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How undead energy dooms us, and how living energy might restore us
On Thanksgiving, I wrote about the benevolence of the universe. Our bodies are made of substances left behind by extinguished stars. Our planet is lit and warmed by a living one. The sun's energy, produced by the fusion of hydrogen into helium, allows plants to release the oxygen that we breath and create the matter that we eat. Today is Black Friday, and so today our subject will be how a form of human consumption is undoing the balance that allows us to live.
Solar fusion has been underway four and a half billion years, photosynthesis by plants on earth for about three and a half billion. We have existed among this living energy for about a million years, as literate civilizations for about fifteen thousand, as industrial cultures capable of changing the composition of the atmosphere for about two hundred.
For these past couple of centuries, humans have been consuming undead energy: fossil fuels. Coal, oil, and natural gas are all the remains of ancient life, which we dig up and burn. When you smell the gasoline at the pump, your nostrils are alerting you to what remains of plants that were alive millions of years ago.
Why undead? To be sure, coal, oil, and natural gas are no no longer alive. But they hold energy because they once were so. When we burn life’s remains, we reverse the work that living plants do. Living plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Whereas living plants produced oxygen, which we need for life, the combustion of their fossils produces carbon dioxide, which brings us closer to death.
Climate change is the zombification of the earth's atmosphere. The carbon dioxide that we release from the earth into the air by burning fossil fuels fatally alters the balance that nurtures our species. The sun's fusion warms the earth as it always has, but the extra carbon dioxide traps more heat in the atmosphere. As we burn the remains of our predecessors for energy, we worsen our own conditions for life.
Our cult of undead energy is well entrenched. The world spends at least half a trillion dollars each year subsidizing fossil fuels. A fraction of these vast subsidies, diverted to sources of energy that resemble the energy of life, could save us.
Solar energy, wind energy, and hydropower get us closer to the benevolent balance in which we could sustain our life as a species. All of them depend upon solar fusion: though this is clearest with solar panels, the wind and the rain are also a result of the warmth of the sun. Such energy sources let us leave the remains of ancient life in the ground and help us to halt the zombification of the atmosphere.
Perhaps the most important technology in this respect is fusion energy: the recreation of the universe's primary energy source in controlled reactions on earth. Its promise will be our subject next time.