|Photo from the Galileo spacecraft, 1990.|
This future, of course, is predicated on the consumption of power. Lots of power. The technologically sophisticated lifestyles we have come to enjoy will require an unending supply of energy, on an enormous scale. In 2005, the United States alone consumed about 100 quadrillion BTUs, roughly the energy contained in 800 billion gallons of gasoline or 3.6 billion tonnes of coal. Annual world consumption is on the order of 450 quadrillion BTUs, and with the world population climbing ever upward, it's easy to see that the demand for energy will continue to swell.
But there's a problem. Our power consumption is responsible for an obscene level of carbon emissions which threaten to alter the climate of the Earth, causing violent storms, coastal flooding, the destruction of ecosystems, the acidification of the oceans, and the widespread extinction of many species, which may have a profound impact on the food chain. Fueled mainly by coal, oil and natural gas, this level of consumption is unsustainable at best, and extraordinarily reckless at worst.
On Earth Day, much is made about the need for conservation. Not only should we recycle and do what we can to minimize pollution, but we should also cut down on our energy consumption. That's a great idea, and in 2011, that's what you must do if you're serious about saving the planet. At a time when there is heartbreakingly little political will to make big changes in our energy economy, the only way to reduce our environmental impact is individual responsibility. Earth Day is an important part of spreading that message, making sure people know what they can do to make a difference, but it may do little toward convincing the millions of Americans who are decidedly hostile toward environmentalism. And so, even if every environmentalist in America were to minimize their carbon footprint, half of the population might persist in unchecked consumption.
What is troubling about the energy conservation message, and what is understandably so unattractive to those on the right, is the austerity.