Pack it in, pack it out – on finite energy and what’s really important

Growing up in Montana, “the backpacker’s credo” was gospel. This saying, “pack it in, pack it out”, applies to how important it is to take anything you bring with you to a campsite back out with you. Nobody wants to take a 15 mile hike to a gorgeous lake hidden in the mountains only to see someone’s beer six-pack ring or Snickers wrapper on the ground. Not only does it spoil the scene, but litter is far from ideal for the wildlife.

I think that growing up where I did also instilled a respect for nature that it seems unfortunately too many Americans – especially those in charge of energy companies today, really never established.

When humankind first discovered petroleum, and refined it in to gasoline, diesel, and all the other yummy byproducts you can derive from it, petroleum was easy to find and extract. However, the amount of energy stored in our planet as extractable petroleum is finite, no matter how hard we wish it to be otherwise. So, like a child looking for hidden eggs at Easter, the process gets harder and harder, and the energy required to extract it becomes closer and closer to the amount of energy you can extract. Like older boys looking for those last eggs, the process can also get a bit rough. While extracting petroleum has never really been as easy as the opening scene of the Beverly Hillbillies alluded to, it’s getting harder and harder, and it’s getting more and more awkward for the US to depend on oil from countries that we have political interests in not supporting. As a result, we’ve turned to some processes that I believe are fine if shortsightedness is alright, and you don’t care what they do to the planet for future generations.

Extracting petroleum and natural gas has often meant not only pollution from burned hydrocarbons, but pollution during the extraction, refinement, and transport processes. As we’ve turned to fuels derived from shales, and processes such as hydraulic fracturing “fracking”, which involves the injection of obscene amounts of water, “fracking fluid” (a substance so bad that the companies involved won’t tell anyone what’s actually in it) and additional components into the ground repeatedly to generate tectonic events (or larger, as people in Ohio are learning). This process allows natural gas and other fuels to be released for use. Thing is, though – this process isn’t permanent, and these toxic cocktails don’t stay where you put them. They leak, leach, and spill. Combined with the amount of water that they use – and often regurgitate in a toxic cocktail form to be “stored” in retention ponds, as well as the energy involved, it’s not hard to take issues with the natural gas industry’s claim of providing “clean” natural gas. It may be cleaner than some fuels when you burn it, but like petroleum extracted from the tar sands of Canada, or when our government used to turn a blind eye to mining pollution, it’s a very dirty, costly process, with long-term consequences as it is extracted. Rivers in several locations have become so toxic that fish and other wildlife can’t survive – yet fracking isn’t stopped since it has all but gotten federal blessing to excrete all over the Clean Water Act.

I’m no fan of fracturing, or of high-risk deep water drilling, or even burning coal. But our culture (American, in particular) has become so deluded that “the energy fairy will save us” that we keep buying more and more fossil fuels, disregarding the cost to our planet, and how ugly this process is going to get before we’re screwed. We’ve gone numb to how gasoline arrives in our cars, natural gas arrives in our homes, or food arrives on our plates.

Whether you believe in global warming or not, I have to wonder how anyone can ignore this kind of pollution. It’s not good for us today, it’s not good for our environment in the future, and frankly, like the blind eye that our government has turned to the genetic modification of food and the biological consequences of relying on a single source for seeds, it is something that we should honestly consider a national security issue. During World War II, during the energy crisis of the 1970’s, we sucked it up, and as a nation, adjusted how we consume energy. Throwing cash at potential renewables is one option, sure. But those have to be executed better than most that this administration has tried so far. More importantly, we need to figure out a conscious approach to reducing our fuel use as individuals, and as a nation. Like an unwatched 6-year old with a box of Twinkies, it’s a dangerous situation. Keep burning it at the rate we are today, tolerating the increasingly dirty and dangerous processes energy companies are using to extract it, and it won’t matter what we do tomorrow.

Whether you believe that our presence on this planet today is divine, or a statistical quirk, it doesn’t matter. We’re here. But unless we take that first step to reduce our energy use, and stop letting energy companies extract fuels at whatever financial or ecological cost they are willing to gamble on, things will get worse, and we’re pretty much SOL. More deep-water ocean spills. More pipeline explosions. More river die-offs. Significant drinking water source compromise (as water becomes more scarce as petroleum before it).

Be the change you want to see in the world. For me, I’m beginning to work from home more often, and find every other way I can to reduce our energy use as a family. It seems futile at the moment, but if we all do nothing, we’ll wish we had before it was too late.

1 comment

  1. I agree completely.