Perhaps Our Shortage of Energy Is a Disguised Blessing

By Russell Kirk

Let it be said for Arab presidents and potentates that they have compelled nearly all of us in this land to think seriously about problems of energy as related to our immediate and our remote future. Even were Levantine oil to resume its flow into American tanks tomorrow, we would confront severe permanent difficulties in finding sufficient sources of energy to maintain our boasted standard of living. But our “crisis” connected with war in Palestine has served to chasten our fatuous optimism about fuel for all purposes.

The modern world generally, and the Western world particularly, simply cannot go on using up sources of energy as if they were self-replenishing. And even if our oil and gas wells did replenish theoselves, still our rate of energy consumption would threaten the very survival of humankind.

Consider the remarks of Dr. Howard Wilcox, a physicist and a consultant to the Navy, at a recent meeting of.the American Geophysical Union. He declared that “thermal pollution”—that is, the increase of heat in the atmosphere, as a result of the energy which modern civilization releases-could make much of the world uninhabitable within a century or two.

All that heat from our machines and factories and modes of transportation remains within the earth’s atmosphere, and accumulates. If our consumption of energy were to continue to increase at the rate of 4 percent a year, a century from now the mean temperature would have increased by half a degree Fahrenheit.

What’s alarming about that? Why, such a climatic change would begin to melt the polar icecaps, for one thing. Within 150 years from 1974, such melting would raise sea level some 200 feet—which would submerge every seaport, of course, and a great deal of the most densely populated regions of the world besides.

Such a process would be accelerating and cumulative. Within perhaps 200 years, the oceans at the equator would be boiling, literally, should “thermal pollution” continue without effective check.

In the words of Dr. Wilcox, “The scientific danger signals are rising, and the entire world will be alarmed over this problem a hundred years from now.”

True, that’s a long time away. Some people, or many, will tend to say, with the old Greek poet, “When I am dead, let earth be mixed with fire.” But those of us who think of our descendants will cast about for public measures to prevent such a disaster to the human race.

The first necessity is to diminish, or at least hold constant, our consumption of energy. The earth’s ecology was substantially in balance, until modern technology (beginning about the middle of the 18th century, but accelerating tremendously in recent decades) began to consume far more natural energy and so—among other consequences—to open the prospect that we may parboil ourselves. We must retrace our steps, or perish.

One of the more dismaying results of our energy consumption through burning fuels is the release into the air of vast quantities of carbon monoxide. This is not only poisonous to human lungs, but contributes heavily to general thermal pollution. What do we do about it?

Chain smokers may be startled at one conclusion from a recent ecological study in St. Louis. It was found there that tobacco smoking does as much to poison the air with carbon monoxide as do the exhaust fumes from automobiles. The authors of the study recommend that we commence a reform by prohibiting smoking in public places—as a more effective check than exhaust restraints can be.

“If I turn down my thermostat, don’t I at least have a right to smoke a pack of cigarettes while I shiver?” So somebody may inquire. But the ecology doesn’t recognize human rights. King James I of England, called “the wisest fool in Christendom,” tried vainly to snuff out tobacco smoking in its salad days. He turns out to have been wiser than he knew.

Yet think of this: the ancient Greeks, say, had neither central heating nor tobacco, let alone the internal-combustion engine. But intellectually and physically they were our superiors. If we’re chilly, and divorced from My Lady Nicotine—why, that may quicken our imagination. An age of decreased consumption of natural energy may become an age of increased energy of mind and spirit.