Earth Day 2009
What would Earth Day be without a disturbing graph, in which bad things are increasing versus time? It would be no fun at all, that’s for sure. Today’s enviro-plot comes to us courtesy of NOAA, and shows that despite a global economic downturn in the last few months, greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow unabated. The recession is only a few months old, so that’s not surprising… it takes time for data to accumulate. Either way, a global economic shutdown is no way to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately that’s not our only option.
Take a look at the GDP and fossil fuel curves. There’s an interesting zig-zag feature that happens around 1979-1980, when fossil fuel use drops precipitously and then slowly climbs back up, at the same time GDP sails on upwards with hardly a blip. That’s the Iranian hostage crisis, when oil exports from Iran were held back at the source. In the space of a couple of years, our oil imports dropped through the floor but somehow our GDP managed to keep growing. Jimmy Carter was President, and renewable energy projects were starting to take off. Carter was a former nuclear engineer who understood the value of a diversified energy portfolio and high technology. He put solar panels on the White House roof, in a measure that was largely symbolic but which also demonstrated commitment to American industrial innovation and technological supremacy in an age of changing energy needs. Iran under the Ayatollahs made it clear: as long as we need their crude, they will rule us.
When Reagan the Stupid took charge of the White House, he ripped the solar panels off the White House roof and ushered in a new dark age. We’d started to turn the corner toward a brighter technological future, but all it took was one supremely idiotic president to stop us in our tracks. The world is a big place, and the US economy is a big machine, but one man can still make a difference… in Reagan’s case, a hideous difference. We had a chance to seriously examine our dependence on foreign oil, and to seriously attempt a technological revolution toward greater efficiency and lasting economic dominance. Instead, rich people got a tax cut and went on a 30-year vacation from responsibility.
Today our situation is different. We’re past peak oil, and no amount of sabre-rattling or political posturing will put new oil back into played-out wells. Our technology, despite Reagan’s Luddism and that of his party, has now advanced to the point where wind energy is price-competitive with coal, and cheaper than natural gas. Nanotechnology is bringing new advancements in materials engineering and solar photovoltaics technology with every passing month. Municipalities are harnessing their own landfills to fuel buses that run on natural gas, and Brazil grows most of its liquid fuel. We’ve started to grow beyond technological childhood, when fossil-fuel training wheels were required for progress. Now we can start to think about taking off those training wheels, and map out a future beyond month-to-month scrambles for another oil well here, another tar seep there.
GDP and fossil fuel use are not the same thing… in fact they’re not even related. GDP measures what we do, and we can do what we do without dead algae. All we need is to be more clever than Reagan… and that’s easy.