[Viewpoint] An all-consuming problem

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[Viewpoint] An all-consuming problem

The poet Kim Jin-kyung predicted, “Eating too much could kill you. It is a sublethal dose of poison. If all humans vanished from the Earth, it would not be because of poverty but because of excessive possession of wealth.” Modern people consume too much energy. It’s not that they buy too many things. It’s a question of how they use them.

After all, it’s no secret anymore that Earth’s future is gloomy because of the rapid growth in the consumption of fossil fuels accumulated underground over billions of years.

As far as fossil fuel energy is concerned, our planet is a closed system, apart from the rockets we launch in space.

The same may be said of nuclear energy: The Sun is the real-time source of most of the energy on Earth. Our keen interest in the Sun derives from the fact that our planet as a closed system can be converted into an open system in front of sunlight, due to our expectations that some of our tantalizing problems in energy may be resolved by the sunlight and solar power.

This can be explained by looking at some basic calculations related to population.

Demographers project that the world’s population will double during the next half century to more than 12 billion by 2060, possibly the maximum number the planet can hold comfortably.

If 12 billion people spread more evenly over the remaining land except for some regions with unfavorable conditions, such as seas and oceans, deserts, mountains, and the polar areas on the Earth’s surface, each person can have approximately 20 square meters (215 square feet) of space.

Solar energy can be poured into this size of land at a capacity of 600 kW. According to the statistics released in 2005, each person in the U.S. consumes around 11.5 kW of energy every year, a figure expected to rise to 20 kW by 2060.

Thus fans of solar energy say there is no serious problem since the Sun can offer each person 30 times more energy than what each person consumes. However, if we take into consideration the energy efficiency of such items as solar batteries, power units, home appliances, daily and seasonal weather changes, the powerful figure of 30 times that is more than a person’s consumption estimation shrinks to less than three times.

So it would make no sense to cover a considerable area of the Earth’s surface with solar panels to tackle global warming, as some experts believe.

For one thing, such solar energy facilities would almost certainly have a direct, adverse effect on the ecosystem in order to produce a considerable amount of its energy supply necessary for the earth’s civilizations.

This is why solar, nuclear and wind energy, widely regarded as alternative means to fossil fuels, are not needed, or should only be considered as supplements, not full-fledged options.

One of the issues is aesthetic since wind power plants standing in the mountains and in the countryside plus large-scale facilities for generating energy from the oceans will affect the “look” of the planet.

But the more serious issue is the way harnessing the elements can actually shift the stream of the atmosphere and sea water.

This would have a dynamic impact on phenomenon such as the Gulf Stream Drift and the deep currents of the oceans, possibly radically changing weather patterns.

All of these points add up to the real solution to the energy problem: reducing the amount of energy that each one of us consumes during our lifetime.

On the plus side, we expect that science technology can contribute to reducing absolute energy consumption by raising energy efficiency in power units.

However, what is more important is to change people’s mind-sets, the way they view their own lives and lifestyles.

This is because improvements of energy efficiency can lead to the expanding demand for energy consumption. And this is dangerous.

For example, a newly opened highway may serve as a catalyst to increase the volume of transportation. We should bear in mind the virtue that all modern people should have is not consumption but moderation.

Each person’s moderation is the best way to save the Earth and all humans.

Who can help us attain such enlightenment? Religions have underlined the importance of love and compassion as the major virtues all people have to pursue in dealing with individual relationships.

However, modern religion should teach moderation as the modern virtue.

*The writer is a professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Seoul National University.

by Hong Seung-soo
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