In the process of home renovation, I have been able to reuse much of the lumber and insulation that had to come out to make changes in our tiny little gem of a house. At over 140 years old, the stories our home could tell would fill volumes. My interest is in the amazing ability of tiny little solar panels we know as leaves to not only harvest energy directly from the sun, but the tree’s ability to lock away those rays for future use in the fire pit or stove. Although humans have now created solar panels many times more efficient than leaves, our storage systems are ugly, massive and impractical for the most part. The beautiful and well-cured lumber that did have to be cut into small enough pieces to be useless in construction fell gracefully into the flames at a recent party. At three hundred years old, possibly older, the climax forest tree was cut, it was then floated downstream to a mill near Wausau and ripped into some of the most strong and versatile material on the planet. As I reclaim each piece I am given pause to respect and honor the system that led to these boards being created in the first place. Only after seeing a few bits and pieces consumed in the flames or the fire pit did I understand their remarkably compact energy storage potential. The very sunlight that gave birth to the Yellow Pine, somewhere upstream of Central Wisconsin centuries ago had lain dormant, locked in a cellular structure that most of us tend to overlook.
Miraculous as this may be, the sturdy home built of these boards could stand another 130 years with a bit of care and attention. Perhaps this is a good point to remember that the energy that most humans rely on for warmth, cooking and as a focus of their lives is this sort of transient but reliable scale. Many use energy that is even more youthful than the few nibblets of lumber that I am speaking of. Dry dung, for instance, utilizes much more immediate stores of energy and ekes it out of “lowly” grasses and shrubs of the immediate area that the energy will be put to use in. The fuel wood crisis around the world is pressing, and startling because we have had centuries to perfect amazingly efficient stoves, but lack the ability to transfer that technology to the vast populations that burn whatever comes to hand as a means to survive.
The “more developed” societies burn ever older material for their energy needs. Some even waste billions of megajoules mining, concentrating, refining and processing nuclear fuels that leave legacies of hazardous waste for centuries in the wake of the momentary flow of electrons that can be produced through expensive and energy intensive physical acrobatics. It is harder to fathom the time scale of energy storage associated with coal, oil and natural gas, but rest assured, they all had their start in tiny leaves, storing solar energy. On the face of it, it sounds simple, but the complex nature of releasing all of this energy in a geologic blink of an eye should be a signal flag that we need to slow down, take stock of what we are doing and encouragement to come to terms with our ignorance about what we are, in fact, doing.
On all fronts we are coming up against limits. Business as usual cannot continue because of environmental facts, physical limitations and the limitations imposed by resource depletion and ever lower quality of source material for exploitation. Combine these physical realities with the fact that the public is starting to understand the concept of sustainability and we find that the slow and plodding straight ahead version of linear thinking must give way to a more holistic understanding of where we are in space, riding the Starship we call Earth spinning, revolving and cycling everything from water to air, to energy. Waking up to the part we play in the dynamic scheme of the energy cycle requires understanding exactly where we stand in the long arc of history and critically question whether we are on the right track or not.