On Your Own Terms

There’s a scene in the movie Citizen Kane where Jedediah Leland tells Charles Foster Kane that Kane only wants “love on your own terms.”  It’s a great scene, and true as well as prophetic in a far larger context

There’s no doubt that, throughout history, human beings have always wanted love, and pretty much everything else, on our own terms.  In most of human history, however, almost everyone couldn’t get much of anything on their own terms, and this is still true in many parts of the world. If it didn’t rain, people were lucky to get anything to eat, let alone a Big Mac or Chateaubriand with béarnaise.  Even in the reign of Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France, the most powerful ruler in Europe, there were times when beverages froze on the table at Versailles.

But, with the rise of more advanced technology we’ve become more and more able to get things previously unobtainable, from fresh fruits and vegetables out of season where we live to instant communications pretty much anywhere on earth.  Particularly in the United States, as a society we want everything on our own terms.  We want cheap and abundant electricity.  We want inexpensive clothing.  We want easily affordable personal transportation at our beck and call.  We want the best health care possible, and we’re getting angry that its cost is rising.  The list of what we want and can get on our own terms – or close to them – is large and growing… for the moment.

The problem with all this is that, over time, we don’t dictate the terms:  the physical condition of the world and the underlying laws of the universe do.

The current “we can have it all” of so-called responsible environmentalists is natural gas, because it emits roughly half the greenhouse gases of coal as well as far fewer other pollutants.  There are more than a few problems with this “solution,” the first of which is that the numbers backing the “replacement” of coal with natural gas don’t take into account the additional and far higher than publicized environmental costs. A number of recent studies show that from 3% to 15% of existing natural gas wells are leaking methane gas.  A NOAA study of one gas field in eastern Utah found that leaks amounted to 9% of the amount of gas produced.  Another study by Cornell University also found leakage rates at nine percent on a national basis. Studies of gas drilling have shown leakage rates of up to 17% in some basins.  One Canadian study indicated that the more typical horizontal gas fracking wells had leakage after of several years in more than half the wells.   While high pressure fracking wells are still in the minority in numbers, they have high initial production rates, and even a small percentage volume of leakage can result in a significant quantity of methane emissions. Given that there are some 500,000 natural gas wells in the United States alone, if even 3% are leaking that’s 15,000 wells oozing or spewing methane into the atmosphere, and, given that methane is a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent than CO2, when initially released and 25 times more potent even measured over a hundred years, after that’s a serious problem. And that doesn’t include the tens of thousands of Canadian wells. Even EPA studies show that leakage rates above eight percent negate any benefits from converting from coal and in fact may even accelerate global warming.  Natural gas just doesn’t leak from wells, either.  Testimony before the Massachusetts state legislature this year cited 20,000 known natural gas leaks in the state, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that more than 8 billion cubic meters of natural gas are lost each year in leakage.

I’m not against natural gas.  In fact, I’d much rather have natural gas generating my power and heating my home than any of the conventional alternatives.  BUT… unless the drilling companies and the gas power industry are willing to spend a lot more money and other resources in cleaning up production and transmission systems, there’s not going to be any environmental improvement.  In fact, present practices could make matters worse.  Of course, coal is still cheaper – unless coal-burning power plants are cleaned up to the standards of natural gas plants, in which case, the electricity won’t be any cheaper, but more expensive.  And if we don’t clean up our energy production and usage pollution, we’ll end up frying the planet that much sooner. In short, we can’t keep having cheap energy on our terms.

I could have cited different examples in different areas, but the facts and the conclusions would be similar. Over time, the universe is going to limit what we can have on our own terms… and for how long.

That’s not even a question.  The question is how long it will take us as a society to understand that point.

1 thought on “On Your Own Terms”

  1. Wine Guy says:

    Oh, I think the earth and the universe will survive. Humans might not, but I don’t think either the universe OR the earth really care about that…

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