Fossil Fuels Are the Bottled Water of Energy
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We already know the numerous reasons why bottled water is bad, including the energy and water it takes to manufacture, ship and discard the product, as well as the fact that tap water must meet more stringent water quality standards. But here's the interesting thing: fossil fuels are essentially bottled energy. And just as the green alternative to bottled water is tap water, the logical alternative to fossil fuels is renewable energy. Why? Well, here are just a few reasons (hint: both depend on current flows and are locally available):
1) Like bottled water, fossil fuels are mined from countries around the world, processed, shipped and then, finally, consumed. This process is wasteful and contributes to environmental degradation, to be sure, but perhaps the greatest downside of a global energy supply chain is that it makes for unstable geopolitics. This may sound like an argument against globalization, but it is nothing of the kind; rather, it is an argument against the globalization of energy. Think about it this way: Thomas Friedman has argued that no two countries that have a McDonalds -- that is, two countries that have opened themselves up to global markets -- will go to war with one another, because they stand to lose more than they gain. That theory more or less holds up as long as we are talking about consumer products, fast food chains, and the like, but it falls apart when we start talking about natural resources. Simply put, energy and water are not Barbie dolls and McDonalds; nations cannot do without them, and therefore the countries rich in fossil fuels hold too much sway on the global stage.
2) Like tap water, renewable energy is best harnessed locally or regionally. This has several advantages. For one thing, depending on the energy or water available locally forces planners to be smart about how they manage efficiency, conservation and supply. The mentality of the 20th century was that energy was cheap and abundant and, therefore, the only consideration paid to energy was how quickly it could be mined and sent to gas pumps and power plants. But now that the costs -- economic and social -- of fossil fuels have skyrocketed, the logic of a global energy supply chain falls apart.
Of course, depending on local/regional supplies of energy isn't easy. It takes an understanding of wind speeds, solar insolation, and numerous other factors. But considering that an abundant supply of energy is the lifeblood of our society and our economy, the alternative -- relying on energy supplies from nations that could, at any time, shut off the supply -- is dangerous and unnecessary. Every nation on the Earth is blessed with renewable natural resources that can be harnessed; sometimes that comes in the form of sunlight, wind or geothermal power, and sometimes that comes in the form of enterprising citizens who come up with creative solutions to problems.
3) Bottled water and bottled energy both create the false impression that when we run low on essential natural resources we can simply head down to the local store and buy some more. Like a person who would rather buy a new pair of jeans than repair a hole in otherwise perfectly good pants, buying bottled energy and water leads to waste. After all, burning a gallon of gas is just like throwing away a pair of pants; the useful life of the product is minimal, and the end result is the creation of garbage. In contrast, the source of renewable energy does not get depleted, and its use results in no garbage. At the same time, both tap water and local/regional renewable energy are limited resources, and must be carefully managed. Whereas an oil or water company can drill in a place until nothing is left and then move on to the next site, a municipal government must be able to perpetually and sustainably "extract" the resources with which it is endowed.
The world is becoming more interdependent thanks to the internet, the cell phone and global supply chains, and one of the wonderful results is that never before has it been so easy for people with ideas -- regardless of their geographical location -- to collaborate to make things happen. The greatest resource the world possesses is the human brain, and that is a resource that benefits tremendously from interconnectivity. However, when it comes to energy and water the world should move in exactly the opposite direction of interdependence. That is, local expertise and infrastructure must be favored, as well as self-sufficiency and independence.
Some believe that given the looming water crisis we will soon see tankers full of water instead of oil crossing the seas, heading toward arid countries. That, obviously, would perpetuate the problems currently caused by fossil fuels. Before we get to that point, a new emphasis must be placed on understanding, harnessing, managing and protecting local supplies of water and energy. We may still be in the midst of the bottled water and energy era, but it is a phenomenon that we must discard lest we become a world of interdependent nations -- interdependent, but for the wrong reasons, and on the wrong resources.