Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Free Energy

If you pay attention to such things, there has been a resurgence in the idea of Free Energy. The concept basically, is that all the energy we could ever need is readily available, without great expense or toxic outputs, if we can only figure out the science of it. Some people say that we do have the science, but the Illuminati, or oil oligarchs, or governments and ruling elite stand in the way. The doubters say such energy schemes defy the laws to thermodynamics, that you can't get something for nothing, that free energy is a hoax catering to our vanity, and our underlying mostly unconscious fears of declining energy resources. A few people have asked, are we ready for free energy? What is to say that if we had access to free, unlimited energy we wouldn't just finally destroy the Earth, insatiable as we seem to be as a species?

Cold fusion has long been the darling of free energy believers. A recent article by Tom Whipple, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, shows that it remains so. A new entry is the torus, or the energy field created by a dynamo, like the magnetic field of the Earth. This has received a push in Foster Gamble's Thrive, which is long on anecdote and short on evidence, just as the science on the torus seems to be. Oil actually fits that bill too, to hear the proponents of shale oil fracking, who act as if this new technology means oil has gone from a finite resource to one that is infinite, despite the available evidence, and reason. And most renewables too, if our intention is to live as resource intense an existence as we currently do.

Free Energy fits very nicely into the mythology of progress, at the core of our cultural belief. Perceiving history as linear, humanity rising out of miserable nature toward some inevitable techno-scientific utopia, we tend to assume, if we think about energy at all, that there will always be as much energy as we need, to do whatever we will. This is not even up for debate in America, really. Whether it's the devotes of renewables or the believers in infinite oil, or the believers in free energy, the one unspeakable for most people is the idea that humanity, after all that we have accomplished, will have to face a future with very little surplus energy.

Western consciousness changed profoundly when it awakened scientifically, out of it's flat world, the sun revolves around the earth, Christian anthropomorphism. It didn't change as much as we like to think. Dissecting the mythology of progress, we find at its core, the Christian belief in our dominion over the Earth, and the scientific reinforcement of that belief, that the Earth and its creatures are merely energy as matter, which has no meaning, to be manipulated by those who have the ability to do so, for just about any reason. Christians and Scientific Materialists tend to see themselves diametrically opposed, but on the whole they complement each other quite well, manifesting most clearly in an economic ethic that encourages us to consume without regard for consequences except as they can be measured by GDP.

Many Christians and Scientific Materialists will disagree with this obviously, arguing respectively about all the good Christianity and Science have done (and about the evils of the Other). I don't disagree, that there are good Christians and good Scientific Materialists, doing very good things, from which many of us do benefit. We are not honest, however, if we act as if nothing has ever been done by Christians or Scientists, in the name of God or Truth, that can be described as detrimental, as if there aren't such things being done.

Somehow in this, we have come to equate the maturity of the individual with economic growth, as if the only measure of growth were standard of living. Never mind that the executive staff might have the equivalent emotional capacity of teenagers, each has a bigger house and fancier car than they did. They are richer, therefore they must be better, or more evolved? Meanwhile 5% of the worlds population claims a full third of the world's consumed resources, for three generations, acting like that should be and can be the rule for everybody on Earth who wants it?

How far gone are we, in our scientific dominionism? Making the mainstream media-rounds lately, is this “article”, by Simon Romero, appearing in the New York Times, Huffpost and the largest newspaper in Minnesota, the Star Tribune. It must have appeared just about everywhere in America. As it appeared, in the Star Tribune, it was the most attractive page in the newspaper that day, very green, alive, in-color. The “article” is about the remarkable geoglyphs that have been discovered, in the razing of the Amazon rainforest. Conventional scientific thinking has it that the Amazon has never been settled, at anytime in human history, but by a few indigenous tribes living a subsistence existence. These geometric patterns imply large populations, and potential city centers.

A geographer from the University of Kansas named William Woods is studying these lines. His attitude about them is, well, clearly, the only solution is to cut down the entire forest to see what's there, and populate it with large numbers of people, and prepare the land to accept industrial, mono-crop agriculture. Leave it to a guy named Woods, to want to turn the Amazon into Kansas. He was quoted as saying, “What else can you say?”

What else can you say? A man blithely argues to exterminate the greatest example of terrestrial biodiversity, hundreds of thousands of species, millions of species of plants, animals and insects, wiped from the face of the Earth, the heritage of 65 million years of Cenozoic evolution, to be replaced by people, the animals we have enslaved to eat, and GMO mono-crop soybeans? And he is printed in publications across America, without any alternative argument, in a tone of scientific rectitude, in a political-climate that appears to lean toward Americans unleashing capitalists in an effort to maintain economic growth, by whatever means. What can one say?

I can say that such an attitude is likely to lead either to the transformation of the biosphere such that it will not support but a very small number of very tough humans; or, to a world in which humanity is fully enslaved, in which the only stimuli available are what a ruling elite require to maintain their dominance. If we succeed in exterminating most of the worlds biodiversity, then the Earth and Sun might as well conspire to wipe out humans as well, and start a new 65 million-year process of increasing complexity, and maybe the species attaining consciousness in that process will be less violent, more thoughtful. The Earth is very patient. I have no reason to believe aid will be forthcoming, if all we are here to do is to transform the Earth into garbage.

The idea of Free Energy strikes me as a desire to continue to consume without having to think about it. If somebody invents a Free Energy machine, we can continue to do more or less what we want, what we are doing, transforming living systems into machines, toxifying the remainder. Perhaps a Free Energy machine will be reality one day. Perhaps. Otherwise, in the near term, Humanity will have to deal with a decreasing energy surplus, with an equivalent decrease in cultural complexity. We can moderate the difficulty of this, and heal ourselves as long as we can reacquaint ourselves with biological complexity, with healthy systems, with the vast interior of consciousness. Notice how the myths of our time are leading us to destroy the very possibility of that healing.

Free Energy as an idea, in this time, is a little like saying, “go to sleep.” Do not take responsibility for your life, do not think about your lifestyle, we are destined to rule the Earth, and science will assure that we do. Do not worry about peak oil, peak water, peak resources. Do not worry about your food supply. Avail yourself of the entertainments, we have everything under control. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep...

I prefer wide eyed and awake.


Michael Dawson said...

On what basis does scientific materialism get the blame for cornucopianism? Because capitalists have used science? That's hardly an adequate explanation.

Scientific materialism is our only hope, in fact. It is, among other things, the only proper basis for both ecology and human rights/politics.

Please stop slandering it.

William Hunter Duncan said...


I think to suggest that anything is our only hope, is to suggest that it is not. As to slander, I'm merely asking scientists and scientific materialists to ask themselves if it's a good idea to turn the globe into a GMO mono-crop farm, entirely dependent on fossil fuels. My hope is that something remains of science, after the collapse that is likely to come. I'm just as wary of the children of God as you are.

Joel Caris said...

Well that seems a silly claim, Michael. There have been many human civilizations, communities and tribes in the past that have lived well and sustainably on a particular piece of land for thousands of years without benefit of scientific materialism. It hardly is our only hope. It's been around a short time in the history of humanity and so far has failed to create a particularly just or sustainable existence.

That doesn't mean that scientific materialism hasn't provided some wonderful benefits, or that it has no place in the future. I think it does, but it needs to be seriously constrained for it to prove as useful and nondestructive as it could be. If we continue on with the thought process that scientific materialism is the only legitimate way to understand the world, then we will destroy ourselves in the process. That's the path we're on, and the continued unfettered belief in scientific materialism as the only legitimate knowledge will keep us on that path.

One of the problems with scientific materialism as a religion--which it most certainly is--is that it leads us to believe that we can eventually know and understand everything about the world and thus control it and craft it to our perfect liking. This is a ridiculous belief, but it is a belief that has become common in the scientific world. And indeed, that's the main way in which we have been using scientific knowledge of late. We have to get away from that, and it seems to me that to do that, we are going to have to recognize the validity of many other forms of knowledge, as well as understand the shortcomings of scientific knowledge.

Anyway, thank you for this post, William. I think it's fantastic, and I hadn't seen that article before.

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