"If they can put a man on the moon, they can find something to replace oil."
This trope has been around since Mideast oil producers delivered their first ransom note to the West in the 1970s. It implies that the fuel of the future is perfectly ordinary stuff — like the ingredients of Coca Cola — and we could have it tomorrow if not for shadowy corporate interests that jealously guard the formula.
Such folk wisdom has no currency among those who actually work on alternative energy, who know too well the challenges they face and understand that a breakthrough may be decades away. Unfortunately, some of their friends in the environmental community are less realistic. With his announcement on the Aug. 4 Times Op-Ed page that 350.org's contribution to the project will now be foot-stamping, red-faced anger, Bill McKibben joins that camp.
At the risk of wasting words on someone who says he's ready to get arrested to keep the seas from turning to acid and the planet from melting, I'd like to suggest to McKibben that our long-sought energy revolution may be slow to arrive for reasons other than the obstinacy of politicians. Perhaps it's because Mother Nature — moon shots and Dolly the sheep notwithstanding — is a hard act to follow.
Look at what she accomplished before even vertebrates came along. She spread the tiny carcasses of algae and plankton on the ocean floor, basted them with sediment and let them simmer for millions of years. The result was a highly concentrated, reliable and portable energy source — ideal for brainy bipeds who invented the wheel and eventually wanted to power it with something other than muscle.
Compare her handiwork to mankind's puny efforts to harness the sun, the wind or amber waves of grain. Those energy sources present themselves to us in diluted form. We have to collect them in great quantities, dedicating large areas of land to the process. Nature produced fossil fuels under similar constrictions, but without the problem of locating towering windmills and ugly solar farms, not to mention thousands of miles of transmission lines. Nor did she have to decide whether a bushel of corn would feed people in poor countries or fuel vehicles in rich ones.
Even after the initial energy "harvest," humans must go to great lengths to create a concentrated, usable product. The goal (mandatory, in the case of transportation) is energy density. Nature needed countless millennia to pack it into your $40 fill-up. Is it any wonder we have a tough time matching her? To date, the only thing that comes close is nuclear fission. Unless GM plans to follow its much-heralded Volt with the Chevy Chernobyl, we can probably disregard that idea.
McKibben's idea is to confront a technological problem with political and economic pressure. We must put a "stiff price" on carbon, he says, because otherwise fossil fuel won't go away.
Aside from the fact that most people wouldn't want it to go away until a viable substitute is found, I doubt that coercion of any kind will help scientists think harder or faster. Man's first moon landing came 66 years after Kitty Hawk. Could we have gotten there sooner by imposing a tax on any manned flight that involved a propeller?
Here's an idea for scaring up revenue in lieu of a carbon tax: Let's stop paying organizations millions of dollars to "prove" anthropogenic global warming. The only practical purpose of such research is to tell us we need alternatives to fossil fuel. Let's put our money toward developing those alternatives, as well as making existing technologies cleaner and greener. While we wait for the revolution, we may as well produce something more useful than collective guilt.
Michael Smith lives in Cynthiana, Ky.