Since the Industrial Revolution began, and especially since the discovery of crude oil a century ago, we have come to appreciate the benefits of fossil fuels.
Convenient transportation, cheap imported goods (thanks to modern transport), plastics, fertilisers, pesticides, space heating and cooling, electricity, fridges, the multiplying number of kitchen and other household goods –and many, many more conveniences have meant longer lives and growing waist-lines.
To question the value of such technologies draws the criticism of being a ‘luddite’, to be against ‘progress’.
Besides the growing problems of greenhouse gases and the air pollution that kills thousands of Canadians every year there is another significant problem: we’re running out of cheap oil and electricity.
Natural gas supplies and uranium are also in decline. Our easy living, founded on cheap non-renewable energy, is coming to a close.
Signs of the impending crisis have just begun to show up. Higher food prices, which have been wreaking havoc in developing countries for the last four years, are now impacting us.
Increasingly abnormal weather patterns and a loss of the cheap oil that makes our modern food supply possible are threatening our food supplies. Quickly rising electricity prices, largely due to our ever-increasing demands on the grid, are also beginning to be felt.
Unless we return to a pre-industrial way of life there is only one way we can hope to retain our current standards of living: rapidly move into renewable energy, greatly improve the energy efficiencies of buildings and processes, redesign cities, and greatly improve our use of mass transit.
Unfortunately, the transition to greater sustainability (in contrast to continued exploitation and ultimate collapse) is not a simple one.
It will take time – about 20 to 50 years – to successfully make this transition. We only have a few years before higher oil prices send our economies into a long-term recession, or worse.
We currently have enough technology and resources to wean ourselves off fossil and nuclear fuels. The political will is beginning to emerge, except in our nation’s capital.
Taxpayers’ subsidies to the oil and gas sector continue, with over a trillion dollars having been spent in the development, maintenance and clean-up of nuclear energy alone, even before Japan’s crisis.
If this level of investment were made in safe, renewable energy, improved public transit, sustainable farming and such we would have more high-paying jobs, improved health, a healthy planetary life-support system, and far more.
It is past time we redefined the word ‘progress’.
Ian Gartshore is the president of the non-profit Energy Solutions for Vancouver Island.