This essay originally ran in Green Energy Times in October 2011. Not much has changed in nine years. But as I write this brief introductory paragraph in mid-March 2020, there is a massive change underway as the “Black Swan” event of COVID-19 crashes our bubble economy, forcing the shale oil and gas industry to go bankrupt. The CO2 crisis increasingly threatens human survival, and we need to do better with our time and money going forward.
“I’m feeling sad today, although I am usually a happy and optimistic person. For many years, I have had a vision for humanity’s future in a world with real, physical limits to growth and energy consumption. The problem is that getting there requires a paradigm shift, a major change in how we operate. The status quo has got to go. What has worked for the past few centuries no longer works, now that it has become clear that fossil and nuclear fuels are not sustainable. I occasionally feel that it will be impossible for our society to embrace change at the rate required to make this transition, but, nevertheless, I feel the need to keep on talking about it.
So, at the risk of sounding like a street-corner prophet of the apocalypse, I’m here to say: The end is near. Or at least the end of the status quo as we’ve come to know it. The era of incredibly cheap fossil fuels is over. They are expensive to mine and move, not only financially but environmentally. For hundreds of years, since the start of the coal-powered Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, these fuels have enabled us to create the most complex, energy-intensive society the world has ever experienced. But all of this is drawing to a close, or a big change. I know it in my gut, and I’m sure you feel it too – the future of energy is the defining issue of our age. Meanwhile, our leaders are mired in aging systems, floundering as they try to prop up our economic system by depleting our finite energy sources with imaginary money.
Our economic and financial system was conceived and runs on the assumption of infinite resources, but we are at a decision point regarding energy. Our #1 fossil fuel in usage and in practical value is oil. Over 40% of the world’s energy usage is of extracted oil. Vermont’s use of oil counts for more than 50% of our total energy consumption. Rather than thinking of how to reduce energy consumption and come up with other ways of living and working, it has been easier the past decade and more to go along with a flawed idea of how to fix our finances and spend more on meaningless stuff as a way to grow our way out of our economic problems. But, all of this is just happy hour, the last round of a carefree party before we hit the unyielding brick wall of resource limits.
It hurts when you run into an unyielding object at full speed. I discovered this when I was learning to hang glide on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. I took off and kept looking at a parked hang glider to my left in the landing zone with the intent to avoid it. I kept looking at that glider. Looking. Looking. I hoped to land away from it. But guess what? I ended up crash-landing right into it. The lesson in this case was to avoid mistakenly fixing on the wrong destination, because you always will go – or fly – right where you are looking. As a society, we’re experiencing “target fixation” on a grand scale. We are looking at – and fixating on – fossil and nuclear energy as the only viable energy sources. We are not scanning the horizon and seeing the big picture on energy.
The conventional wisdom in energy is the status quo, fossil fuels and nuclear power, and we keep trying to make these sources work because it’s all we see. We need to look away from what we’re familiar with, scan for other seriously viable possibilities and then move towards them, innovating along the way. In my opinion, our situation calls for serious and immediate efforts toward energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewables. It will not always be comfortable. By insisting on this need for serious change and trying to implement it, I and many others are upsetting a lot of people. Opponents to wind and solar, and supporters of oil, gas, coal and nuclear are mad as hell. But that’s OK. We are almost at the tipping point of dramatic change. I have been saddened by the persistence of the status quo, but I am also heartened by the collective will of everyone who is becoming educated about energy issues and becoming connected with a movement to change the way our world runs, and the type of energy it runs on.”
David Blittersdorf is an entrepreneur and engineer from Vermont with nearly four decades of experience as an innovative leader in the wind and solar energy industry. Blittersdorf founded NRG Systems in 1982 and AllEarth Renewables in 2004. AllEarth Renewables is dedicated to bringing clean, renewable energy to businesses, farms, municipalities and homeowners to help lessen our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.