Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Curse of Hydrocarbons

Imagine an Earth, mainly tropical, covered in swampy marshes or towering rainforest, leaf litter and fallen trees compacting over eons. A green planet growing every kind of tree and grass and leaf species, photosynthesizing like sunlight might one day end. An Earth producing so much green stuff, throwing out heady pure oxygen, to evolve dinosaurs, and animal giants, as well as massive amounts of micro-beings. In the oceans as well, sea grass forests and algal bed nurturing the ocean giants and many more. Millions of years ago, time beyond comprehending, this is what we figure was happening. Today, these eons of life are with us still, in the diversity of living beings on the planet; as well as compressed and stored in pure chemical form: linked chains of carbon and hydrogen, energy wealth of an infinitely resourceful Earth.

Suppose too that the earth had to have a species come along to use up all that stored energy. What but an ironic universe could imagine and produce a defenceless and vulnerable, naked, ungainly, greedy species that would in 2000 generations by dint of bravado and luck develop hands and a brain to be commander and exploiter of all we survey.

In 2009, Trinidad and Tobago - and the world just a few decades more - observed a hundred years of petroleum (Greek, rock oil) mining. Using these million year old reserves, in less than these four generations, the human species has seen two world wars, managed to almost double its population, and invented plastics (hydrocarbons plus) for a world of technology.

In our generation, it seems we cannot live without petroleum - fuel in our cars, electricity, heat, and consumables (plastic, glass, aluminum cans, paper products) which now collect in garbage dumps on land and in the great oceans. bp's great catastrophe in the Gulf horrifies us - not just the lives lost and the loss of wildlife habitat, but the ugliness of a landscape bathed in oil, the losses to lifestyle and commercial interest. But are we not all responsible, the children of petroleum obsessed with Earth's riches and ownership?

Hydrocarbons, whales, big fish stocks, forests, wildlife, food, the Earth is bountiful and sufficient. It is we who always want more.

June 5 is World Environment Day. Here's an exercise. Take stock of what you have that is based on Earth's hydrocarbon resources. Make a list if you have to. How many of these can you live without? How much can you reduce usage?

The Challenge of the Environment meets the Curse of Hydrocarbons. How many of us can live with how little? Where do we find balance?

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