Defining Moment in History

“A defining moment in history”. We have all heard that phrase linked to some event, usually a major one.

December 7th, 1941, November 22, 1963, 9/11.

While the world went about its day-to-day routine, a major, critical defining moment came and went, virtually unnoticed by the media in the U.S., barely noticed in the rest of the world. May 1, 2008 was truly a date that provided definition.

On that date, Shell Oil Company announced that it was pulling out of the world’s largest wind generating project, the London Array, to pursue “more profitable” endeavors — -arguably, the black gold rush now taking place in northern Canada where the “tar sands” of Manitoba have become economically feasible in the new world of $100+/barrel oil.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/may/02/renewableenergy.royaldutchshell

The sands represent the world’s second largest oil field (second only to Saudi Arabia), and Shell will want its share of the gold. The wind farm was only “marginally profitable”, Shell declared as it threw the project under the bus. The withdrawal of its $1.3 billion share, roughly one third of the project cost, jeopardizes the entire project, leaving its other participants to scramble to fill the giant financial hole left by Shell.
Lost in the tiny headline was the fact that Shell’s contribution represented only a fraction of the profit it had announced just two days earlier: $8 billion dollars had been generated in three months, the largest return in company history.

The London Array was to have been the largest wind field ever constructed. It would have produced enough electricity to power one quarter of London’s homes. And, of course, all that power would have been generated without the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. Shell’s decision to abandon its share of the undertaking throws a brilliant spotlight onto a decision that mankind must make: just what is our future source of energy going to be? May 1, 2008 is a day that brings exceptional clarity to bear on that decision — -it is a Day of Definition.

Mankind has arrived at a true fork in the road. For the past 200 years, humanity has travelled a path based exclusively on carbon — -first coal, then oil. We have prospered beyond expectation because of this. But in the late 1970’s, we began to come to the realization that carbon might be toxic to the Earth’s atmosphere. As far back as 1896, it had been realized that a buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere could result in an increase in the world’s temperature. A scientist named G.S.Calendar tried raise public consciousness about the matter in the 30’s, but the whole issue went largely unnoticed until the environmental movement of the 70’s began to take a fresh look at the potential for disaster inherent in the atmospheric data. Those numbers, coupled with ominous data streaming in from the Venus probes (showing the disasterous effects of a runaway greenhouse), created a growing sense of alarm that man’s use of carbon could have a profound impact on the planet’s climate. Finally, in 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its findings, confirming that global warming was real, and that man’s use of carbon lay at the heart of it.
Enter the point of this discussion: the central issue presented by Shell’s withdrawal from the Array is one of criteria: upon what criteria should our future energy decisions be made? Shell’s decision to abandon the Array demonstrates that Shell considers the sole decision criteria to be one of “profitability” — -that it placed the Array in one pan of the scale and oil in the other. The scale promptly tipped in favor of carbon. Hence, Shell has packed its London bags and headed for Manitoba.
But the decision criteria can no longer be “what path is going to lead to the greatest return on investment?” Mankind stands at a perilous crossroad. We can turn to the left and continue to burn carbon, because it is cheaper, because we have a lot of investment in carbon-burning infrastructure, and, well, life can go on as it always has — -just pull up to the gas station and fill’er up.

Or we can make the right turn: bite the bullet and begin a global transition to a non-carbon reality. It’s not that it’s going to be some drastic, tighten-your-belt descent into a horse-and buggy world — -far from it. I have been driving an electric car for ten years now and have found it to be quite reliable and satisfactory http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_lSxhTatUU. “Sparky” is a bit of a throw-back in the world of convenience — -it has all of the creature comforts of a ‘75 Volkswagen, but I am sure that Detroit can come up with a state-of-the-art version of Sparky if they put their mind to it (GM’s Chevy “Volt” holds significant promise in this arena).

But I return to the central issue of this discussion. What is the decision criteria that we, as a species, are to use in determining which fork in the road should take for our future? It can no longer be simply one of profit. That mind set has led us to the cliff. It is time for all of us to demand that a finger be placed on the scale of that mode of thinking — -that we demand that the equation include the true cost of burning carbon. No one has ever required that the cost of cleaning up after carbon (global warming) be added to the up-front cost of a gallon of gas or a ton of coal. If it were, even the “profit” scale would tilt away from coal and oil.

We need to demand that our collective decision-makers, whether government or private industry, take the right fork in the road. We need to demand that the basis for making a decision as to which direction to go not be based upon profitability but upon the common good of future generations.

Shell’s decision to withdraw from the London Array provides us with a true “defining moment in history”. It provides a pair of glasses from which we can see into one of the most basic considerations facing mankind: is our future to be based solely upon the bottom line?
Post Note 1: It has been announced that German-based E.ON and Danish-based Dong Energy have agreed to take up Shell’s 1/3 interest. http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/07/worlds-largest-offshore-wind-farm-london-array-back-on.php

Post Note 2: My local paper has just reported that on October 1, Pfizer Inc., one of the world’s largest drug companies, has announced that it is “shifting its research focus to diseases that have a high potential for big profits” http://www.theolympian.com/business/story/602879.html. The Shell Oil decision process is not restricted to energy. Perhaps we should all pray that if we contract a serious disease, that it not be an obscure one. There just ain’t no money in it.

 

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