Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Horns of a Carbon Dilemma

Published in the Sun June 22, 2013

I read recently that one can be environmentally friendly to the extreme in recycling and energy savings, but that a single short commercial jet flight wipes out anything green you have done over an entire year.  It’s all owing to the fact that jet engines are terribly inefficient and it takes a humongous amount of fossil fuel to keep the plane and its passengers aloft. 

George Flynn, Georgetown

George has impaled himself on the horns of a dilemma.  In modern times, we have the luxury of doing things that were completely impossible before the age of fossil fuels.  A few hundred years ago, the only sources of useful power were human muscle, animal muscle, and fire.  The Founding Fathers had large numbers of servants, both voluntary and involuntary, for the express purpose of doing hard physical labor, such as plowing fields and chopping wood.  Today, most of us can’t afford a retinue of servants to do our work for us.  Instead we use fossil fuels, in the form of gasoline or coal-generated electricity.  We have “energy slaves” to cook our food, wash our clothes, light our houses, and push our cars around town.  If you assume that a human worker can sustain a work output of about 80 watts, the average American has 147 “energy slaves” working around the clock to maintain his regal lifestyle, cooling our offices and harvesting our food while we post cat pictures on Facebook.


A Boeing 747 uses about 80 megawatts of power to take off, the equivalent of one million “energy slaves” pedaling like crazy.  You just can’t do that without jet fuel.


On a round trip flight from New York to San Francisco, the combustion of that jet fuel produces 2 to 3 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per passenger.  Since most of us (in the States) generate about 19 tons of carbon dioxide every year, air travel is a significant part of our carbon footprint.  You would be absolutely correct to point out that Al Gore, jetting around the world to discuss climate change, has a much bigger carbon footprint than some unfortunate soul who doesn’t really care about carbon emissions but can’t afford to go anywhere.


So here is the dilemma:  We love to fly.  Who doesn’t adore a vacation in the Caribbean?  We also are hooked on air conditioning, the biggest electricity hog in our Texas homes.  Are we to give up flying and cooling for the sake of being “green”?  There are some who say that if the earth becomes uninhabitable for human beings our grandchildren will wish we had taken this question a bit more seriously, and they have a valid point.  On the other hand, if I personally give up jet travel and air conditioning, staying home to sweat miserably this summer, all my sacrifice accomplishes in the short term is to take the pressure off ERCOT, allowing some less virtuous person to crank his thermostat down to 68 degrees and have friends over to see his pictures from Aruba.


I can’t single-handedly save the planet, but that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook.  I can make a multitude of “green” decisions that actually improve my overall well-being.  Using energy efficient light bulbs saves money on my electric bill.  Eating less meat reduces my carbon footprint and is healthier for my heart.  Locally grown foods are delicious.  A small car is easy to park.  Bicycling tones my bum.  Recycling is completely painless.  Take a train somewhere, or vote to build a train somewhere.


The famous architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller said this about the power of the individual:  “Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do.  Think of the Queen Mary – the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder.  And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trimtab.  It’s a miniature rudder.  Just moving the little trimtab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around.  Takes almost no effort at all.  So I said that the little individual can be a trimtab.  Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether.  But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.”

The words “Call Me Trimtab” are engraved on Fuller’s headstone


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