By: Shelby Browning
Energy. It’s all around us. It is us. We cannot survive without it, but what is it? And why are we in danger of losing it?
Most of us are familiar with energy in a fossil sense, like coal, natural gas, or oil, but let’s break it down even further. Energy can be most simply described in one word: carbon. Most living things, including plants, animals, and us, need carbon to survive.
For example: plants absorb carbon dioxide, which only has one carbon atom, and convert it into a form of energy (sugar) valuable to the plant. This sugar is composed of a chain of carbons atoms that the plant can use as fuel to continue capturing the surrounding carbon dioxide. But carbon is always present, even after the plant dies.
Massive reserves, or sinks, of carbon from ancient life lie underground, and these sinks are precisely where we obtain our carbon-based fossil fuels.
The problem here should be evident; ancient carbon from fossils simply cannot last forever. Unfortunately, trends from the past 150 years show that this logic has simply not connected with people. Now, we face an energy crisis that will force every human on this planet to rethink the role of energy in their lives.
This crisis is two-fold.
The first, most visible aspect of this crisis occurs because the reserves are limited. We run the risk of losing them, and fast. Many predict that we will have depleted all our oil reserves by 2052, only 30 years from now; however, British Petroleum (BP) predicts that these reserves will last for 50 more years. Gas reserves are only expected to last until 2060, and the last of our fossil fuels – coal – will not even make it to 2100. This is not a lot of time. Without these reserves of usable energy, modern marvels that seem so commonplace will once again become mere fantasy.
Air travel, or really any form of travel, will no longer be possible. Electric appliances will be deemed worthless, if not the entire structure they are housed in. People will die without the power to produce necessities like medicine, not to mention the financial insecurity that will be experienced by every person alive.
The danger here is that we have seen how useful the ability to harvest usable energy can be, how prosperous and rich it can make our lives. There is currently no other fuel as easy to extract, process, and distribute while also being as energy-dense and, in a sense, powerful as fossil-based fuels. Having to return to a society without this kind of power is unthinkable, but, at current rates, likely.
The problems don’t end with the depletion of energy reserves; there are reasons we’ve named energy resource reserves carbon sinks. The carbon previously in the atmosphere was used by life on Earth and subsequently sank into the ground, where it could no longer contribute to the warmth of the planet.
So, no, the world will not end with the rising temperatures, but our world will. And that’s the second part of the crisis: these sinks of carbon are actively being transformed into sources of carbon and contributing to the warming of our planet. 2019 was the 2nd warmest year in recorded human history with an average temperature of 1.15°C (2.07°F) above pre-industrial levels. Scientists across the globe warn that if we warm the planet to 1.5°C above previous levels, we will see the collapse of natural systems and most likely cross the point of no return. Humanity cannot, in good conscience, continue with actions that will cause the ultimate downfall of our species. A warmer planet means disaster on every front. Human history has never experienced a planet as warm as the dinosaurs, and there is no reason to believe our species would survive the transition.
It is simply not possible for an ever-growing population of people to use an ever-increasing amount of energy which releases an exponentially increasing amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This type of behavior will land our descendants facing an unknown world where they cannot access the Earth’s energy reserves to help them survive in a much deadlier environment.
To prevent this apocalyptic future, to ensure our children and grandchildren never experience a reality worse than we can imagine, we must all severely reduce our energy consumption as well as find new ways of obtaining useful energy sources that do not tax or negatively impact our planet. To quote Canadian poet Shane Koyczan, “the most alarming part of the statement ‘we are facing crisis’ isn’t the word ‘crisis,’ it’s the word ‘we.’ Because those two letters take the responsibility away from one and rest it squarely on the shoulders of everybody.” We must all take this crisis personally and do everything we can to prevent disaster.