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Turf, oil and lifestyle addiction

30 November, 2009

Up till recently we never had any dificulties about the burning of fossil fuels. But now with global warming established as a fact, perhaps it is time to think again about it, suggests Conall Ó Cuinn SJ.

Arriving on the island of Muinis in Cnnemara I immediately get the smell of turf smoke. I know then I have begun my holiday. But of late, the smell of turf smoke has a more sinister meaning for me. All turf burning releases carbon dioxide (CO2) which has been stored by plant life thousands of years ago, a kind of bank that removed the gas from circulation and so kept concentrations of that gas low in our environment.

Turf, like oil and gas, is a fossil fuel, a fossil of earth’s history stored beneath the surface of heather in our bogs. Used in small quantities in fireplaces for cooking and heating by small numbers of people, turf posed no problem to the environment in the past. For generations we considered it as a blessing of God to us in Ireland, especially after we lost our forests. Now, I hear, the harvesting of turf will have to be limited. How has it come to this?

The year 1769 stands out as the beginning of a new story, when James Watt perfected the steam engine. This new machine could now do the work of hundreds of horses (the capacity of a machine is still measured in horsepower), and at speeds that no horse could achieve.

Coal became the preferred fuel for the steam engine, and with a plentiful supply of both coal and iron in Britain, the marriage of coal, steel, and steam gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, a revolution that changed the world, mostly for the better.

Now, oil and gas have replaced coal as the preferred source of fuel. Some refer to our relationship with oil as the love affair of the human race. We love all the benefits, and cannot see the flaws. Another more negative image is that we are addicted to oil: we are so dependent on fossil fuel that we are willing to rob, kill, steal and pillage in order to get our fix. Many of our wars, despite the self-righteous propaganda, are indeed about oil.

Certainly, the use of fossil fuels has brought us comfort, prosperity and ease in an otherwise gruelling life. Try to live a day without the benefits of fossil fuels, and you will find that you are totally dependent on them, even if you do not drive a car. However, the main by-product of fuel combustion is CO2 and the quantity of this gas is growing in our atmosphere. Scientists are now sure that this is having a serious effect on the way the sun heats up the earth.

Over the last 200 years, and especially since 1950, we have produced so much CO2, that it has begun to form a kind of invisible blanket around the earth. It is called the greenhouse effect.

A glass pane allows the rays of the sun to come through it to heat the earth, but it prevents that heat from escaping back out into outer space. The earth then becomes like a kettle, where the balance of heat in, and heat out, is tipped towards boiling. So too with climate: temperatures are rising at a global level, with many negative consequences that we are only beginning to see.

At present, we notice nothing mostly, except what might appear to be positive, for example, very little frost in winter. Of course, like the steam rising from the kettle even before it boils, there is more moisture in the atmosphere with consequently more rain and wind.

The floods of last summer may be due to this. There are those that say such weather patterns are just a natural cycle of nature. It is indeed true that nature has its cycles. But now the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its 2007 report, is virtually sure that we humans are the main contributors to the dangerous changes that are happening, and it is not a natural cycle: ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level.’ My dictionary tells me ‘unequivocal’ means unambiguous, unmistakable, indisputable, and so on.

And yet, many will deny that global warming is real. In fact, powerful governments have denied that it is a major issue, at least until very recently. Politically, it would be suicide to suggest that we do away with our cars, curtail our international holidays, reduce meat production, turn down the temperature in our oil-heated houses. We are addicted to our style of life, and like any addict we will react violently if anyone threatens to take away our ‘fix’. Like a smoker, though the warning is clearly on the packet, we may only stop our dangerous habit when it is too late. Denial is a very powerful human reaction to the need for change.

When I am addicted, I lose the long-term perspective; I cannot think of the consequences. I let go of my ability to make moral decisions, and forget that my addictive actions affect not just me, but also my family, my region, my country, and in the long run, the whole world. And when all of us are addicted together, we deny together: collective denial.

Our ability to decide is itself impaired. We are no longer free. The poet Lorraine Lardner puts it beautifully:

Cold black ash
New long day
Will I give up?
No bloody way.

What can we do? After all, the addict is helpless. St. Paul, in the last lines of Romans 7, puts it beautifully: ‘I do the things I don’t wish to do, and I don’t do the things I wish to, what a miserable person I am.’ Then he adds, ‘But thanks be to God for the Lord Jesus.’
What could this mean? Is there a way out? Let’s talk about that in the next installment.