Energy's checkered past and elusive future

Every energy source is a Faustian bargain. We trade comfort and convenience for deforestation, soot, radioactive waste, oil spills. But perhaps the most unsettling resource we tapped to light our homes was the one that the petroleum age displaced: the slaughter of whales for their oil.

Chris Bangs/Guam Variety News/AP
A sperm whale calf only hours old swims next to its mother and a pod of sperm whales off the coast of Guam. Until the 20th century, whales were hunted for their oil to light lanterns and lubricate the machinery of the pre-petroleum age.

New Bedford, Mass., was once like Houston, Texas, and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Known in its heyday as “the city that lit the world,” New Bedford was one of the richest cities on earth.

Of all the energy sources we have employed over the millenniums – dung, wood, water, wind, coal, crude, uranium – the whale oil that New Bedford’s refineries extracted was by far the most unsettling.

Even when there were no better alternatives to it, the great chronicler of whaling (and of the latent power of nature and the depths of human obsession), Herman Melville, felt queasy about the slaughter of cetaceans for their oil. To whalers, it was a dangerous but necessary way to make a living. But familiarity bred admiration. Encountering a leviathan in the middle of solitary seas, Melville wrote, you sometimes “find him unbent from the vast corpulence of his dignity, and kitten-like, he plays on the ocean as if it were a hearth.” If you have ever encountered a playful pod during a whale-watching trip, you know how captivating that can be. Most consumers of whale oil, however, were oblivious to the source of light for their lamps and lubrication for their gears.

The discovery of petroleum in 1859 eventually saved the whales. But then came roads and cars, urban sprawl, smog, and environmental disasters such as the Exxon Valdez and the runaway BP well. Most days we ignore the trade-offs of the oil age, but every energy source is a Faustian bargain, comfort and convenience exchanged for deforestation, soot, carbon buildup, radioactive waste. Wind farms are noisy, dangerous to birds, and not exactly easy on the eyes. Even solar, which seems benign, will mean vast arrays of backyard collectors intercepting sunlight before it hits the plants.

Energy will always be scarce (for an in-depth look at the future of energy, click here). Which is a paradox – because energy is actually everywhere. It’s just that our home out here on the quiet edge of the Milky Way happens to be a neighborhood where the universe’s superabundant energy has cooled enough to give us mountains, oceans, fireflies, and whales. In physics, the law of energy conservation holds that energy is never destroyed; it just changes states. At the center of the sun, it is in dazzlingly pure form. In the more pleasant precincts of the cosmos, energy is in the tamer form of matter.

That’s good for us, but we need the hot stuff. For most of human history, we’ve ignited fires with a narrow range of fuels. The next great step, scientists have long believed, will be fusion – harnessing the kind of power that the sun produces. There are three fusion megaprojects under way: the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, the Laser Megajoule project in Bordeaux, France, and a joint Italian-Russian venture, called Ignitor, outside Moscow.

These are “big science” endeavors. Commercial fusion is decades away at best. Who knows if it will really become the clean, prevalent source of energy that many hope. But if one day we leave the hydrocarbon age behind, our children may look back on oil spills, strip mines, and nuclear waste the same way we look back on the slaughter of whales – as a primitive chapter in our checkered energy past.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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