Sustainable Energy: A Story

Fossil fuels are the primary driver of our current non-sustainability crisis.  We take it completely for granted that we can jump in our cars and drive, that grain from Minnesota can be delivered to China for a manageable cost, that our lights will come on when we flip the switch and our furnaces will keep us warm in the winter so long as we send out the monthly bill.  We cannot imagine what life would be like without them, so we either assume that we will find a replacement (fusion anyone?) when they run out, or that we are headed for an apocalypse as supplies dwindle.  Most of us are in a sort of confused denial; we realize on one hand that what we view as normal is in fact unstable, untested territory for our species, but we also know that we have grown too many and too ingrained in our ways to go back to the way it was before.

Fossil fuels did not start the industrial revolution, but the industrial revolution transformed oil and coal from geological curiosities into essential building blocks of society, the basis of trade and motivation for war.  The industrial revolution arose out of the Renaissance and a blossoming of science.  First we harnessed the rivers, grinding grain and sawing lumber with waterwheels, gears, and pulleys.  Then we invented the steam engine, freeing us from the limited sites and power of the rivers and allowing us to harness energy in any amount, anywhere, so long as there was something to burn.  Then we cut down the forests and ran out of fire.  We would have been forced to stop there, to work within the confines of the sun’s energy, had we not discovered coal.  The supply, in those first days, seemed limitless.  Mines burrowed deep and factories belched smoke, and the rest, quite literally, is history as we know it.

That story can seem perfectly natural to us, a straight arrow of progress that is bound to lead to something better, something that will allow us to continue with business as usual.  There is still a 200-year supply of coal, they say, so why worry if none of us will live that long.  Never mind that we are changing the climate and that fossil fuels are becoming harder to extract by the day.  Fusion, or something, is bound to take over when oil runs out, in the same way that coal came to the rescue when Britain’s forests were cut down.  Never mind that after fifty years of intensive research by some of the world’s smartest minds in billion-dollar facilities, fusion remains a laboratory curiosity with no projected roll-out date.

Just in case our current situation still seems normal to you, allow me to tell a different story, of a different people in a different land.

The Tapanui (ta-pa-NOO-ee), as they called themselves, lived in tropical forests.  Furry golden bipeds with prehensile tails, they possessed an intelligence surpassing all other creatures of the forest, and they formed gregarious, matriarchal groups.  Occasionally groups fought over favored fruit trees and hunting grounds, but usually the matriarchs resolved tensions before it came to blows.  Once each month, on the full moon, the matriarchs would gather and the eldest would speak the word of the Great Mother, telling tales of turning cycles, of ancient history, of the other creatures of the forest.  She would tell them where to plant the bitter annuna (a-NOO-na) seeds, so that the next generation might feast on the fruit.  She would warn them that they must not plant too many, for the other trees were as important to the rest of the forest as the annuna were to the Tapanui.

The men had rituals too, centered around the mysterious ike’san (EE-kay-sahn), the arrow-rock.  Rose-gold with a spectacular iridescence, ike’san was found deep beneath the surface.  On the same full moon nights, warriors would dig far beneath the trees, worming downward until, around sunrise, they would reach the solid ike’san and chip off enough for a moon’s hunts.  Ike’san was a rock that flowed.  It felt solid and punctured throats and hearts as well as any stone, but if you left it on the ground it would spread and flatten, and if you placed it in molds of annuna heartwood, over a moon’s time it would take the shape of the mold, a razor-sharp arrowhead.  Ike’san dissolved slowly with exposure to the elements, so every moon the warriors repeated the ritual of digging deep and loading the forms.

The Tapanui had no knowledge of fire.  Despite intense lightning storms, their rainforest never burned.  In one sockdolager of a storm the warrior Oribe (O-re-bay) was returning from a hunt when the annuna tree beside him was struck and exploded.  Splintered and steaming, it still stood tall against the roiling clouds, a lightning rod for the next bolt.  This one set the splinters alight.  In awe, Oribe picked up the burning sticks and returned to camp with his ike’san kill.  The warriors gathered around the flame, ike’san arrows and spears sparkling like fireflies in the mysterious firelight.  Oribe tossed in his arrows to feed the fire, and others followed suit.  The ike’san sizzled, sparked, began to release a liquid that flowed out of the fire and formed a cooling pool at their feet.  Oribe touched a finger to the viscous liquid and tentatively put it to his lips.  It was like nothing he had ever experienced.  Sweet, spicy, nourishing, refreshing.  The warriors filled a skin with old ike’san arrowheads and placed it over the fire, taking turns drinking the remarkable liquid.  The kill was forgotten and abandoned.

San’mel (SAHN-mel), they called it, rock-honey, melted from ike’san by the Eternal Flame.  Oribe and his warriors became high priests of the Eternal Flame, digging nightly for ike’san and stacking branches under cover to keep the fire going.  Every day they brought san’mel to the women and to other groups of Tapanui.  All rejoiced at this newfound nourishment, save for the matriarchs and especially the eldest, the one who spoke for the Great Mother.  Take heed, she said, for you know not what you do.  For all time you have been a part of the great cycles, eating of the fruits and animals and the energy of the sun above.  Ike’san is a part of the same cycles, but on my timescales, not yours.  When san’mel feeds you, you step outside of the cycles.  You become unstoppable, disconnected.  You forget about the annuna trees, the planting, the rebirth, your fellow creatures.  You forget about me.  You rejoice now, but both you and I will suffer in time.

The Great Mother’s warnings had little effect, for all were enrapt with san’mel and the Eternal Flame.  Oribe felt his power growing, felt himself channeling the mysterious energy within the fire.  We shall leave our forest, he said.  We shall cross the deserts and grasslands, the glaciers to the north.  Wherever san’mel flows, we shall follow, our power and creativity blossoming across the planet.

The warrior-priests, the Oribe’en (o-re-BAY-en), began to travel, carrying a torch in one hand and a skin of san’mel in the other.  To each group of Tapanui they found, they offered these gifts and preached the doctrine of the Eternal Flame.  San’mel is a gift to us from the divine, they said.  Not the old Great Mother with her endless cycles and annuna trees, but a new divinity, newly awakened in the fire.  He has chosen us to go forth and multiply, to have dominion, to spread san’mel to all portions of the world.  Nearly all accepted the gifts, for they had never seen fire or tasted san’mel.  A few resisted.  At first they were ignored, but as the demand for san’mel increased, the Oribe’en began rounding up all who fought to work as slaves in the ike’san mines, eating nothing but san’mel and toiling in deep darkness to feed the Eternal Flame.

Within two centuries, the entire planet had been transformed.  Tapanui settlements covered the deserts, the plains, the mountains, and the distant islands.  All ate a diet of san’mel with little else, though a few experimented with agriculture and hunting for variety and the occasional celebration.  Great viaducts and canals were built to carry san’mel from the mines to the coast, where tanker ships set sail for distant ports.  The mines themselves became wastelands, piles of discarded rock and miles upon miles of stumps, the trees cut to fuel the Eternal Flame, the great furnaces that converted ike’san to san’mel.

Science, literature, art, and music flourished, those Tapanui lucky enough to avoid slaving in the mines finding themselves with an abundance of free time and energy.  A complex society and economy developed, with san’mel the basis for all trade.  Generations rose and fell with the price of san’mel, as the miners dug ever deeper, opening new mines in the high mountains, beneath the glaciers, even tunneling beneath the sea with air piped in from high above.  The Oribe’en fragmented not long after Oribe’s death, their ranks growing too large and too disseminated to manage the power they wielded.  Each sect declared an Oribus, a high priest, and the sects fought over ike’san mines and trade routes, dragging whole societies to war in defense of their access to san’mel, the sacred liquid of life.

Some three centuries after Oribe discovered fire and san’mel, scientists began to issue warnings.  Earthquakes were occurring with greater frequency and intensity near the mines, fracturing the viaducts and creating worldwide san’mel shortages.  At the largest mine in the world, a seam opened in the crust.  Lava poured out in all directions, obliterating the mine and all Tapanui settlements within fifty miles.  At first, these events seemed like mere coincidences, but a pattern was starting to emerge.  Ike’san was found in greatest abundance near tectonic plate boundaries, and it flowed over time.  What if, they posited, ike’san served as a lubricant, allowing plates to slide past one another without creating stress?  What if, when the ike’san was removed, stresses built up over time, leading to earthquakes and cracks in the crust?  At first this was dismissed as an unfounded hypothesis, but experiments validated the theory.  Strain sensors placed at plate boundaries near ike’san mines reliably recorded more strain and more tremors than identical sensors near intact ike’san deposits.  Scientists agreed, and warnings were sent out to the Oribe’en, to the governments, and to all Tapanui on the planet.

Global summits were called, the crisis discussed in government halls and around dinner tables.  Most agreed that something must be done, the remaining ike’san protected, san’mel replaced by something less harmful to the planet.  Some yearned to go back to the old ways, to hunt wild game and harvest annuna fruits.  A few radicals symbolically turned off the san’mel taps in their treehouses, planted orchards and crops, and declared themselves san’mel-free.  The scientists, at the urging of the Oribe’en, sought a technical solution – a way to make san’mel without mining ike’san.  This proved possible in the lab; as they now understood, ike’san was formed by a reaction between biological materials and intense heat at plate boundaries.  Unfortunately, this synthetic san’mel required even more fires to produce the heat, and it was limited by the amount of plant material that could be grown in one year.  The limitless abundance of the ike’san mines was simply not achievable, and the Tapanui were no experts in agriculture, having come to depend on san’mel for the vast majority of their sustenance.

As the tremors and lava flows increased, the ike’san mines continued to dig downward and expand to all corners of the planet.  Generations of the former tree-dwellers lived and toiled underground, ascending  to the surface only on sacred holidays to view the Eternal Flame.  A new technology emerged, one that promised to keep the san’mel pipes full for another century.  Fire-cracking, the scientists called it.  The rocks adjacent to the ike’san contained some amount of san’mel locked inside, and this could be released by fire hot enough to boil the liquid and crack the rock.  Some mines hauled the rock into huge piles with fires lit beneath.  Others removed whole hillsides and mountaintops, shovelful by shovelful, and lit fires atop the san’mel-rich rock below.  Still others took the fire deep into the earth, pumping air deep down and san’mel back up.  Fire-cracking was a hellish process for all involved.  The fires consumed every tree and shrub within a hundred miles of the mines, and the san’mel ships which formerly returned empty now returned from distant lands with loads of logs to fuel the flames.  Forests and mountains became slag piles and eroded clearcuts, miner life expectancy dropped to under thirty years, and Tapanui in cities downwind of the mines experienced sickness and tumors never seen before.  Still the san’mel flowed, with promises that it would flow indefinitely.  The economy demanded it, and the Tapanui, even those who wished san’mel had never been discovered, could not imagine a life without it.  The sacrifices would simply be too great, the waters untested.  Could a civilization built on san’mel, dependent on san’mel, survive without it?


This, dear reader, is where we are at in our parallel story right now.  Climate change projections grow more extreme each year, with no sense that even the direst models will motivate us to emit less carbon.  The fuels themselves are running out:  oil now, coal and natural gas a few short generations later.  Hydraulic fracturing, an energy-intensive and environmentally-damaging method for forcing the last drops of oil out of solid rock, is touted as a shiny way forward.  Never mind that it will buy us at most 50 years of oil at our ever-increasing rates of consumption.

Energy, agriculture, economy, society, religion.  All are intertwined in our crisis of unsustainability.  We will examine each of these in turn, but we will start next week by taking a closer look at energy.  How much energy do we use?  How much energy does the sun provide?  Would it even be possible to replace fossil fuels with energy from the sun?  If so, how might we get started?

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