| Aug 18, 2005

Feature Article - August 18, 2005

Home | Local Weather | Editorial Policy

Feature Article

August 18, 2005

. | Navigate | .

ArchiveImage GalleryAlgonquin Land Claims

Gray MerriamLegaleseGeneral information and opinion on legal topics by Rural Legal ServicesNature Reflectionsby Jean GriffinNight Skiesby Leo Enright

The Ultimate "ProgressTrap"?

by Gray Merriam

Historically we humans have used several characteristics to distinguish ourselves absolutely from the other animals. With increased knowledge many of those distinctions have faded. Use of tools, ability to communicate, even problem-solving have all failed to distinguish us, not just from the other apes but also from the birds, the dog family, and even from rodents. However, a few distinctions remain: Recording our species' history in writing, and, the point of this piece, releasing, storing and using energy for purposes other than food and bodily growth. Without significant exception, no other species stores and uses energy except for bodily growth.


But humans surely do. Our 'ecological niche' has been to find and release energy to do work outside our bodies. We were satisfied at first to burn wood and plant and animal oils. Then we learned to recover oil from long-dead plants and animals -- petroleum -- and burn that to power many machines to do both our chores and for processes never before seen. But petroleum energy was not intense enough for us so we set our sights on the ecological niche called 'users of nuclear energy'.

In his "A Short History of Progress", Ronald Wright coined the term "progress trap" to convey the notion of something that seemed to be a good idea under early thinking but later, when pushed too far, was seen to be a cultural trap.

Our use of and dependency on release, storage and transportation of increasing amounts of energy may be the ultimate "progress trap". Currently we demand the equivalent of about 320 billion kilowatt-hours of all forms of energy every day. This equals the energy burned by 22 large light bulbs being burned constantly by every person on earth. But, of course, not every person is burning the energy. In fact, those of us in northern and western cultures burn most of it and many other cultures wish they could.

Most of this energy that our culture demands is released from storage in fossil fuels. This source has met the increasing demand, to date, because those dead plants and animals contain millions of years of the sun's energy in a form that is handy to recover, to store, and to move around. But there is only one store of fossil fuels that we can reach technologically and that store is showing signs of beginning to be unable to fill our increasing demand.

Rising prices locally are clear. Those higher prices were clear long ago in other parts of the world. Potential instability of sources and supply lines are given as reasons of growing importance. In an analogy with food supply (for which petroleum is no substitute), it is said that we are still at the hunter-gatherer stage in our energy supply. Still casting about looking for one-time chances to grab a bite to eat, not yet at the stage of having a farm that stabilizes our supply of energy.

That stabilized supply of energy, if we ever develop it, will need to include an array of energy sources. Biomass, wind, solar, water power, dwindling petroleum and natural gas and, probably, some nuclear.

Currently, the costs of trapping solar energy is about triple that of other sources. Costs of energy from fossil fuels do not differ hugely from costs of wind and nuclear but the marginal differences (about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour) are enough to hold back the development of those alternative energy sources. By wise use of incentives, European governments have boosted the development of wind power until they now have wind power equivalent to the output of about 35 of our big coal-fired generators. Because wind is periodic, storage of surpluses for calm periods is still a major problem.

Biomass energy is released by burning plant products, such as vegetable oils, or by-products of plants such as ethanol or other liquid fuels derived by digestion, often bacterial, of plant fibres and tissues. This source is more common in Europe than here. Germany gets about 3 percent of its diesel fuel from biodiesel. In Ontario, there are only a handful of sources of biodiesel. But right in Maberly, the heating system for the new tourist information centre will be fuelled by used vegetable cooking oil. Almost biodiesel.

Energy demand and faltering energy supply without skilful government incentive programs are likely to become our ultimate progress trap. We have been trained by our culture, especially by our cultural addiction to a consumer-driven economy, to demand increasing numbers and variety of energy-using devices with little thought about the effects of our behaviour on the energy supply.

Conservation of energy programs gain much favourable publicity but it is clear that the conservation savings on particular appliances or even for individual households are vastly overshadowed by the increases in energy-using appliances and 'modern houses that are permanently designed for greater numbers of 'modern conveniences'.

We have seen already that small changes in our summer or winter weather can have significant effects on our energy supply. As variation in our weather, accompanying climate change, increases, if we respond as we have been taught by our consumer economy, we will just run through our remaining supply of relatively clean fossil fuels, such as natural gas, then we will move to the really dirty fossil fuels. Where will 'developing' cultures, get their energy supply to attempt their entry into the global consumer economy?

Without brilliant guidance by government subsidies, Fossil fuels, climate and consumer economics could easily combine into the ultimate 'progress trap'. If our energy supply falters or fails, all the 'modcons' that our 'progress' has earned for us will serve as a bitter reminder of Wright's notion of a 'progress trap'.

Support local
independant journalism by becoming a patron of the Frontenac News.