Essential Energy: Part 1

By Peter Poruks
Manager of Regulatory Affairs
Canadian Nuclear Association

quest

In 1981, the movie Quest For Fire was released. Set in prehistoric times, it showed a trio of early humans on an epic search for fire. Their tribe had been able to capture fire after a lightning strike, but they lacked the knowledge of how to create fire themselves. After fending off an attack from a rival group and being chased into a swamp by wolves, the tribe’s carefully guarded fire becomes extinguished. So three adventurous scouts are sent out to find a new source of fire and encounter sabre tooth tigers, mastodons, and murderous rivals along the way.

While it may seem odd to us today that anyone would assume such risks, it starts to make sense when you consider that harnessing fire is quite literally a matter of life and death. Fire kept them warm, it illuminated the darkness, cooked their food, making it more nutritious, and kept threatening creatures at bay. Long before there were societies with written or even spoken words, humans would risk everything for energy. The knowledge of energy, and especially our ability to harness it, is a hallmark of the human condition.

Indeed, humanity’s quest for fire has only increased in intensity. We have dammed rivers and flooded thousands of square kilometres of arable land. We have deforested vast expanses of Europe and the Middle East, cutting lumber to feed our insatiable appetite for more and more energy. And today we burn billions of tons of coal, oil, and natural gas, all the while emitting climate-altering greenhouse gases.

So much for escaping the sabre tooth tigers; we’ve got out of the pot and climbed into the frying pan! We have radically altered our natural landscape, and now we appear on an irreversible course to altering our climate and the temperature of our globe.

Yet simply cutting back on energy consumption is not the answer. Yes, conservation and efficiency have an important role to play. But energy has an incredibly positive benefit to our lives and we should not shrink away from it. History has shown an ever increasing quality of life tied directly to an ever increasing energy usage density. The most advanced societies – countries with top tier health care, literacy rates, environmental stewardship, industrial output, and consumer luxuries – are precisely those countries that use energy the most intensively.

I am a firm proponent of the ability of science and technology to harness energy constructively, and apply it to the betterment of our world. We can readily find information and debate on financial inequality, such as the Occupy rallies of 2012, but the disparity of energy among populations is just as stark and, I don’t believe, nearly as well articulated. And just as it was for the heroes in Quest for Fire, access to energy remains a matter of life and death for billions of people. Energy brings potable water, light, heat, hygiene, growing crops and cooking food. It underpins every aspect of every activity we engage in. It would be no small injustice to condemn billions to poverty when we have myriad technologies available to produce the energy required to meet their needs. The question is not one of “if” but rather one of “how” to do so, in a fair and sustainable manner.

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