Beneath the Keystone XL debate and our current oil glut, a low-impact, forgotten carbon fuel remains buried.
Our nation has one of the world’s largest reserves of this fuel. It’s grown so abundant here, it’s oddly getting in our way. Yet we rarely tap it.
Why? Some economists, city mayors and medical experts alike have begun asking. To swap even a little fossil fuel for this lower-impact carbon source could vastly improve our fiscal, physical and biospheric health.
Processing this carbon wouldn’t require more carbon-burning, as does Alberta’s Tar Sands oil. Nor would it dump arsenic and mercury into vital watersheds.
And accessing this carbon wouldn’t require annihilating our living Appalachian mountaintops and creeks, as the coal industry is still doing.
Nor would it dump poisons underground or trigger earthquakes miles away, as fracking operations do.
It’s a biofuel, but not the pseudo-sort being pushed by the pellet-wood industry in North Carolina. It would not require pulverizing rare songbird habitat to truck to the coast, then ship to England (burning carbon the whole way) to incinerate in “green” power plants.
This fuel is self-transporting. Theoretically.
That’s because it’s us.
Just think. Many Americans have acquired a huge carbon reserve. We can access and burn it just by stirring a muscle. But we don’t.
We’ve lost the habit of moving a leg, hand or brain circuit one degree more than required.
Everywhere we turn, a rechargeable, a corded, a wireless will do our moving, cleaning, cooking, shopping, raking and shoveling. Machines lift us, carry and set us down, cool or incubate us, think for us.
These mechanisms, in fact, tend us like the comatose. They wheel us from building to building, open doors, carry us upstairs, keep us in climate-controlled bubbles.
They shave us and brush our teeth; wash and dry our dishes, clothes and cars; massage and sing for us and feed us and—since even chewing takes effort—masticate our breakfast into puree.
Thus tons of planetary carbon must burn to spare us from burning our own fuel—an energy imbalance that’s making both sides of the equation sick.
More than two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight. One-third are obese. A third of kids even carry so much fuel reserve it is making them sick.
Yet our bigger weight problem comes not in pounds, but tons — 17 per person.
That’s how many metric tons of carbon each American, on average, sends yearly into the atmosphere. (The Chinese, whose increasing carbon footprint upsets us, emit only 6 tons per capita; India residents, 2.)
“The sky,” meanwhile, remains a lightweight. It can’t possibly hold up all this carbon, and has to dump it back on the planet. Much of that carbon sinks into oceans, where carbonic acid is now eroding marine life.
Why do we want to sit around while the planet burns and obesity smothers our kids?
We don’t — not actively. That’s the problem: Inquiry takes effort. Our minds have been tethered so long to mass-produced thought that thinking for ourselves — let alone taking our own climate action — remains beyond our range of motion.
So even when the doc says “move,” we do what everyone does. Drive six miles round trip to a gym to walk six miles on a plug-in conveyor-belt.
Because some remnant of the brain objects to the clear futility of this, it has to be anesthetized by more carbon-burning distractions — eight flat screens, earbuds, phones and music amped-up “to make us move.”
Well, imagine. What if, instead, we moved ourselves? Walked to work, school, the post office? Took stairs instead of elevators?
What if, at home, we unplugged myriad planet-burners and burned our own carbs? That way, our workouts could work for the planet.
The old manual tools, after all, can still plug in to our own portable carbon fuel source: hand-crank can-openers, pencil sharpeners, coffee grinders and egg-beaters; chopping blocks; rolling pins; dish brushes; clotheslines; rakes; brooms — even the human brain.
Unless we use solar, everything plugged in to sockets, recharged or gassed-up means burning carbon somewhere else. Who wants to burn the biosphere just to dry socks?
“But using my own little bit of power won’t help the climate,” you say.
What will, then?
Try out two options. This week, wait around for Congress to reduce carbon emissions. Next week, do it yourself; replace a few machines with action.
Which one cuts the carbon load — but revives your own energy?
Liza Field (LField@wcc.vccs.edu) is a teacher, hiker and tree planter who writes from Southwest Virginia. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.