Thursday, July 07, 2005

Hard Rain's Gonna Fall...

I know this doesn't seem to be in line with the usual considerations of matter theological or spiritual, but both theology and spirituality are actually vitally concerned with, and vitally connected to, quotidian existence. And all the signs are that existence is due for a dramatic, if not sudden, change.

On one level, and perhaps I'll return to this, there are all the societal problems we face with an aging population. FDR established a retirement age in order to free up work for younger people, but most people didn't live long beyond 65 at that time. Now we have an aging population that is also healthy; and while John Tierney likes to imagine they are all bike riders and mountain climbers, that's as false an image as the one that says we are all conservatives solidly behind the present Administration. The "elderly" are not uniformly healthy, and not uniformly capable of enjoying life as if they were 40. But what they can do, and what we should do for them, are both societal and spiritual, and even ecclesiological, questions. I mention that simply as an example, a way of explaining how wide and deep this discussion goes; of saying that when we discuss theology and spirituality, we are discussing matters fundamental to our existence and our culture and our communities.

Which brings us around to petroleum. There is a growing acceptance of the inevitable: the world's petroleum sources are finite, and we are using them up. Up until the commercial production of oil in Saudi Arabia in the late 30's and early 40's, East Texas had the larges known oil deposits in the world. Kilgore, Texas was literally dotted with oil derricks. East Texas, however, was "played out" by the 1970's. It's peak passed quickly, while oil consumption and demand just increased. In my childhood, it was also supposed that a new source of energy would be discovered, a limitless source of energy: perhaps atomic, perhaps magnetic, perhaps solar. Something, we were all confident, would be found to replace the "genie" of petroleum. Because petroleum was truly a genie; it provided our technology with magic. Indeed, our technology is all simply a way of converting energy.

From the hammer and screwdriver, to the cell phone and computer I type on now: all of our technology, at base, is simply a way of transforming energy. The difference between the hammer and the cellphone is: I can supply the energy for one; I have to have a source for the energy of the other. That source may begin as water; more likely, it begins as a fossil fuel, mined, recovered, shipped, and burned to drive a dynamo that sends power down a line into my house, into a converter, into a battery. All I can do is plug it in, and pay the provider. But without that energy, the Swiss Army knife attached to my keychain, which I hardly ever use, is of more use to me. Without that energy, my cellphone is useless.

Where does the energy come from? In my childhood, we imagined it would come from new sources by now. We imagined we would find ways to harnes atomic power to drive space ships or power electric generators, or maybe even cars or planes. Aside from submarines, atomic power is not used for transportation yet; the technology we automatically think of when we think of petroleum. But most of our electrical power is generated by fossil fuels; much of it by petroluem or natural gas. Where are the new sources? When will we find them?

Why do we think we will? Why do we suppose the new sources of power for out technology are as inevitable as a cellphone with a camera?

Consider that, until the discovery of petroleum refining, human technology derived it's energy from muscles. Ox drew plows, horses pulled carts, humans raised walls for buildings. Electrical power would be very limited in usage indeed without fossil fuels, and burning coal was abandoned decades ago for very good reason (the pollution cost was horrendous even by mid-twentieth century standards). Water provided power, too, where it could; or steam. But railroads are not automobiles; water mills can't be placed in deserts or along Texas "dry creeks" that run with water only in winter or during spring thunderstorms. It was the discovery of petroleum and what we could do with it that changed our world, that made our technological "progress" possible. And already we can see that it's running out.

It was a fluke, in other words; not an inevitable part of our "progress," a triumph of our human reason over nature, a step up toward the stars that made us as gods, if not immortal then nearly eternal and almost unlimited in our abilities. It may well be we have overreached, and in classic Greek fashion, our hubris is about to bring us down.

The buildup was rapid, by historical standards. For slightly over 100 years, we've created technologies that were unimaginable without the sources of energy we've been able to unleash. But the resources for that energy were not limitless, and they are running out. Solar will save us? When? Atomics? Not at all. The waste alone will last half the life of the universe so far, and be toxic most of that time. Coal is preferable to that, but even coal is not limitless; nor will it run our cars, our planes, our war machines, our construction equipment.

All of our technology has depended on our ability to find natural resources we could turn into energy, that in turn we could harness for our little toys our our life-saving devices or our physical comfort. And the end of those natural resources is now foreseeable; their exhaustion can be predicted. Our technology will save us, we assure ourselves; another way will be found. But why? Why do we insist the universe owes us our conveniences? Why do we believe the creation will yield up, just in time, the secret of perpetual motion, or at least perpetual energy? It's never happened before in human history. What makes us imagine it will happen now, except just wishful thinking?

Absent a sudden and unforeseen salvation, one we have yet to uncover in the past 100 years of "technological progress," the physical crisis that the end of petroleum presages will come, and it will promote a spiritual crisis the likes of which we have not seen since the Enlightenment, perhaps since the Black Death, or the fall of the Roman Empire. And what will we do then? What can we do, then?

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