Quest for Fire

Little Egypt came out struttin’, wearing nuttin’ but a button and a bow.”
The Coasters

As I sang by the bonfire, the adults laughed and the kids were embarrassed. The fire kept us warm in the night breeze off the ocean, and the sand sifted beneath us as we passed the wine around and ate the roasted marshmallows. The stars provided an infinite roof above our heads.

There is something magical about a fire. It provides light and warmth, protection and a sense of community. Here in the circle of firelight we are together; separate from the world outside. It’s not hard to imagine how early man felt when he learned to create fire, to challenge the cold, light the night and keep the beasts at bay.

The first thing we do when we camp is collect wood and prepare the campfire. We may cook on a stove, but the fire completes the experience. Of course, there’s an arcane science to creating the perfect fire and keeping it going, and a standard fireside ritual is arguing about whose technique is best.

Fire seems to be what separates humans from animals. Once we learned to control and use fire, we had greater control over our environment, and became less susceptible to the vagaries of weather and darkness. Cooking food improved its digestibility and flavor, and helped improve our health and resistance to disease, and strengthened our sense of community.

But when we burn wood, we are converting solid organic matter into energy and smoke. While the scent of a distant fireplace on a cold night is delightful, we know that too much smoke is bad for us. Whether we burn trees, peat, coal, natural gas or gasoline, we are sending large amounts of ‘smoke’ into the atmosphere.

Wood and coal are the most basic materials used for fires over the centuries. The rudimentary combustion of open fires sends up tons of soot and gases that cause pollution and dirty our neighborhoods. The Greeks and Romans tried various ways to mitigate the smoke from home fires, tanning, smelting and lime kilns, and they spread the use of chimneys to disperse the smoke. London passed laws in the 1800’s to restrict burning at certain times due to the deaths caused by the ‘London Fog’. In the early 1900’s, Anaconda Copper earned a national engineering award for their pollution control achievement — construction of a massive smokestack to disperse the smoke and prevent the deaths of cattle on hills surrounding the smelter.

For centuries, we’ve stripped our forests for lumber and firewood, and dug up our hills and mountains for coal that we burn to heat our homes and power our commerce and industry. We excuse the impacts of these practices due to the massive benefits they bring. More recently, we began to burn oil and gas, but we have become aware of the finite nature of our natural resources and the irreversible nature of some of the impacts. Forests, coal deposits, and oil and gas pockets are not irreplaceable, but require generations or millenia to recreate. Today, we may not have that much time.

We now face not only the impacts of destroying old growth forests, ripping up important ecologic landscapes or polluting our seas, rivers and air, but confront a more insidious threat from changes to the global climate. Centuries of burning fossil fuels to develop our civilization is causing conditions that may well spell its demise. Action is needed to reduce and minimize our impacts on climate change as quickly as possible.

In essence, our cell phones, computers and electric cars are all coal-powered.

Current and historic emissions have already created conditions causing change, and may not ever be mitigated. Major improvements in the efficiency of our uses of power would have an immediate and lasting impact on the rate of climate change. However, greater efficiency in use is unlikely to offset the increased demand for power through the spread and expansion of the use of electronic devices worldwide. Even shifting to electric cars achieves only a small benefit, since most power is still generated by fossil fuels. In essence, our cell phones, computers and electric cars are all coal-powered.

Although any increases in the efficiency of power use are beneficial, we need to establish power supplies that create fewer climate-changing emissions. Power generation can be dispersed; however, concentrated power sources are what drives our existing power grid and industrial activities. Options include solar, wind, hydropower, nuclear, and other emerging technologies. These alternatives each have strengths and weaknesses that can be evaluated over time and techniques for mitigation developed. However, time is running out and we need to grasp alternatives that can help us now.

Nuclear power has been used effectively since the 1950’s. Most objections to nuclear power revolve around the association with nuclear weapons and the perceived devastation from nuclear accidents. There are current major international initiatives focused on the control of materials suitable for use in nuclear weapons, and the connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power is at most, remote. We have experienced major accidents at nuclear power plants, and local impacts of these accidents have been significant in a few cases, but the predicted world-consuming effects have not been realized. While the nuclear rhetoric and fear-mongering continues, evaluation of the data and science have not shown widespread, long-lasting, major impacts from these accidents.

Nuclear energy currently provides approximately twenty percent of the power in the U.S. and is used extensively worldwide. Some countries are expanding their nuclear production capacity for economic and environmental reasons. Nuclear energy produces very little climate-changing emission and the technology changes made over the last decades have improved the safety, efficiency and cost of production. Most importantly, nuclear power can be put in place relatively soon, and is not dependent on the possible technological breakthroughs necessary to replace fossil fuel use through solar or wind technologies.

There are emerging technologies that over time may prove superior to existing power production technologies, including nuclear; however, it would be foolish to stake our future on this possibility when we can take action now. Greater use of nuclear power can most quickly replace fossil fuels and reduce world-wide emissions, while continued development of wind and solar power can provide supplemental power sources and address deficiencies in those alternative technologies. Over time, if we reduce emissions soon and effectively, we should be able to determine the best power technologies to be used over the coming centuries.

It is important that we be able to cook our food, heat and light our homes and businesses, and have the power to run our commerce and industry. That’s what keeps us civilized and brings hope for a better world for everyone. That hope is what keeps us going and keeps us sane.

At the same time, I do want to keep our ability to sit around a campfire with friends and family and keep our spirits refreshed. Anyway, I’m not sure I ever got to finish that song.

She did a triple somersault and when she hit the ground,
She winked at the audience and then she turned around.
She had a picture of a cowboy tattooed on her spine,
Saying Phoenix, Arizona, nineteen forty-nine.”

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