Swans Commentary » swans.com June 30, 2008  



The Insatiable Quest For "Cheap" Energy


by Michael Pravica





(Swans - June 30, 2008)   Times are tough, especially in the United States. Greed, hype, and subprime loans have destroyed the real estate market with wave after wave of foreclosures. We are embroiled in an unwinnable war in Iraq, which is causing our nation to lose some of its finest young citizens and bleed billions of dollars per week. As a consequence of this and our unmitigated and massive trade deficit, the US dollar is becoming increasingly worthless in global markets. This exposes the United States to foreign ownership and exploitation. As a further harbinger of trouble on the horizon, and as a partial result of the Almighty dollar's collapse, the price of a barrel of oil is at an unprecedented high and is ever-increasing. Some recent predictions estimate $5 per gallon of gasoline by July 4th.

Global security is at an all-time low. International law is now useless with such events as the US-initiated illegal recognition of Kosovo's "independence" indicating the predominance of "might makes right" laws of the jungle. NATO, led by the U.S., is aggressively and illegally (violating its own Charter) pursuing historical and long-term objectives of encircling and provoking Russia in the interest of trying to break up the country and is occupying formerly non-aligned or Communist territories (such as the Serbian province of Kosovo or Macedonia). In response to these aggressive actions, Brazil, Russia, India, and China are forming a massive alliance (BRIC) to counter the out-of-control hegemony from the West. World War III may be just around the corner. To top it off, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently laid off hundreds of its employees including physicists and other scientists who are responsible for maintaining our nation's nuclear arsenal, due in part to illogical outsourcing/corporatization by politicians who are mostly scientifically-illiterate and do not understand the importance of supporting science for the sake of our economy, well-being, and national security. In a June 10, 2008 article on physicists in Congress in the "Science Times" of The New York Times, Congressman Sherwood L. Boehlert, former chairman of the House Science Committee, says, shockingly, that citizens should not expect that their elected representatives have knowledge of science but rather "an ability to reach out to experts..." Which experts are summoned for consultation remains a mystery and wildcard when one is unable to make such a judgment due to lack of training in science and critical thinking. On top of all of this, we live in a world dominated by science. How disconnected with reality can one get?

Though there are many reasons for our impending collision course with reality, one primary factor in all this madness has been the desperate rush by Western governments to secure energy corridors to transport oil from the Caspian Sea region to the West in the wake of the era of "easy oil" and deny Russia the ability to control the flow of this energy to the West. One such ambitious effort is the "AMBO" pipeline that will transport oil from Burgas in Bulgaria on the Black Sea down to the port of Vlore in Albania on the Adriatic Sea. To "secure" this pipeline, the U.S. created Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, the largest US-military base outside of the U.S., at great taxpayer expense.

Instead of seriously supporting the development of and quest for alternative sources of energy such as wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear energy (including fusion), our leaders are restarting a new Cold War to try to defeat nominally-democratic Russia to wrest control of its enormous natural resources. Instead of developing strategies to reduce energy consumption by, e.g., encouraging automakers to do away with exorbitant and superfluous gas guzzling SUVs, encouraging the further development of hybrid and other novel energy-saving engine technologies, and improving public and alternative transportation such as cycling and walking, our leaders just want to continue feeding America's unhealthy addiction to cheap energy with the strong possibility of provoking a new world war on the assumption that cheap energy is a God-given right guaranteed by our Constitution.

As a physicist, I see everywhere instances where we as a society could dramatically reduce our consumption of energy (which would drastically reduce cost). I see many avenues of scientific and technological inquiry that could be further explored to develop novel sources of energy. We receive enormous amounts of energy (roughly 1kW per square meter) from the sun. For example, just filling roughly 25,000 km2 or 6.1 million acres would satisfy all of the US's electrical energy needs (see, e.g.: this PDF file at the Rice University Web site). All of the energy that we utilize in our day-to-day lives is a mere tiny fraction of the energy we continuously receive on Earth via fusion reactions in our star 96 million miles away. We need to totally rethink and redirect our strategies from cheaply obtaining the limited natural resources of others to taking advantage of our own more than bountiful resources. The key here is that we need leaders who are well-versed and well-trained in science and analytical problem solving. We need leaders who have the courage to make difficult decisions that will ultimately have to be made for the sake of America's future. Decisions made sooner will be always less painful than those made later. A good starting point would be to support science and endless discovery of nature instead of supporting endless war and conquest. Much of America's tremendous economic and technological might has been derived from past support of fundamental scientific research. Our leaders seem to have forgotten this and, as a result, America is dramatically slipping in its pre-eminence.

Americans must demand better leaders who are better-versed in science and who can solve real world problems to prevent our wonderful country from turning into a Third World nation. Though proficiency in the often arbitrary and violated laws of man, good looks, and verbal ability may impress some Americans, it will not ameliorate the critical problems associated with violating natural laws such as global warming, overpopulation, exhaustion of our natural resources, and pollution, faced by all. Now more than ever, we must all work together to avoid catastrophe and the end of our way of life as we know it. All Americans also need to learn more science so that they can more actively take a role in resolving our impending crises. This can only happen by continuing on our quest to understand nature and our role in it by supporting scientists to solve the problems that only they are capable of doing. Instead of looking through the barrel of a gun, we should all be looking through the barrel of a telescope/microscope to solve our problems.


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About the Author

Michael Pravica is an assistant professor of physics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The opinions expressed in this column are solely his own. See http://www.physics.unlv.edu/~pravica and http://pravica.tripod.com/.



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Published June 30, 2008