In the course of human history there have been many deeply held beliefs that are just not so. Almost all primitive societies have had some deep-seated fear of the dead. For many of them the vampire was the most common manifestation. The peasant mentality always sees a malignant cause behind any unfortunate event. There must be a cause behind every occurrence, if there is sickness, it cannot be because of poor sanitation or the spread of disease by some vector such as fleas or mosquitoes, it must be because of some local human (or dead human) and some evil practice.
In Europe the belief in vampires was particularly prevalent from around the 12th century or so up until the 19th century. The practice of desecration of the dead was widespread in Europe until the Empress Maria Theresa of the Austrian Empire passed laws forbidding exhumation and desecration of the dead in the mid 19th century. You think that the modern American government schools turn out any more enlightened and better educated people today? I don’t.
Another belief that was quite widespread was that the “Holy Grail” was somewhere in England or France and that the finder could use it as some magic talisman. This was deeply and widely believed and there is no calculating how much time and effort was wasted searching for it.
People fervently believed that the earth was flat and that it was possible to fall off the edge into an eternal abyss. This in spite of the fact that the ancient Egyptians knew quite well that the earth was round and had a pretty accurate estimate of the diameter.
Currently there are several unsupported myths that are beloved by the modern ignorant. The Theory of Evolution is preached as though it were completely proven. It isn’t. The way evolution is preached is as though there were no possibility that there was guidance behind the Creation of the Cosmos. Is it likely that only happenstance guides the formation of the Universe? Is it just as likely or more so that there is a God? Neither has been proven, but try to postulate God and you will be persecuted by the modern academic peasants. See Ben Stein’s movie for examples.
Another deeply held myth is that of global warming. There is no proof that the earth is warming. If so, there is no proof that it is not a natural cycle. That there is so much political and personal pressure that few climatologists dare disagree with the currently held view is rather like that of the “round earth” people in the Western European Middle Age. It can cost you your job if you disagree publicly with the myth. Al Gore is the new prophet of the church of liberal orthodoxy. Consensus is not science. Experimental, verifiable, and repeatable proof is science.
Yet another unproven, but dearly held myth is that of “alternative energy”. Now it is quite possible, indeed, even quite probable, that there are just as good, or even better ways of providing energy to move vehicles than fossil fuels, but they have yet not been proven or developed. Be it noted, if and when these are developed it will be by people who understand science and engineering. It will NOT be discovered by actors or politicians or any of the great unwashed that so fervently hold the belief that “Big Energy” is screwing them. It will not be developed by warm and fuzzy feelings about little cute animals. It will be developed and delivered by hard-headed business people who will expect to make money on their investment.
This is not to say that we don’t already have some alternatives that work on a small scale. We have not got any that are proven to work on a large scale (which we must have). There is a solar electric plant in Spain that looks very promising.
There are no large scale alternatives that are proven to work for transportation. Electric cars cannot deliver what we need as of yet. Neither sufficient range nor power are yet available and may never be. The weight of batteries is parasitic weight. Just as there comes a point of diminishing return with staged rockets, so it is with batteries, except that we do not throw away batteries as they empty and so must keep carrying the weight. Also, if everyone had an electric vehicle our present power grid and supply would be insufficient to carry the extra burden. Hybrids, as presently constituted, only deliver in city driving. The nice mileage reports that hybrids get go down the toilet in freeway conditions. Hybrids get even worse mileage than conventional high-mileage vehicles in freeway distance driving. Also, please note that all the high-mileage vehicles available are small passenger vehicles. Even the best companies do not have cargo vans and such. Like it or not, while good public transportation can cut down on the use of personal vehicles, it cannot cut down where vans and delivery vehicles are needed.
Basing policy, whether for oneself, one’s family, the country, or the planet, on wishful thinking inevitably leads to disaster. The idea of limiting access to the energy that we know works and that we currently depend on because people fervently wish that there were some free energy is suicide. Providing a public policy that encourages investigation into other forms of energy delivery is a goodness. Providing a whole lot of financing may not be such a good idea. Charlatans are alive, well, fat and happy on government grants. Basing policy on unproven energy sources because people want to believe is purely stupid.
Ethanol comes to mind as a boondoggle. We have tried it twice. It does not work. It takes more energy to produce it than it yields. It causes the corn farmers to smile, since it is subsidized. It causes the cost of food to go up for poor people that depend on corn. When we have floods, such as this year, that wipe out the corn crop the ethanol bunch is in trouble. Oh yeah, Brazil makes it work. Sugar ethanol, not corn. Well, what if we change our laws so that we can import from there. Won’t work. They are already maxed out just providing for themselves. And so on.
Financing the search for a grail that may or may not exist is just foolish. Basing our entire future on hoping that something may be developed is not very bright either. Cutting off our access to something that does work because we hope that something else will come along is like jumping off a cliff because we believe that we can fly. The reality will eventually catch us.
Now, having said all this, should we look for alternative energy delivery? Certainly. In fact, we need a much better and more comprehensive approach than we have now. While we do not want to jump off a cliff, if the drive to fly had not been there, we would not have air travel. But we got there by relentlessly experimenting and trying different approaches until we finally arrived at the Wright solution. This does not mean that there were not many dead ends until we came to powered flight. It does not mean that we have found the only, or even the best way to get people from point A to point B in the air. But we do now have a workable way to fly without killing ourselves (usually).
We are in much the same position regarding energy. We have a system that works. It is foolish not to pursue further research to see if there are not better ways of delivering energy. It is even more foolish – indeed stupid – to cut off that supply of energy until we have a better way or ways in place. We are going to see some terrible consequences from making policy based on wishful thinking. We may even cease to exist as a country. Possibly even a society. No matter how many pipe dreams people have there is always the reality of the sudden stop at the bottom of the cliff.
Another point from our history of flight. If we had a time machine and shipped a modern aeronautical engineer back to the 12th century he could not build an airplane. Before we could develop a workable flying machine we had to wait for the technology that would make it possible. Without the development of the oil industry and the steel industry the Wright’s could never have made the thing work. It may be that there are many possible ways to provide energy that we cannot even begin to develop until our technology provides us with the ways to do it. It may be that we figure out how to do it and then have to develop ancillary technology before we can deploy. We should also note that we searched for ways to fly for centuries before it became a reality. People wanted flight just as desperately as we now want free energy. Wanting didn’t make it so. Hard work and the correct technology and properly understanding and applying the laws of physics made it so.
It must be noted that most major cities can only last about 3 days without food and supply delivery. Even if we can grow food when energy gets sky high can we deliver it? And also note that a significant portion of our food supply comes from outside this country. No fuel = no food = starvation and riots in less than a week in most of this country. And without power how do we preserve food? Prevent spoilage and disease? Will it take cannibalism before we decide to get our own energy while we chase the alternates? Or will we be content for the Chinese to siphon off OUR oil by slant drilling from Cuban waters? (This is now!)
There is much talk of a Manhattan style project to get this “alternative energy”. People think that the project was started with no idea how to develop the bomb. Not true. The bomb was built on the theories that were already known and on the technological developments already done by Fermi and others. They had a very good idea of what they wanted to do. What they developed was the engineering to make the theory happen. We don’t even have good theory yet. We cannot develop the engineering until we have the proven theory and the technology to make it so.
As a last note of practicality, any new technologies that we discover will take a minimum of 20 years to properly implement. (Do we want to implement without testing long term consequences – again?) Can we afford to strangle ourselves for the next 20 years? I don’t think so.
When any society bases policy on the superstitions of its peasants it will fail. That is just as true today as it has always been.