Fossil fuels are taken for granted
-May 8th, 2014
Even in our tough economy, most Americans enjoy a myriad of conveniences we take for granted.
We awake to a warm house, turn night into day with the flip of a light switch, jump into a hot shower, get dressed and grab a cup of fresh brewed coffee before heading to work in our car or on the bus. On the way home, we stop at the grocery store to pick up a few items from the 40,000 choices offered there.
What do all these things have in common? They are made possible by fossil fuels. But we have become so accustomed to these creature comforts that we no longer associate them with fossil fuels.
Like the fairytale “Princess and the Pea,” we have the luxury of being discomforted by the smallest things. In that story, the heroine’s royal pedigree is secretly tested by hiding a pea under 20 mattresses and 20 feather beds. She is proven to be of royal blood when she emerges the next morning after a sleepless night, complaining about the uncomfortable bed.
That’s us. We have become the Princess and the Pea.
We grimace at the mere thought of “dirty” fossil fuels and embrace the idea of “clean” energy. Oil, coal, diesel fuel, and even natural gas? Ick.
But consider: The paper you’re reading was produced and transported using fossil fuel. Same goes for the clothes you’re wearing and the chair you’re sitting in, your food, your car, your house, and your workplace. Look around you.
So, when government officials or the Sierra Club talk about eliminating fossil fuel, we should understand what that means.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than 90 percent of the energy we use comes from fossil fuels and nuclear power (another energy source the Sierra Club wants to eliminate – and they’re not crazy about hydropower either, which produces most of our electricity in Washington state).
If we eliminate those energy sources, how will the Princess and the Pea fare without all her creature comforts? How will we?
During power outages, newscasts are filled with images of miserable families huddled in cold, dark houses. We think it’s terrible to live that way for a few days. Are we willing to live that way permanently? It would be nice if solar and wind power could fill the gap, but they can’t—and never will.
People who live a subsistence lifestyle have a very different view of fossil fuels.
The National Geographic series “Life Below Zero” follows several people who live near the Arctic Circle in Alaska. Some are 100 miles from the nearest town; no roads, no convenience stores, no Home Depot. They haul water from a stream and heat with wood; they fish, trap, and hunt for food.
But even so, their lives depend on fossil fuel.
They cook with wood—sometimes propane—and use gas to run their snowmobiles and the generators that power their lights and emergency radios. Up there, the daily train with its diesel engine isn’t a nuisance; it’s a lifeline—the only way to get fuel, supplies, and medicine—the only way to get to a doctor.
My point is this: Because we have so much, we think little about it. Because we don’t realize how much we depend on fossil fuel, we imagine we can do without it.
Before we embrace public policies and campaigns that will eliminate 90 percent of our energy, perhaps we should spend a week living “Life Below Zero” to see how we like it. Hopefully, then we can focus on how to apply our knowledge and technology to use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently.
Don Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and columnist who recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business.