Apparently, we are in trouble: Icebergs melting. Waters rising. Species dying. The last five years, the hottest ever recorded.1 These are facts, not conspiracies, and I see the hand-wringing of people—myself included—who want to do something to stop our sprint to extinction. We know that this environmental devastation is due, at least in part, to human activity, and that we, Americans, have the potential to make an enormous difference in dealing with it. Our actions matter. We’re not acting. Why?
That question could take us in myriad directions. We could delve into the psychology of fear, a primal reaction to danger that causes adrenaline to course through the body. Extreme fear, called panic, can kill because it shuts down more rational reactions, like thinking, and action.
Or we could consider the learned helplessness and disempowerment that has been encouraged by the demo-n-capitalist society in which we live: Bigger is better. You can’t be too rich. Profits prioritized over people, and corporations rule our politicians, so why bother to vote? Go shopping, instead, because there is (arguably) nothing one person can do to make a difference.
Or we can study energy. Energy is complicated. There are so many different kinds of it—kinetic, potential, thermal, electrical. Our labyrinthine lives in 21st century America depend on the convenience and reliability of energy, in the form of fossil fuels, the extraction and use of which is one of the causes of our heating world. What built this country is also its Achilles heel, and do we even know how it came to be? How it works? What will happen when it runs out? Which it is going to. Fact, not conspiracy.2
Convenience rocks. Change is hard. We are complicit in our environmental free-fall because we all partake of the fossil-fueled system. If we want to make a difference, we have to change. But in order to change, we have to know the facts, and our options. So let’s educate ourselves on the thing that keeps us alive and connected: Energy. That simple, elegant and overwhelming aspect of life that is us, that connects us, that runs life as we know it in the United States of America.
Or not. We can opt to do nothing and watch the droughts and floods, the fires and mass extinctions but the spectator seats aren’t comfortable because deep inside we know this: If we leave others to sink under the rising tides, we lose what we claim puts us above other animals: our humanity. Too, who will be left to help us, and why would they?
2 Fossil fuels are considered finite because they were formed of organic material over millions of years. Millions more years will be required to make more. Thus, for our intents and purposes, they are finite. In 2014, British Petroleum said that in fifty years, reserves will run out.