Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Beyond Fire

What is all this madness?

Humanity is facing stunningly challenging times in the coming years (not decades: years). We have learned that, for our very survival, we must quit burning carbon. This is common knowledge; there are no mysteries here. Yet major institutions continue aggressively pursuing carbon power, not only burning the deadly stuff, but even building more voracious furnaces to accelerate the suicidal madness.

Yet it is reasonable that humans cling to Fire. The discovery of Fire defined humanity's humble origins, after all. Fire has been at the very core of human existence for eons.

Long before humans harnessed Fire, there was a great happening in the primeval world, the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE). Primitive photosynthesis in the oceans extracted oxygen from water (H2O) which then first combined with mineral salts (producing, e.g., rust). Much later as oxygen saturated the ocean's minerals, it then emerged into the atmosphere and helped break down methane into CO2 and water, and primitive life forms slowly continued to evolve. From the time when CO2 was almost 20% of the atmosphere, much of it was gradually absorbed into the ocean and plant life or was buried away, opening the way for large oxygen-breathing organisms. During the Carboniferous Period 360 million years ago, coal was formed and submerged, capturing even more carbon from the atmosphere and further making way for modern life forms. These conditions were in place when humans appeared on the stage... and all was well.

Then very recently things changed. Humans began burning that long sequestered carbon in earnest, in pursuit of a better way of life. All of that seemed reasonable for a time but then scientists became keenly aware of the dangers of releasing great quantities of carbon back into the atmosphere, and finally their message has been laid out plainly for all who will listen. However, like the sorcerer's apprentice, humans are fascinated with the power that can be released from burning carbon. As pyromaniacs, we are altering the climate, threatening the delicate composition of the atmosphere and the very survival of the living organisms upon which our own survival depends.

But is it possible to turn away from Fire, the very phenomenon which once defined humanity and now ironically threatens our very existence?

Yes. A couple of centuries ago, another great discovery was made that has forever changed the human experience – Electricity. It is now Electricity that defines human society: Electricity is at the very core of modern civilization. Ironically, though, until now much of that transformative Electricity has been produced under a Faustian bargain with our once dependable servant Fire.

Stated differently, in the process of transformation, humanity's friend Fire has become the arch-enemy. The prescient Wizard of Electricity, Thomas Edison, laid down the gauntlet over 100 years ago, in 1910:
Sunshine is spread out thin and so is Electricity. Perhaps they are the same, Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy.

Do we use them? Oh, no! We burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.

There must surely come a time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces. Electricity ought to be as cheap as oxygen....

Two more great discoveries have opened the door to such a viable future beyond Fire, both attributed to that other prescient Wizard, Albert Einstein. One was the release of the energy of the atom. The other was to capture the sun's energy, e.g., with silicon. (It was for his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect that Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921, not the theory of relativity which remained controversial at the time.)

Unfortunately the effective exploitation of atomic energy in a controlled manner remains elusive. The possibilities of fission and fusion are constrained by the unpredictability of human behavior and the very real danger of radiation escaping from manageable concentrations, under some combination of human error, warfare, climate change and natural disasters.

That leaves us with one option – "natural forces" – the solar energy, wind and tides which Edison was able to see so clearly ahead. And, ironically, to validate Edison's challenge and keep the atmosphere in balance, humanity must put out the Fire. Thankfully, burning wood in modern cities has been reduced to a summer ritual (the charcoal barbeque). But we like squatters are still burning hydrocarbon minerals to make Electricity ... and to get around town. Though progress is being made to produce Electricity with solar and wind, infernal Fire-belching machines are still running around loose on the streets.

It is encouraging that city dwellers have abandoned Fire in the kitchen (at least wood fires, that is) so the next step for humanity's survival is to banish Fire from the streets. Further, given what humanity knows today, it is just plain absurd to allow machines on wheels to dominate the urban landscape. We can take the Solarevolution to the streets and liberate ourselves from machine dominance. We can return our streets to the people again.