ENERGY 106 Part II: A Dirty, Little Secret

Roy Hopkins writes in his book Transition Handbook, that digging out the tar sands—from whence comes much of our fracked gas—is “akin to arriving at the pub to find that all the beer is off, but so desperate are you for a drink that you begin to fantasize that in the thirty years this pub has been open for business, the equivalent of 5,000 pints have been spilt on this carpet, so you design a process whereby you boil up the carpet in order to extract the beer again. It is the desperate, futile attempt of an alcoholic unable to imagine life without the object of his addiction⁠1 . . ..” 

No doubt: Fracking is a cleaner fuel than coal and, perhaps, oil. It has facilitated an economic boom of sorts. But it is a temporary and environmentally devastating economic boom. It helps us deny the fact we have a full-on addiction to fossil fuels that is going to kill us if we don’t stop sucking on that old carpet.

Which brings us to this most foul and egregious fact: fracked gas isn’t cost effective. Nor is coal. Nor oil. Without subsidies, and if we include externalities, this is a very, very expensive addiction. In 2008, we spent over $1 trillion on fossil fuels, more than was spent on education or the military.⁠2

Polaroid and Kodak, in their day, were publicly traded and bigger than Mobil/Exxon is today. Polaroid and Kodak were as rock solid then as fossil fuel companies are now. Sales were going up. And stocks were going down.

Investors are herd animals. Three years before those rock solid camera companies blew up into nothing, investors were bailing out. Those companies had a volatile life. And then life changed. No more cameras. No more VHS. Enter iPhones. In 2005, Kodak was the largest digital camera retail in the US. In 2012 Kodak files for chapter 11 bankruptcy.⁠3

Energy is 20% of the global economy, and investors are beginning to shift their sights away from fossil fuels toward renewables. They are doing it, not for the sake of the environment, but for their profit margin. It is happening, despite the weather and the climate because it is uneconomic to carry on as we have been. 

And so. On one hand, we have a wobbly grid and a growing demand for power to run our day to day lives. On the other hand, we have a lot of money going to what is looking more and more like a dying business model. Now what?

Years ago, in his book Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher wrote that humans are using nature as if it is income. “Fossil fuels are merely a part of the ‘natural capital’ which we steadfastly insist on treating as expendable, as if it were income, and by no means the most important part. If we squander our fossil fuels, we threaten civilization; but if we squander the capital represented by living nature around us, we threaten life itself.”⁠4

That book was first published in 1973, during the first Environmental movement that birthed the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), Earth Day (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972). Since then, the conservative rule of “Don’t sell your capital. Only use the income” has withered away. We have treated the earth as capital, not income. And now we figure out the answer to this question: What now? 

Let’s consider nuclear energy.

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1 The Transition Handbook, by Roy Hopkins, p 24.

2 https://environmentamerica.org/news/ame/dependence-big-oil-dirty-coal-could-cost-us-30-trillion-2030

3 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/analysis-and-features/the-moment-it-all-went-wrong-for-kodak-6292212.html

4 Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher page 17