Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Here on Earth, energy flows from the sun and diffuses on a predictable pattern affected by the rotation of the planet and its revolution around that sun. Life has adapted to exploit this energy flow very effectively. Every green plant turns sunlight into carbohydrates. This process is so efficient that, over the centuries, stores of energy – so called fossil fuels – have built up below the surface of Earth.

Our diverse ecosphere had shaped itself an accommodating climate long before humans evolved. Fungi shuffle minerals to where they are needed, building up soil that supports levels of vegetation which exhale the oxygen upon which animals depend, as well as producing their fuels. As animals, we humans have vast stores of plant energy available at every turn to fuel our natural machinery.

We are a tool making species and we have had some remarkable successes. Look at the way a bicycle allows the rider to use her own body to propel herself at the speed of a cheetah. Marvel at our communication capabilities that allow people from around the planet to exchange multisensory experiences with minimal time delay. These great tools have been won only at great cost. Most of our experiments have failed.

People have taken great advantage of the planet that birthed us with little regard for the long term consequences of our behavior. For centuries human development has expanded inhospitable desert regions. We have covered vast areas of fertile land with impervious pavement, severely disrupting the hydrological cycles upon which life depends. We have dug toxic minerals from deep stores to spread them across the surface with predictably negative effects upon life. Worse yet, we have fabricated new toxins, even new elements such as plutonium, and allowed them to kill ecosystems.

I do not believe that people have the power to destroy life on Earth. We do have the wherewithal to make the planet incompatible with our own species and many others. Right now species are becoming extinct at a cataclysmic rate and it is not unreasonable to expect this trend to continue until the source of the disruption – humanity – is eliminated. But life will adapt and continue no matter what we do. Mushrooms, insects, and microbes will collaborate to utilize whatever mess we leave to them.

It would be fulfilling for humans to survive. To accomplish that, we must learn from our experiences. When a human system is at odds with a natural system, the human system must change. Natural evolution is generally slower than social, but much more definitive. When the balance is upset, cataclysm may precede the new equilibrium. If we ignore the balance of natural forces, we risk extinction. We play with forces beyond our comprehension.

Exploitation of fossil fuels is a failed policy. Yes, it has catapulted humanity through a series of changes, from which we can derive lasting good. But now that half of the oil is gone, we must realize we are burning it at a rate thousands of times as fast as the planet can create it. This is not sustainable.

The industrial era was driven by fossil fuels and built upon a foundation of Cartesian logic. We dissected and examined every part until we finally developed systems theories that incorporate the synergies of holism. As our factories cranked out standardized widgets, we attempted to standardize our schools and farms, until we realized the strength of diversity. We sought to build an unshakable fortress until we learned to flow with the inevitable changes. We have learned, but can we utilize our knowledge?

It would be nice if world leaders saw the simple truths in this article, but that does not appear to be the case. We are in a car plunging over a cliff and the driver appears to be unconscious. While yelling at the driver, I say we jump out and roll before it’s too late. I write my observations to Members of Congress, executives in the Obama Administration, and CEOs of corporations every day, but I have lost all hope that they will respond in time.

Change comes down to me. How can I wean myself of petroleum? First step was to quit using cars. Living car-free has been extremely fulfilling, improving my health and allowing me room to travel more broadly. Surprise! It’s easier to get around without dragging along a ton of steel and vinyl. Refusing to own a car was the wisest decision I’ve made in my half century on Earth.

I’m not oil-free yet. Fossil fuels were used to manufacture my bicycle, which uses chain oil at about one ounce per thousand miles as it runs on impervious pavement. I still use plastics and depend upon items imported with fuel. But I’m so much healthier than when I owned a car!

I’ve become a bike-evangelist, promoting bicycles at every turn. Between cross continental rides with Bike4Peace, I’ve helped to organize the Corvallis Bike Co-op. I truly believe that bicycles are the transformative tool needed to save America from itself. Human powered transportation gives me hope for human survival.

Diet is also key. The primary human energy need is food. We must stop eating petroleum and develop our local plant resources – not through corporate monoculture farming, but through sensible permaculture. We can thrive by fostering an ecosystem to which we are naturally adapted. Imagine simply picking your meals where they’ve grown. A raw vegan diet grown within a walk of where I live is a goal toward which I strive.

Another great tool is the attached greenhouse or sunroom. Besides capturing free heat from the sun, thus reducing our use of electricity from non-renewable sources like coal and uranium, a greenhouse enables us to grow tropical plants in temperate climates. Humanity evolved in the tropics and our bodies appreciate these local extensions of tropical conditions.

It is tempting to be fatalistically negative about our prospects. It’s too easy to blame them for ruining our lives. But it’s more fun to dance among the ruins, learning from everybody’s successes and mistakes, while spreading the seeds of a brighter future. Dance with me!