Electricity: Incredibly Useful and Completely Artificial
You may not have thought about it before, but the electricity we use on a daily basis doesn't come from nature. Just like plastic and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the electricity we use is the result of human effort and technology...making it 100 percent artificial. We have yet to figure out how to harness it in its natural form, such as lightning, for human consumption. Even if we did, I'm not sure there's enough thunder storms to power our world. So this begs the question - can anything that is so-completely-unnatural be sustainable? It was Julie Cohn, a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston studying the history of the electric grid, who first pointed out to me that all of the electricity we use is not natural. For months her statement rolled around in my head as I tried to make sense of what that means for sustainability. It has a significance that is subtle but quite important within our drive to live on this planet more sustainably.
Photo Source: NOAA Photo Library
Agreeing on What's Bad
Most greenies agree that plastic is bad and that alternatives need to be used. Things like cloth and reusable bags come to mind. Likewise, those in the organic and local food movements have repeatedly explained how HFCS is responsible for obesity, diabetes and the general overeating of Americans. They would likely recommend you not consume it. If you must sweeten your foods, they would suggest more natural alternatives.
But in the debate about energy, no one is trying to find an alternative for electricity. There is lots of debate about finding alternative methods to make it. For instance, we should change from coal to solar or nuclear, wind or geothermal. But all these different methods are still producing synthetic energy. At best, to continue the metaphor, solar energy is the more organic version of produce from the energy world...at least until it is produced from large utility scale installations such as the Andasol Solar Power Station in Spain. At that point it officially becomes more of an industrialized organic food - think PolyFace Farm versus Cascadian Farm.
From the moment Thomas Edison creating electricity with his dynamos on Pearl Street in New York City in the 1890's until today, we have always used artificial electricity. So from that moment, we have been over-consuming energy outside of the limits of the natural world. One of the principles of sustainability is for us to live within the limits of the planet, and that's why I'm asking if electricity can even be sustainable? Many aspects of modern culture have far outstretched the natural capacity of ecological systems. Our agricultural systems have allowed population to grow to the point that natural sources of food would most likely not be able to support our numbers. Water is overly used too. For example in the southwest of the United States, so much water is consumed that the Mighty Colorado River runs dry at times during the year. Water and food were, at one point, natural resources directly from nature. Electricity never was.
From Energy to Electricity
Cohn's statement is significant because sustainability is on the march to make society more dependent on electricity - be it in the form of renewable and clean energy or a move from internal combustion engines to electric cars. Regardless of how energy efficient or renewable the source is, we will only further outstretch our limits for energy on the planet. We have to look at what electricity has allowed us to do, and look beyond the sources that created it. Coal, for example, is highly pollutant and toxic, but it would be unnecessary if we did not use electricity at the scale we do. Of course, Edison only started the ball rolling. It was Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse that got Americans to think bigger in terms of electricity production. Later, massive infrastructure installations allowed us to begin to use it as we do today.