Monday, September 26, 2011

Disrupting Progress

Despite being the most advanced species in our little corner of the universe, we do seem to have a problem with a great many things. One of the biggest ones is our energy. We are still very dependent on non-renewable resources like coal and oil, incredibly inefficient energy like wind, solar, and hydro, and very unstable and dangerous energy like nuclear. Even geothermal energy is too expensive and impractical for many. This issue is probably going to be the single most important worldwide in the coming years, after water.

The problem, really, is that our technology has not yet caught up to our ideas. Simply put, we've thought ourselves into the next century without building a solution for tomorrow.

Thankfully, we have visionaries among us, men and women who see the future of energy, how our world is going to change to accept it, and how it will lead into a new phase of human existence. One of these is Jeremy Rifkin.

Rifkin recently came out with a new book, The Third Industrial Revolution, in which he outlines his vision for the future, ushered in by the changing technology and innovative application of energy, and how that in turn will further shape the world. The idea is that with new, local-based energy solutions, the monopolies of oil, coal, and others will be broken. After all, who's going to pay a propane company for fuel when you can create your own heat for free using a local energy system? Rifkin argues that this is the wave of the future, and that it is an absolutely essential step into the future.

Unfortunately, I think that Rifkin is understimating the power and influence of the energy lobby in Washington. The oil and gas companies, the coal mining corporations, they all have their hands in the political pie. It is through direct disruption by major businesses that we are not further along in our journey to clean, useful energy sources. Look at the electric car, which was originally designed back in the late 1800's. It grew in prominence until the early 1900's, when the only major manufacturer was bought out by Ford and the electric car was cut. If that hadn't happened, we might well be puttering around in electric cars today.

The point is, big money and special interests have a knack for stopping major innovations that will render them obsolete. They need us to need them, or they've lost everything. It is the greatest weakness of these groups that they still rely on our demand for their products. This is why electric cars, which are starting to make a slight comeback in our more environmentally conscious age, are still generations behind the internal combustion models. It takes many years of very careful work to make a new technology viable. Had the electric car been able to survive the intervening years, they would certainly be much more competitive, popular, and affordable.

Our future is in our hands, it is often said. Unfortunately, our hands are currently tied by the things we depend on so desperately. Imagine if we ran out of oil tomorrow. Would we be able to survive? Of course. Would it be the same? No. Yet that day is inevitable, and we may as well do what we can to delay it. It strikes me that there are so many alternatives - real, renewable alternatives - to things like oil and gas and coal. Entrepeneurs all over America havee been experimenting with alternative fuels for years. They've created fuels using corn, old cooking oil, or even Kudzu which is the fastest-growing plant in the world (it can grow up to a foot a day - talk about renewable energy!).

Biofuels, just like the electric car, have suffered from a major smear campaign, lack of interest, lack of funding, and general lack of everything else. Yet they are the future. Shouldn't we be devoting all of our time to making them as cheap and efficient as possible? Not if your in the oil business. Biofuels have been proven to run just as clean and efficient as oil-based fuels, but they are 100% renewable. Furthermore, they have less of an impact on the environment because their emissions are not as toxic. Unfortunately, because of our technological limitations, we don't currently have a system that allows us to mass produce biofuels cheaply enough for regular use. Sure, we could convert all of the corn fields so that we use the harvest to make fuel, but then what would we do to fill the gap that leaves elsewhere? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, and a lot of problems to solve, but they must be solved sooner rather than later.

So, our biggest obstacles to the energy solutions for tomorrow are our energy providers of today. It's not even that surprising when you think about it. If they really wanted to be successful, however, they'd be diversifying into more natural fuel solutions. Funnily enough, that's what some of them are doing. I have a feeling that once technology catches up to our vision, the debate will be over and we'll be embracing a new generation of fuel and energy solutions, brought to us by the exact same corporate entities that control those things today.

The only thing we may be able to find solace in is Rifkin's other aspect of the future energy of our world: it's no longer part of the corporate world, but is controlled locally. When every community is in control of its own power supply, then we can finally get rid of our dependence on major corporations and learn to innovate for ourselves. It is, after all, what Americans are best at.

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