As I mentioned in previous posts, a number of people contacted me about my Globe piece. One of those people is Dr. Helmut Burkhardt, a Professor of Physics Emeritus at Ryerson University in Toronto. Dr. Burkhardt wanted me to know about a paper he published in 2006 entitled Physical Limits to Large Scale Biomass Generation for Replacing Fossil Fuels.
Dr. Burkhardt's paper helped me to understand the arithmetic of energy generation and consumption. Of the many facts and figures he presents, I found this passage particularly useful:
"The problem of large scale global use of biomass can be visualized by comparing it with food energy. A person needs some 100W of food energy - some 2000 kCal per day. Feeding the present world energy system with biomass power of 2300 W/person [current average power consumption per person] is equivalent to feeding 23 'energy slaves' for each person. It is quite obvious that a healthy World ecosystem cannot spare sufficient biomass production to feed the equivalent of 156 billion human beings."
So there are some hard numbers, for perspective. But as you know, I like to liven up hard numbers with intangibles. So here's a bit of touchy-feely stuff...
One very cold day early in the month, I found myself thinking that this business of saving the planet was lots of work. And while Toronto is a great place in June - in January, well not so much. Now just so you know, I am neither a martyr nor a saint. So I did what any normal person that just spent half his assets on a newspaper ad would do. I packed my bags and the next day my laptop and I were in New Orleans, getting ready to start a two month road trip to California and back.
Have you ever driven through the American Southwest? You should. Make sure to get off the interstate to experience the desert from the back roads. Get out of the car and walk. You'll soon see that, far from being dry and dead, the southwest desert is a wondrous place, full of life. Mesquite, creosote, agave and yucca. Roadrunners, javelinas and rattlesnakes. Broad expanses of mountains, rolling hills and open range. Endless blue sky.
Americans are a lucky bunch.
Spirituality is very personal and I don't like to talk about mine publicly. But I will say this: If this blue sphere of ours is nothing but an accident, it's one helluva of a beautiful accident indeed. During my travels I've been meeting many people - ordinary Americans, foreign tourists, parks staff, and a surprising number of Canucks - that are very committed to respecting and protecting this little accident of ours.
Unfortunately, that's not the case for everybody. Despite the physical impossibility of using plant matter to make a significant dent in our energy requirements, our governments are ignoring math and science and getting ready to dive headfirst into biomass as an alternative energy source.
And then there are people like the anonymous poster that left this telling comment to my post Farmers, and the Yin and Yang of Advocating:
"Dude, here's the fact: Ethanol = Sugar + Yeast. The planet is full of sugar, there are 70 million acres of mesquite in the US southwest with starch pods full of it - it just needs to be harvested."
How do you folks in West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona feel about that?
There you have it. If we want, we can fool ourselves into creating a "new economy" that subsidizes people to cut down, burn and plough over all of our remaining wilderness. There is no shortage of people ready to do just that if there is money to be made. But with all the wishful thinking in the world, it will not make a significant dent in our energy requirements because it is a physical impossibility.
So no, Mr. Obama, you can't.
You just can't.