Capturing the Scale
The other day a friend suggested I have a look at an article on alternative energy in the current National Geographic. No one is going to confuse the Geographic with a cutting-edge science journal, but in this case I thought they did a great job of surveying the energy future and giving the general audience a sense of what might be in store, and how it relates to the fossil fuels that have gotten us this far. Most importantly, the article does a wonderful job of capturing the mind-boggling scale of the problem, with the Geographic's typical lovely photographs and clever charts, though most of these are only available in the print edition.
When I talk with people about alternatives to oil, gas and coal, and the subject turns to the obstacles that must be overcome, I almost always mention scale. In particular, I talk about how hard it is for anyone not familiar with the numbers involved to appreciate just how big the fossil fuel economy is, and how large a problem it is to consider supplanting it with something else, or a combination of somethings. Pictures of people standing next to a giant wind turbine blade, or the excellent chart showing how much of New York City would have to be devoted to energy generation, in the absence of fossil fuels, convey that message better than any Powerpoint chart can.
While I could fill up this posting with minor quibbles about omitted details or emphasis that could have been adjusted, I'd have no qualms about handing this article to anyone who wanted to know more about the subject and could only devote 20 minutes to it. Of course those reading this blog can guess that I'd probably mutter also a few words about things being much more complex than the Geographic's portrayal, and the picture on biofuels being not nearly so clear-cut. My biggest disappointment in the article, though, was purely a function of my own expectations: I was hoping for something as comprehensive and visually striking as the Geographic's special supplement on energy in February 1981, which I still have on my shelf.