how to get energy, we will run out.

When you look at it like that, all 3 choices seem pretty dismal. But the great thing is that we don’t have to choose just one – we can take the best part of each solution and try to use them all at once, and maybe together we can do something about it.

But there’s a dark side to all this. To make a difference, we all really have to do it together. I mean everyone, everywhere, every nation, every city, everyone. We can’t do it piecemeal. It can’t just be one or two or even three countries – even if they are the biggest polluters or energy consumers. It has got to be everyone. Because our human nature demands it – if you have to restrict yourself, change your lifestyle, you’re going to resent your neighbor if he (or she, or they) don’t have to do the same – if they get to keep their lifestyle, if they don’t have to make sacrifices like you do. Our human nature demands that we all give equally, or else none of us will give. (This is, of course, a form of the “tragedy of the commons.”)

And we will all have to give. This sort of change isn’t going to be easy. I have a favorite little quote from one of my favorite movies, “The Lion King,” that goes something like this:

“Change is good…”

“…Yeah, but it’s not easy!”

Truer words were never said.

But we must change. It’s not going to be painless – let’s get that right out in the open right now. It’s going to hurt. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. That’s the way change is. And like most major paradigm-shifting changes, you can’t really see how things are going to be until you’re on the other side – and so will it be with this change. We don’t know what the future will bring, or even what it will be like. But we know we have to make the change. Because we do know what the future will be like if we don’t change.

It is not going to be easy. But it will be good.

Once we are on the other side, things will be better. We’ll have the technology, the policies, the systems in place and it’ll all be easy. Because once you’ve made the change, and it’s over with, well, it’s no longer change anymore – it’s just the way things are.

As the movie credits rolled, I was reminded of another quote that I really like – maybe you’ve even heard it before. I think that it is just as appropriate now as it was when it was first uttered:

For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

John F. Kennedy
Address at American University
Washington, D.C., 1963

(Image credit to muha… and Kliefi for their Creative Commons licensed images.)

Saving Energy

You might be surprised to hear it, but I do try to conserve energy and resources wherever I can.

You might be surprised to hear it (since I am both a geek who leaves his computer on 24/7, and an energy-wasting American, if you believe the stereotype), but I do try to conserve energy and resources wherever I can. I’ve never owned a gas-guzzling car (all 4 bangers, even the truck and SUV), and I try to recycle where I can. However, back where I used to live (in the lovely city of Fitchburg) it was a little hard to stick to my ideals. Specifically, I’m talking about home energy savings – lights and heat.

Heat was a hard nut to crack, because the house I lived in was very, very old. Old houses are drafty (unless you spend lots of money to fix them up), and let’s not even talk about the crusty windows I was stuck with. The ancient gas-fired heater wasn’t especially efficient, either – there was only the one unit, in the kitchen, and there was no way to spread the heat to other rooms other than by turning it up and letting it run longer. And the electrical outlets were so old that you couldn’t put a compact fluorescent bulb in anywhere – they’d blow out because of the shoddy wiring. And my place was pretty dark, being at the back of the house. Needless to say, my gas & electric bills were quite high.

But I don’t live there anymore! Now I live in a nice new place, with modern, up-to-date wiring and insulation and windows – windows that even have storm windows for extra insulation!

So one of the first things I did when I moved in here was to replace almost every single light with a compact fluorescent bulb.

compact fluorescent bulb

Having used them for a bit now, I can say I’m a big, big fan. A 60-watt equivalent compact fluorescent bulb (CFB) uses something like 14 actual watts of electricity. Sweet! I can have all the lights on in the house, and be using almost the same amount of energy I would’ve used for just ONE light back in Fitchburg! (And of course I hardly ever have ALL the lights on at the same time.)

If you haven’t tried CFBs, I highly recommend giving them a try. They cost a little more up front, but they more than make it up in the long run. I will probably end up taking these bulbs with me when we buy a house someday – that’s how long they’ll last.

The only downside to them is that if you have a lot of CFBs all on one switch (such as a row of lights above the bathroom sink, for example), they can take a minute or two to get up to full brightness if they haven’t been on recently. And if you turn the lights on & off frequently, you won’t get the best efficiency out of them – so you may still keep an old-fashioned bulb around for those sorts of things. (I kept the old bulbs in the garage, because we’ll often turn the lights on in there for just a minute or two – and on the porch, because that bulb is yellow to keep from attracting insects.)

I don’t have anything to say about the nice insulation in this place yet – it hasn’t gotten cold enough to turn on the heat yet. But insulation is nothing new – CFBs, although not technically new, are still not used nearly as much as they could be. You still sometimes see ads saying that if every American household replaced just one light bulb with a CFB, we would save millions of tons of carbon from going into the atmosphere or something like that. And it’s very true, these bulbs are very energy efficient – the savings on your electric bill are well worth it – but my point is that not everyone can use these bulbs, even if they want to. Like I said before, in my old place, I would’ve loved to use them – and even did try to use them – but the old outlets and light fixtures just blew them out after a few cycles. And when you’ve got a $4-$8 bulb, having it blow out every few days is not a good investment!

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you can, give CFBs a try. If your house doesn’t reject them (as mine did), I think you’ll be pleased. And if lots of people try them, and use them, we’ll all be a lot happier, I think.