“Energy Obvious” March 2011

WAMC audio for “Energy Obvious”

WAMC March 24

Steven Leibo Professor of International History & Politics

“Energy Obvious”

I suppose I should not admit it given how religious most Americans are but I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. And, I sure don’t spend a lot of time waiting for messages from on high about how I should conduct my life. But lately I have begun to rethink that attitude. And it’s not just one thing that has brought me to this moment of reassessment but a whole slew of events.

I mean it seems like only yesterday when we all watched with fascination as those Chilean* miners trapped, underground for so long were dramatically raised to the surface in that incredible tube sized chamber of life A drama of course that reminded us of the more depressing fate that had just taken the lives of more than two dozen Americans at the upper big branch mine in West Virginia and of course was followed by this week’s horror in one of Pakistan’s mines.

All common accidents that force us to reflect on the price some among us pay for our planetary dependence on coal and focused our attention, at least for a while on the more immediate dangers of relying on coal for so much of our global energy In fact 27% of world energy use.

Or at least focused our attention until the Deep Water Horizon derrick explosion and subsequent oil hemorrhage that eventually saw much of the Gulf of Mexico deeply polluted, a predictable disaster given humanity’s desperate attempts to stave off slowly depleting oil resources by drilling deeper and deeper, in this case 5000 feet below the gulf water’s surface. Yes, an oil hemorrhage that ruined lives and the large sections of the Gulf to this day,

A tragedy that riveted our attention for weeks on the dangers of our reliance on that ever so ubiquitous source of energy oil that today stands 36.5% of the planetary energy total.

Yes, riveted our attention at least until the Mideast erupted from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Syria setting of a series of oil price jumps spurred by initial fears that Egypt’s uprising would stop oil traffic through the Suez canal. A fear only made worse by concern that those Mideast tensions would spread to the oil producing countries themselves from Saudi Arabia to Libya.

Yes riveted our attention. At least until Japan’s double horror the point 9 magnitude earth quake and tsunami set off yet another energy crisis, as we all watched her several nuclear reactors noise dive toward a potentially out of control release of radiation.

No, spiritual or not it sure feels like someone is trying to tell us something. In fact’s it’s a message that could not be clearer. Start making decisions about a new energy future because the old one is just not working out.

But to follow up we are going to have to have a technically based national debate. Something we Americans are not very good at. Sure, we do have some politicians, like the Capital Region’s engineer turned politician Paul Tonko who actually understands the science and engineering of energy.

But most politicians are, as we all know, social science types, mostly lawyers who are, let’s be honest more often than not scientifically and technically illiterate. So we are just going to have to educate ourselves and given that task let me suggest two books, one more technical one less technical that do a masterful job of helping people understand just why the lights go on when we throw the switch.

First the college text

Energy Its Use and The Environment by Roger Hinrichs and Merling Kleinbach

An undergraduate text that is quite readable even for the less technically minded

And Al Gore’s companion to his famous an inconvenient truth book and film

Our Choice, that uses a wonderful variety of images and drawings and especially non technical language

To survey our energy choices, looking at the pros and cons of everything from natural gas and nuclear energy to wind, solar and geothermal energy an especially accessible tool to help us all chose a new energy grid appropriate for our new century

*turns out the Chilean miners were digging for copper not coal.

About Steven Leibo

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