Monday, March 30, 2009

Hard choices: part 2 of a series of posts on Energy

It says a lot about how young (or old, to some) I am that I can't recollect a single time when a politician has asked for a sacrifice by the American people. Obama has asked for patience while his administration sorts out just how hard a line they can take with the autoworkers while remaining politically likable, but that's hardly the same as asking people to cut back on gasoline consumption to thwart terrorists (something which Bush might have pulled off to great effect post-9/11, had he tried).

When we think of hard choices in terms of the environment, it usually comes down to human versus planetary interests: logging, or saving the spotted owl? Save the farmers, or the save the elephants? Big, safer, SUV, or dinky little Prius? There usually is a middle ground in most of these issues, if we care to look for it.

But when it comes to human versus human interests, things get a lot stickier: pro-life or pro-choice? Respect for individual cultural beliefs, or imposing a standard that's known to work? Or, the point of this post: energy, or water?

We need energy to move water. We need water to create energy--most electricty is generated by steam turbines, in which a wire is turned between two magnets. And we are fast using up both (80% of the electricity in the US is generated by coal-burning plants). The link above is to an excellent article, one well worth the read.

The additional complexity is that individually, reducing our water consumption doesn't really help matters, except in semi-desert/desert areas such as the California coast, or Phoenix. Reducing water use only has an impact if it's done collectively. But even collectively, conserving water doesn't necessarily safeguard the future either, since water flows and evaporates, and not always dependably, either. Droughts and floods happen in the best of times, though they're often helped by the insipid ideas of mankind.

So you might be thinking what's the point to taking shorter showers? Increasing the likelihood that water will be there when we need it. The United States is blessed by the Great Lakes, and Europe has an abundance of rivers, but neither are guaranteed in the face of incessant use. Saving money might be another, if water prices actually reflected the trouble it takes to move it. (Eight cents a gallon? No wonder nobody realizes how much a dripping faucet can waste)

And we might have to accept that the choices we make today might not actually make a hoot of difference in the future. For all I know, in 2020, aliens could spirit the Great Lakes away to Mars. But it was humans who put farms over former desert land in California, and golf courses in the desert outside Las Vegas. We've grown to accept these notions as part of the fabric of our national identity, but can we give them up if we have to? Sometimes putting off a hard choice like that is really the best we can do.

1 comment:

Studd Beefpile said...

Actually it's even more complicated than you say. Something like half of all electricity generated is used to move water around. And, at least in the US, a huge amount of our farming was set up by massive government flood control projects. They'd dam the river, then offer the water and electricity from the dam for basically nothing to anyone who agreed to settle below. Farmers took advantage of this and are now entitled to no cost water and electricity. If we had anything even approaching a free market for these resources the situation would be a lot better.