When I was a child, I loved singing the church song about the wise man who built his house upon a rock and the foolish man who built his house upon the sand. When the rains came down and the floods went up, the wise man’s house stood firm, while the foolish man’s house collapsed.
We have built our civilization upon fossil fuels. Without them, we could never have had access to so much energy so quickly. We could never have had the scientific, medical and technological advantages that benefit so many of us. We could never have had the abundance of food or the variety of clothing that most of us enjoy. We could never have created a global economy. We could never have driven in air-conditioned comfort.
Many of us believed that fossil fuels would eventually be succeeded by atomic energy. But then there was a meltdown at Three Mile Island and another one at Chernobyl. Then a tsunami hit Fukushima. It has become apparent that nuclear energy has a disastrous downside, one not obvious in fossil fuels.
By taking an incomprehensible quantity of carbon out of the earth where it has lain dormant for millions of years and then burning it, we have created a chain reaction that begins with the rapid accumulation of CO2 in our atmosphere and ends with a reordering of nature. We are inadvertently creating a new world order, one in which we humans move to the back of the line.
Nature is complex. It is our understanding that is simple. We can understand a balance sheet, but we don’t understand the atmosphere. We don’t even understand that our survival depends upon the atmosphere, not the balance sheet. If we can’t remember that nature is the basis of our everyday lives, then nature will remind us with droughts and fires, pandemics and floods.
A civilization built upon fossil fuels won’t all at once fall down and go boom. Like a condominium with a structural defect, the collapse will be in stages. We will have time to bewail our fate. Civilization will end, “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” If we are truly the “wise man” that we claim to be, we will begin rebuilding civilization upon a foundation that doesn’t go up in smoke.
Brian E Moss