Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

I-937: Take a Lesson from History

All civilizations run on energy. On Easter Island, in centuries past, energy came in the form of trees. Nothing happened on Easter Island without trees: no fires for cooking, no materials for building houses, no canoes for fishing, and no wooden poles for raising the enigmatic giant stone statues which stand to this day with their backs toward the sea.

But as the population of Easter Island grew, its need for trees outstripped the ability of the island to grow them. The civilization of Easter Island collapsed when someone, finally, cut down the last tree [New Scientist; subscription required].

The Easter Islanders were unable to develop new sources of energy, which spelled ruin for their entire culture.

Without trees, they were trapped. No trees meant no civilization, and no means of escape. Some surely escaped, or tried to, in whatever dugout canoes were available. But the vast majority of them were stuck on that island, for what they surely knew was an impending an unpleasant end.

One can only imagine the horror the Easter Islanders must have experienced, when they realized the trees were running out, and there was nothing they could do about it. One can only imagine the misery of being the person who had to chop down that last tree - whatever it was used for - knowing that the needs of the moment demanded it, while at the same time it sealed their fate.

One can only imagine the anguish of the family that burned the last stick of firewood to cook a meal, knowing that the end was near. One can only grieve for the suffering those people endured in the chaos and social collapse that followed.

It doesn't take a Ph.D. historian to appreciate the lesson of Easter Island. We are in a similar situation today. Of course, our civilization doesn't run on trees. It runs on energy. Specifically, fossil fuel energy.

Think about how much of modern American life is absolutely and completely dependent on energy. We don't mine iron ore and make steel without it. We don't plant and harvest crops without it.

We don't transport food to our grocery stores without it. We don't even transport ourselves to the grocery store without it. We don't even - ironically enough - harvest trees without it.

As we approach the day of so-called Peak Oil, we are on the verge of cutting down our own “last tree.” Some say we have already passed that day. Regardless, our incredible reliance on fossil fuels becomes a dire threat to our civilization.

The inevitable end of oil and coal spells the end of our way of life, the end of our televisions, running water, internet service, our vehicles, our paved roads, and yes, our grocery stores.

Thankfully, we are not in the hopeless situation of the Easter Islanders. We have the knowledge and technology to create new, cleaner, healthier, sustainable sources of energy to drive our civilization forward. All we need now is the good sense to do it.

You'd have to be an oil industry executive to argue against the need for sustainable energy. To everyone else, it's obvious that we need it.

This debate started with the energy crisis in the 1970s, and I am ashamed that we have done so little as a society since then to advance renewable energy.

I am ashamed that America has allowed corporate oil interests to dictate our energy policy, during the very decades when America had the most ability to sway the habits of energy production and use for the entire world.

What the hell are we waiting for? The oil will run out. We all know this. It’s not “if”, but “when.” And when the oil stops, if we’re not prepared, we run out of energy. The lights go out, water stops coming out of your tap, everything grinds to a halt.

It’s frightening, to be sure, but it will happen if we don’t take steps now. Burying our heads in the sand does no good. We have to start somewhere. Here in Washington, the Clean Energy Initiative (I-937), does just that - it makes a start.

We've let ourselves get way, way behind on this one. Maybe too far, I don't know. If we had started in earnest 30 years ago, we’d probably have our renewable energy by now. We'd probably be free from our dependence on oil, imported or otherwise.

We almost certainly wouldn't be engaged in a pointless oil war as we are right now. We don’t have another 30 years left to solve this problem.

We have to start now.

Washington's Initiative 937, the Clean Energy Initiative, does exactly this. I encourage you to read the initiative text for yourself.

Unlike typical corporate giveaway legislation with nice sounding names (anybody remember the “Healthy Forests” bill?), I-937 is very well crafted to do exactly what its title suggests: encourage the development of clean, sustainable energies for now and the future. I’m voting for this initiative.

When we look at the alternative, there is no other sane choice. Our present course of action of doing nothing, also known as fiddling while Rome burns, is unthinkably irresponsible towards our children and towards our duty as stewards of the Earth.

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