Why is it that some things change rapidly while others stagnate? Sure, there’s many factors, but one worth discussing, in my view, is the political will for change. It suits my interest in going straight to the source of a problem, rather than flirting at the reform-inclined edges.
Of course, many have spoken and written on this subject, so there is no need to document with detail a trajectory of change throughout modern history. A quick glance might include significant developments witnessed in medicine and with medical practices, computing and microchip developments, robotics, and the continual refinement of industrial manufacturing processes. While the rate of these changes pale in comparison if we look back to the early 20th century, where almost all aspects of life were upturned by a rapid succession of technological advancement, my interest here is more in the lack of change certain areas experience, compared to others.
Today, the pace of change seems overwhelming, yet it is all powered by the same technology that powered innovation one hundred years ago; fossil fuels. While we have been busy reinventing the world and the way we relate to it, there seems to have been a reluctance to really invest in the fuel that powers these technological advancements. Despite rapid pioneering of new means to harness renewable forms of energy, these efforts have continuously been hindered by fossil fuel industries, either through active lobbying for continued government support, through private campaigning to assert primacy and relevancy, and by association asserting the nonsensicality of alternative energies, or through the acquisition of patents to gain direct control over how renewables technology develops.
As general a statement as it may be, the reality is that fossil fuels and other natural resources, including water quality, are being depleted at a horrifying rate. No matter what study you read, within reason, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find opinion contrary to what peak oil and peak energy activists have been saying for some decades now. We are indisputably reaching the point of no return in terms of our use of fossil fuels and the far reaching effects this will have on the climate, terrain, water safety, and our transportation are alarming at best. Not to mention the social effects, where such little coordinated effort has been invested by government agencies into transition oriented projects that shift people to new technologies.
Whilst the breathtaking rate of technological and social advancement alluded to earlier is certainly impressive, what isn’t is that we are still digging up our energy needs from the earth beneath us, leaving a devastating trail of toxic soils and waterways. As the fossil fuel industry and its apologists continue to underplay the seriousness of breaches at mines all over the world, the time for serious, concerted, collaborative action to support renewable forms of energy that can be applied to both mass and micro applications is certainly now, if not yesterday.
Living in Sri Lanka a few years ago, a country with significant social and economic inclusion and distribution needs to resolve, I was impressed with its energy infrastructure, a mix of hydro, solar and wind power. Solar technology is gaining more and more support here, with reasonably accessible prices, some basic government support programs and agencies tasked with providing solar equipment through low interest, low repayment loans to poorer famlilies. While these positives are partially overshadowed by the pollution gushing from buses and trucks all over the island, the honking, blaring, swerving actualisations of climate change, together with the prospect of coal energy on the horizon, there is a bigger story at hand.
Approaching our power needs with a variety of technologies provides the greatest security against natural disaster and human mistakes that may cause systems to fail. A mixed system, particularly where this includes proper focus on home self sufficiency wherever possible, decreases reliance on large, polluting, base load requirements that are susceptible to break down and malfunction as much as any other system.
Deconstruction of our power sources certainly has cost implications,. Yet creative incentives targeted to research and development, manufacturing and installation activities associated with the energy sector would go a long way toward restructuring these cost rises.
It’s alarming that the use of nuclear power is in the midst of a constructed resurgence, as memories of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukishima float safely in the past . As a long term, tho slightly dormant, leave-uranium-in-the-ground activist, the industry’s present attempts to revitalise (described fancifully in the media as a renaissance) and become relevant to sustainability and energy discussions worldwide, is a wonderful example of how modern industry is able to twist any argument to suit their own agenda. And so we see nuclear power reborn as a renewable energy, a green form of power, despite the reality of its scars on the earth, on communities and on our atmosphere. Born again, uranium extraction escalates to be manufactured into power and weaponry, together with a whole host of mostly obsolete technologies that add to the industry’s arguments about its usefulness to modern society.
This ‘renaissance’ has nothing to do with the practicalities or so-called sustainability of nuclear power. It’s about a group of corporations who have invested over the last fifty years in explorations and infrastructure in uranium mining and nuclear power who want to capitalise on those investments. Enormous profit margins should not be the motive for determining global energy approaches.
Australia is one of the prime suppliers to the world of uranium. Witnessing the saddening effects this hideous process has on lands and communities, I remain vehemently opposed to its proliferation. Having seen these effects first hand, I was horrified by a stall in the social change area of Sziget Festival, a massive event in Budapest each year, called “Students for nuclear power”, a real-time acknowledgement of the lack of understanding about this toxic material and its effect on where it is mined and where wastes are stored.
Attending a debate about the nuclear industry in Perth some years ago I was incredulous to hear a qualified and experienced scientist for the pro side assuring us that the public just needed to trust scientists to be able to develop a solution to the waste problem at some point in the future, when it was really needed. Right now, he soothingly assured us, we can short term store the waste, no worries mate.
The waste ‘problem’ is significant. How to store toxic materials with an estimated life of hundreds of thousands of years in a planet where the oldest living cultural group extends back only [I don’t use ‘only’ lightly] 40,000 to 60,000 years? How indeed – the simple answer is not to play with this fire. Australia’s First Nations people know this and have revered and avoided uncovering the uranium mess throughout their long held sovereignty. It’s important to celebrate traditional owners’ recent victory at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory recently.
Uranium is an energy conductor, and as was explained to me near Lake Eyre. It lies in an intricate web of energy transmittance lines throughout the land, beneath the ground; there for a purpose, that purpose being to conduct energy within the land, not in reactors and weapons. For there is no separation between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. They arise from the same mindset which is one of control over nature, control over each other and selfish pursuit of power and money for short term gain.
The recent earthquake in Japan sends a clear warning about the volatility of the nuclear industry, from reactors to storage. In many ways, the series of severe climate events witnessed around the world over recent years is an apocalypse in itself, a lifting of the veil as to the potential crises that may result from our ill-considered energy infrastructure in the face of natural disasters. Systems for containing waste from mining activity just cannot be designed to cope with such increasing severity of these events. The results of contamination could be disastrous for all of us, for as individualised as our lifestyles might be, particularly in the developed world, we still rely on shared drinking water, soils and air.
While there is an admitted fuzzyness to my descriptions about alternatives for developing more viable and secure energy sources, there is no grey about the reality of environmental and social limits that dictate a new way of thinking about our relationship with Nature and about the systems we develop to create and prosper our existence on this planet.
So, while we struggle each day in many ways to comprehend the changing world around us, coupled with its shrinking layers of separation, our energy still comes from finite, ancient, biodegradable materials. It makes no sense, and yet it does; greed and power, the twin pursuits of those destined to obliterate our ongoing modern legacy of suffering, emancipation, ingenuity and resilience. As the neoliberals deepen their grips on global political and economic systems, those of us living in democracies around the world need to continue asking: who benefits from these decisions, what are the underlying motives, and where’s the discussion about our options?
Three simple questions with big answers, particularly if you examine where our energy comes from.