Neaderthals, Sustainability and Our Energy Future

21 Sep

images-1What do Neanderthals have to do with sustainability and the future of energy consumption?

I’m fascinated by human pre-history, and recently I’ve been watching  documentaries on the topic, specifically Walking with Cavemen (about human evolution generally) and Neanderthal (about the lives of Neanderthals and their demise at the hands of modern humans).

Neaderthal, especially, is a somewhat tragic story: Neaderthals–a human species that lived in the cold regions of Europe and the Middle East during the last ice age–thrived for a quarter of a million years until, when the ice began to retreat and modern humans invaded Neanderthal territory, the strong, resourceful but imaginatively limited Neanderthals were outcompeted by their physically weaker but more adaptable Cro-Magnon cousins.  Although modern human and Neanderthals surely clashed, the Neanderthals weren’t wiped out by force.  Rather, over thousands of years they were slowly pushed out as modern human proved to be better and harvesting, exploiting and consuming natural resources.  Cro-magnons had better tools, more sophisticated language, and brains capable of imagining bold new solutions to the problem of surviving in a harsh, dangerous world.

What does this have to do with energy sustainability?

Everything.  Modern humans outlasted Neanderthals because of our advanced ability to exploit natural resources.  Better weapons and tools translated to more successful hunting, which meant more protein, which is essential for our big, dynamic brains to work at full bore.  And we’ve used our brains to accomplish incredible things and become the most accomplished tool makers and thinkers and molders of the environment the Earth has ever known.  (We’re not necessarily the most sucessful species on Earth–thousands of creatures, like bacteria and other microscopic organisms and more complex animals like many insects and sharks and so on have been around a lot longer than we have and done just as well if not better, relatively speaking.)

But our cleverness at mining the planet for sources of energy cuts at least two ways.  The more sophisticated our technology, the more energy we’re able to harvest, and the more people the planet can support.  But the more people there are, the more energy we need.  It’s a feedback loop that’s growing more intense and more fragile every day.

The raison detre of renewable energy is that the sources we mostly rely on now–oil, coal and natural gas–are finite, and will eventually (many think much sooner rather than later) run out.  Even if there are soon-to-be discovered oil reserves lurking underground, that still won’t be enough to support us if global population continues to increase as expected.

So again, what does this have to do with Neanderthals?  Here’s my point: the very same powers of toolmaking and imagination and adaptability that gave us the edge over the Neanderthals are the same attributes that have brought us to the edge of what many experts describe as an energy/ecological crisis.  Simply put, we’re using up resources faster than we can replenish them.  The good news is that we’re fully capable of using our big, versatile brains to not only recognize and comprehend the situation but come up with solutions.  Some of the best minds in the world are hard at work on inventing new tools–solar arrays, wind turbines, biofuels, wave power generators–to harvest renewable energy.  Governments and other organizations around the world are pouring billions of dollars into these technologies and lending political support.  Hybrid cars are as common as any other on the road.

So we’re in good shape, right?

Maybe.  I like to think that, at the very least, we’re headed in the right direction.  After all, the book I’m writing is meant to be mainly positive about the ways in which work being done today will lead us to a better, greener, more sustainable tomorrow.

But sometimes I’m not so sure.  The other day I was hanging out with a friend who mentioned that he was trying to sell one of his family’s cars–a Honda Accord with about 80,000 miles but in perfect condition and probably able to keep going for another ten years.  When I asked my friend why he wanted to sell the car, he shrugged and said something to the effect of wanting a roomier car, being able to put bikes in the bike and so on, probably an SUV.

My friend is a smart guy, a full professor at a big university.  He’s also very liberal and knowledgeable about lots of things, energy included.  But when it comes down to it, he’s happy to trade a perfectly good, fuel efficient car for a less efficient gas guzzler simply because he wants to, and he can.  Sure, he could put a bike rack thing on the back of his Accord and make do that way.  But no–he has the money, so why not get a brand new SUV.  So what if it gulps a bit more gas?

Well, maybe my friend should read this long excerpt quoted in the NY Times blog Dot Earth. The problem, of course, is that this is exactly the kind of thinking that’s brought us to where we are today, energy-wise.  We live in a country, and increasingly a world, where more is always better, where one of if not the main motivations in life is to get more stuff and consume more resources.  I’m as guilty as the next person–my house is littered with all sorts of things I don’t really need.

But if my friend, who’s about as educated and liberal as they come, doesn’t give a shit about being more efficient and doing his bit to change the way we consume energy, then what hope is there that millions of less educated, less-aware people will be willing to rethink our culture of unabated consumption?

Sometimes I’m convinced that the only thing that will bring about widespread change is some huge catastrophe.  Maybe when oil hits $300 a barrel and gas costs $10 a gallon enough people will be forced to change their habits and assumptions about how to live. One guy buying an SUV isn’t going to tip the balance one way or the other, but everything counts, everything is connected, and everything matters.  We may be the most successful tool makers in history, but we’re not invulnerable. And for the past 100 years we’ve been consuming fossil fuels in ways that have done huge damage to the environment and are painting us into an energy crisis corner. For such big-brained animals, sometimes we humans can be pretty stupid.

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