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Collapse or Carbon-Free? The Case For Making a Decision…and Quick!

The following is an excerpt from The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit by Stephen and Rebekah Hren. It has been adapted for the web.

Fossil fuels waited like buried treasure for millions of years until humanity had the technological capacity to exploit them. They allowed for the creation and use of countless gadgets and laborsaving devices and the proliferation of the automobile. First we marveled at these objects, then we bought them and used them with wonder, then we took them for granted, and then we became dependent on them for everything. For our food and mobility, our health and entertainment, even our very own identities. We became what we bought and what we had, a commodity among heaps and piles of other commodities.

It’s fall in the year 2007 as we write this, and the sun is setting on these stranded pools and piles of long-ago sunlight. Like rich, spoiled children who have gorged themselves on an excessive inheritance, we have no idea what to do now that we are faced with the fact of our wealth’s inherent destructive properties and vanishing existence. To live on our annual income of energy seems impossible without binges of Jet Skis, airplanes, SUVs, candy bars, video games, and all the rest. How will we ever survive without them?

The junkie in the gutter has asked himself that same question many, many times. But the realities of our situation are unavoidable. The ice caps are melting at a rate faster than anyone expected, imperiling thousands of species as well as towns and villages around the globe. Oil production has stagnated for several years even as prices reach record highs, and a nearterm peak seems all but certain. What’s more, as oil and other fossil fuels run out, we’re turning to dirtier forms to make up the shortfall. Tar sands are difficult to exploit, and huge amounts of energy (and water) must be expended to extract them. We burn coal of lower quality every year. Facts like these mean that even if we behave exactly as we did the year before, we will contribute more CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

“What can I do?” you ask. The problem seems so overwhelming that action is pointless. But we can’t forget that the problem is the cumulative result of our individual actions. If Americans would only just put their electronics on power strips and turn these off when not in use, eliminating phantom loads, we could save enough electricity to power the continent of Australia. A little bit of extra effort and we’ve got one continent taken care of.

As to what a life is like without fossil fuels, we can tell you. We won’t claim that no fossil fuels are ever burned for our benefit (a goodly amount were burned to make the book you’re holding in your hands, for instance), but we do go about our daily lives without using them. We have hot water and electricity, and we cook, and use our computer, our washing machine, and our stereo. When we walk outside we’re greeted with hundreds of different species of plants and flowers that are visited by bumblebees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. We live a short walk or bike ride from our friends and our favorite hangouts. We save over $10,000 every year because we have few bills and, more importantly, only one car. This means we can work less and drive less and spend more time sipping homebrew with neighbors or reading books on our green roof. Much of our food is grown either in our yard or by friends who live nearby in the countryside.

When we do want to work, we have more than enough of it, because interest in renewable energy is exploding. There’s a lot of solar-water panels and solar air heaters that need installing out there, and a little job security never hurt anyone. All in all, it’s hardly the apocalypse lots of folks talk about when they imagine the oil running out.

When our children have become grandparents, more than likely they will not be using fossil fuels and their derivatives in very many aspects of their lives. Not only are fossil fuels finite in quantity and being depleted at an accelerating rate, but the harm their use entails to this planet that sustains us all is now undeniable even by half-wits and madmen.

We are now presented with a choice, a choice that is likely unprecedented by any species in the history of earth, because of its scale but also because of our cognitive ability to understand the problem and change our behavior. We can attempt to continue on with our lives as they are now for as long as possible, doing whatever it takes to feed our habits of growing consumption of the earth’s limited resources until we are forcibly made to stop by disruption and exhaustion of the supplies this requires. Or we can choose to live within our annual budget of energy and materials, as every other species on the planet does. We won’t be living in hollowed-out logs like many of the animals of the forest, however, as our own story can testify to. Our intelligence and dexterity will allow us to use our more limited budget as effectively as possible, with lives as comfortable as the ones we live now.

Two generations may seem like a long time, an era that will never come. We are now in the darkest hour, when our dependence on fossil fuels is almost absolute. Ignoring the goal of a carbon-free civilization and carrying on as before seems like the easier choice. In the short term, no doubt, this is true. But two generations is about the same amount of time it takes for an acorn to sprout and grow into an oak tree in a clearing in the woods. When the seedling first pokes its head through the leaves, imagine if its first response on learning that it had to grow 100 feet tall to reach the canopy was, “Aw, screw it, that’s too far. I give up!” Just because we have only begun to grow our renewable energy economy and convert our lives to carbon freedom is not any reason to feel despair. It’s not anything we can do in a year, probably not even in a decade. But in a year we’ll be a little bit farther along, and in a decade we’ll be able to imagine what it will feel like to reach the top.

The time for debate has ended. We must decide one way or the other, by inaction and acceptance of the status quo, or by grabbing our toolbox and getting busy. The need for making our homes and our lives carbon free is well understood and of the utmost importance. Indeed, even the means of making our homes and lives carbon free have already been discovered. Both the problem and the solution have been identified. Now it is only a matter of learning and implementing and, once you have done this, to teach others.

We won’t lie to you. Getting to a carbon-free existence will require a hell of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Once there, it’ll require a little more attention and involvement than our previous ignorant and fossilized existence. Like every long journey, it’s one you have to take a step at a time. One thing is for sure: if you don’t do anything, you won’t get anywhere! Good luck!

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