End of the World Blues
“End of the World Blues”
For two years now I’ve driven a Chevrolet Volt. I think of my Volt as the poor man’s Tesla. It’s almost an electric car, but it’s really a hybrid. The trick is to drive electric and avoid the internal combustion generator from coming on. Because of the nature of my commute, it turns out that I drive 99% of my miles using electric power. On longer jaunts the gas generator kicks in once the battery pack is exhausted. In spite of the epa estimates of 36 miles, I routinely achieve about 50 miles of range thanks to mindful driving and great engineering. The cost for those 50 miles? 10 kWh of electricity. That is, whatever 10 kWh costs from my electricity supplier is how much it costs to drive about 50 miles. This doesn’t include insurance, tires and other routine maintenance; I’m just counting fuel costs at the moment. The cost in Connecticut from our grid supplier, Eversource, is approximately 16 cents per kWh as of this writing. So, 50 miles costs me $1.60. Even with gas at $2.00 gallon, electricity—for now—is still the cheaper way to go.
For now, most electricity is dirty and still fairly expensive. Coal is the worst, but all petroleum burning creates carbon dioxide. Nuclear is cleaner in that no CO2 is produced, but the spent fuel remains radioactive for thousands of years while remaining dangerously hot and notoriously hard to handle. Worse, it remains deadly to human health practically forever. Safely storing radioactive nuclear waste fuel represents a host of herculean challenges each of which require new science and new technology to solve. We’re not there yet.
I was not surprised to read in a recent article maintaining that driving an electric car was no more environmentally friendly than driving a gasoline powered car if your electricity was produced by a coal-fired generator. Coal smoke is bad for human health. Coal exhaust also sends mercury into the sky that then comes down into the oceans with the rain. So much so that it’s now considered unhealthy to consume fish in almost any quantity out of caution against heavy metals poisoning. And here is an oft overlooked point climate change deniers fail to account for: the pollution that continues to pour into the earth’s airways and waterways makes questions of global climate change irrelevant. Our way of life, honed by the Imagineers of corporate culture, has been perfected, exported, and expanded to such a degree that the leftovers of our mighty factories of production have befouled nearly every other environmental process on the planet. The evidence is deep, it’s widespread, and it’s alarming. Even without global warming or climate change the biosphere is in serious trouble. I remain quietly shocked at the virulent need to deny our senses, limited as they are.
In spite of it all I still like nice things and want to drive my nice car on nice roads distances that would have taken my ancestors all day to walk, while I cover the miles in twenty minutes in my electric car fueled by solar power. Perhaps solar powered electric cars are the answer? The electric car industry seems to think so, and I would like to believe it. But then there’s the problem of lithium-ion battery packs made from precious metals dug deep in mines somewhere in China. Where will millions of spent battery packs be safely disposed of? I’m pretty concerned about the future for my children and for my grand children, and so I thought it might help if I went solar. Solar produces electricity that is, on the whole, cheaper than my regional provider, Eversource. This summer Eversource cost me 16c per kWh, while my solar was .10c. kWh. And with my solar panels there are far fewer emissions produced—none to be exact except the emissions produced in the production of the panels—manufactured in China. What toll the electric car will wreak on the environment has not yet been tallied, but given car manufacturers predilection for under-reporting their emissions see: Volkswagen.
This past summer I had a solar panel system installed on my roof. Through the hot, unusually dry season I quietly rejoiced at my solar production as drought’s silver lining. My lawn went to brown before it finally turned to dust, but the solar panels produced like mad. I can’t seem to get anyone excited at the prospect of solar power. Most people seem to think I’ve disfigured my house. I was genuinely surprised that so many shared the sentiment that a roof was a roof, not some electricity generating apparatus. Perhaps because I live in Connecticut, the land of steady habits explains things; the previous owner was aghast when he saw the black panels mounted on the architectural shingles that covered the roof. It was as if I had mounted a cell tower on Mount Rushmore. And the irony was not lost on me when we realized that, in order to go solar, we had to cut down a 75 year old oak tree that graced the front yard but rudely blocked the south-facing roof from full sun. So be it. Make it so. Chop it down. Let someone burn it. In spite of the fact that It was all in order to make way for an environmentally-friendly set of solar panels I can’t help but feel that there is a special place in hell set aside for me. That oak was older than I was, and would have long out lived me, but so be it. Nature must give way to progress all in the name of saving nature. Once the tree-guy cut the oak tree down I went out and took in the fragrance of the shattered tree. I apologized to the tree as it lay in giant round ruins all around me, as stupid as this sounds, and then looked at the roof of the house, soon to be an electricity generating apparatus. The reasoning that justified the death of the tree was simple: to protect the environment by producing sustainable electricity. But something tells me that this reasoning is fatally flawed, and the logic that says kill now, live later, is part of the same monstrous system that got us here in the first place.
There is good news of a sort. I drive a cool car with fuel costs so low that they hardly register. For now, plugging in at public charging stations remains free of charge. I make my work commute—and 99% of all my driving—on electric power, and most of what I use comes from free charging stations, and the rest from my solar panels. I had found the veritable sweet spot. And lest you say I overpaid for an expensive hybrid, I bought my Volt used, so I did not incur the costs associated with buying a new car from the dealer.
When I imagined this sweet spot a few years ago I wondered if it was possible to lower my fuel costs, while at the same time driving a better car, and drastically reducing my tailpipe emissions. The answer is: Yes. A resounding yes, as it turns out. I know. I have lived to tell the tale.
It seems that in this case my self-interest at lowering fuel costs also served the common good. It follows then that if we all drove electric cars powered from own solar power—and used the grid only as a backup storage system—we could make some serious headway in the fight against air pollution and water pollution produced by our current petroleum based culture. Perhaps if every roof was nationalized for solar production the world would, indeed, stand a chance. What in the world are we waiting for?
Naysayers would rightly point out that electric cars (and hybrids too) take their own environmental toll, and hell, gas is cheap. And it may very well get cheaper before we’re through. Even without Arctic oil, domestic oil production in the US has driven “peak oil” enthusiasts deep under the shale. Even our president agreed in principle with Shell—drill the arctic. Figure it out now to make it work and bring that oil home. This development is, while not surprising, very bad for almost all of the world’s population. Thankfully Shell has retreated for now from arctic drilling do to slump in oil prices–it’s simply too expensive right now to justify going after the oil at the top of the world.
Even so, there is ample evidence to conclude that the global climate process is beyond a CO2 tipping point as of this moment. For all intents and purposes “this moment” is a long, protracted geological moment that spans many human lifetimes. It’s difficult to feel such a time frame in much the same way that the human ear cannot hear high frequencies or how the human eye can’t see the infrared without special tools. Time is like that. It’s all there, the moment, but we just don’t quite tune into it. Perhaps we are fundamentally blocked from feeling such a thing and can only barely imagine it with our out sized brains. Still, the evidence gathered by science is something a pair of infrared binoculars that let us see what we normally cannot see, and so armed with evidence the specter of climate change and sea level rise and geological ages can be documented, and the evidence is in. And as far as I can tell the message is clear: there is no going back. Not for a thousand years. The narrow range of climate that has given rise to human evolution and birthed human civilization as we know it is turning away from us and may make life for the ordinary man or woman nasty, brutish and short in the near future. The rich will survive, perhaps, but there will not be enough to go around, not by a long shot. How can this not be already known by the movers and shakers who shape our cultural, economic, and political lives?
Glaciers have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing even while the pope rails against capitalism and greed. Good on you, Francis. The Greenland ice sheet is more lubricated by melt water than ever, and scientists are worried that a catastrophic collapse is distinctly possible; at the same time, scientists are also warning that the ice sheets that sit atop east and west Antarctica are increasingly at risk and could fail catastrophically. If these massive ice sheets slip into the sea, ocean levels will rise around the world by ten feet or more according to some estimates. Hundreds of millions of people will be displaced from coastal cities. The current Syrian refugee crisis will be swallowed up by a tsunami of displaced peoples.
Yet we know all of this already. Much of this has been imagined, represented in books and film; the interwebs are full of media devoted to raising awareness, calling people to action, to education, and some progress has been made, but only now and it may very well be too little, too late. The effects of climate change (like temperature, glacial melt, arctic sea ice, sea level rise, drought, and so on) are happening faster than originally predicted, and in some cases, much faster. It turns out that tomorrow is today.
I can’t help but think of the Titanic. It’s a story, it’s a metaphor, it’s a cautionary tale that had it not happened would have had to be written as a warning against pride, arrogance, and the illusion of wealth. At the same time the ship has become a tired cliché, yet even still the Titanic remains a telling reminder and a possible portent and portrait of humanity’s place in the biosphere. My favorite shot in the James Cameron film represents for only a moment the ship from high above. It is dark and the ship is a sliver of light set against a sea of black, as if the camera has soared up five thousand feet. From high above the ship appears like a shimmering jewel brightly lit against the blackness of the dark ocean; the sea is like a starless sky except for one radiant gem, the great ship. It’s a striking image, the existential dark broken only by a tiny speck of bright human light. Amazing, and doomed.
If Cameron’s film is to be believed, it seems that denial is key to coping with the nearly incomprehensible (the death of the ego), and then when the truth is impossible to ignore if only because one’s wingtips are soaked through by the cold ocean lapping up the deck, the mad rush for the lifeboats begins. Some will survive. Most will not. Even some of the richest go down with the ship.
Long before Cameron’s Titanic there has been an ebbing and flowing stream of science fiction narrative that have speculated on possible futures for humanity. While Star Trek presented the future as a great leap forward into peace, prosperity, and space flight, plenty of other science fiction went the other way. One of the worst futures for humanity is perhaps one of the best at guessing where we were all headed way back in 1973. According to Soylent Green the future would be a dystopian nightmare where the day to day existence of the world would soldier on amid massive over population, food shortages, and endless, oppressive heat due to the green house effect. Meanwhile, we learn that the oceans are dead and that the food produced and distributed by Soylent, specifically Soylent Green (Tuesday is Soylent Green day) is not made from the sea, but rather, it’s made from people. Is this our future? It’s a chilling warning and unthinkably, dangerously prescient: will the Big Corporation soon be feeding people . . . to people? Back in 1973 the creators of that film had already heard enough to make some fantastic, horrific, and fairly accurate predictions about the world we currently inhabit. The green house effect, so called in the film (aka, global climate change) is in full force. Our oceans are dying just as the film predicts. Sea life has been drastically reduced by 75% according to scientists. Commercial fisheries are nearly depleted. Nitrogen and mercury pollute the water. Gigantic gyres of plastic garbage—giant trash islands—swirl about across the globe. What’s next? Drought? Crop failures? Famine?
Well, um, yes. It seems so.
Climate science strongly suggests that we have crossed the environmental Rubicon and the tipping point for irreversible climate change and all that that implies is no longer looming before us, but is now behind us. We are heading headlong into territory charted only by the dystopian visionaries. Let us pray that they are wrong and that this sinking ship somehow rights itself.
Meanwhile zoologists have said that we are in the midst of a one of the world’s great extinction events and it is currently taking place all around us; a few brave souls have even ventured to suggest that it is not simply the rhinos and tigers and bees, (oh my!) but the whole food chain that is at risk of collapse, right up to the top, to you.
Einstein once said that understanding the problem was the solution. He also said that when dealing with matters of truth, leave elegance to the tailor. I would like to agree with both of these propositions as incisive and useful. Do we understand the problem? I would argue that most scientists—and even most politicians, and perhaps even most of the 1% understand the problem, but in this case understanding the problem has done little to solve it, for it seems that we are in the grip of a monstrous economic and political system that pits private wealth against the common good, and that this system will, in the end, either sink or allow to be sunk, the ship of human civilization in the name of preserving private property.
Perhaps we should get used to the idea of a human die-off and see it as not such a bad thing after all. For a time workers will be hard to find, yes, that’s true, but then the surviving industrialists will program their robots to manufacture robots, and automation will take over the means of production. Think of the resources the survivors could recover without 7 billion mouths to feed! Think of the open spaces! Think of the infrastructure nightmares that would disappear! Think of the margins!
Soon after a global die-off the remaining human workforce could be elevated to programmers, overseers, administrators—they’ll probably make a pretty good wage too. There will be new hierarchies for the human workers, rituals, new holidays, and on special occasions a drink will raised in honor of a colleague’s elevation to robot-master, level 10. Let the machines do the grunt work, like burying all the bodies.
None of this is interesting, none of this is news, none of this is worth hearing about if only because we have all heard it before. But even so I am haunted by it. I’ve got the end of the world blues.