For Earth Day: The Portent of Things to Come

When Spanish conquistadores arrived in the New World, they found the descendants of the Maya living like savages among the ruins of once great cities. The immense society that had built temples, pyramids, and cosmological observatories had vanished.

Unlike the children of the Maya, we are able to summon millions of viewers for a video of a dog that wakes itself up barking, but like those Mesoamericans whose society evaporated, we are unable to maintain the decaying empire that sustains us.

And if there is one lesson that our world has offered since last Earth Day... our empire is decaying faster than we thought.

After directing the documentary film, Fuel, my work has been focused on our decaying environment and its relation to our energy creation and consumption.

Today, less than 1 percent of America's workforce is directly employed producing energy. Less than 200,000 people in America work in coalmines and coal power plants combined. Yet coal provides nearly 50 percent of our electricity. The number of workers for the oil, gas, nuclear and oil shale industries are similarly low.

Most of the energy infrastructure of the U.S. was built as part of 25-year post-WWII industrial boom. The average age of our 492 coal power plants is 40 years. No ground has been broken on a U.S. nuclear power facility since 1974. The last oil refinery was completed in 1976. In the Gulf of Mexico there are some 27,000 gas and oil wells -- a steel forest of rusting platforms. These aging, and in many cases, dangerous facilities are the relics of a long gone era of society, politics and economic theory.

From D-Day until U.S. oil production peaked in 1971, America embarked on an orgy of consumerism. Suburbia, cars, freeways, plastic, endless oil and the promise of the atom swirled into an irresistible seduction. Drunk on the power to conform the natural world to our whims, we became the worst kind of con man -- we began to believe our own lie.

The lie was the idea that the economy could grow endlessly. You don't need Economics 101 to realize that natural resources are limited. Any system that doesn't take this basic tenet into account is doomed to collapse.

We are inundated with articles which are, by and large, sponsored by the coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear industry, and which tout new oil discoveries, new coal deposits, new natural gas reserves, and vast available un-mined uranium resources. If this rhetoric of fossil fuel abundance is true, then why is the U.S. importing more than 60 percent of its oil? Why are the most profitable domestic oil deposits buried within tar sands that require destroying a football field of land for a barrel of oil? Why are the biggest oil companies on earth drilling so deep in the Gulf of Mexico that even the highest technology oil rigs in the world cannot deal with the variables?

Coal is no different. We may indeed have a 200-year supply. But if you've driven through West Virginia lately, you may wonder how much of the country would have to be turned into a barren moonscape to get it.

The bottom line is that the easy-to-get terrestrial resources are gone. The only way to get what's left is to push our antiquated technology beyond its limits.

On Earth Day 2010 as the Deepwater Horizon sank, few could predict the environmental horrors that awaited us. Less than a year after the Deepwater Horizon sank, a disconcerting picture of dead baby dolphins washing ashore, seafood of dubious safety and collapsed Gulf region economies have begun to emerge.

On top of negative news from the Gulf, a new disaster soon rapt the attention of the world: the Fukushima Diachi nuclear crisis. With an unsolvable environmental nightmare, and the Japanese Prime Minister giving his assurances of low radiation levels in Pacific fish, we can translate "Fukushima Diachi" as a bad case of déjà vu.

The truth is, the gadget the Deepwater Horizon rig had for dealing with a blowout -- the "blowout preventer" -- had a fatal design flaw: it worked only as long as a blowout did not occur. The Fukushiama Diachi facility, like all GE Mark 1 Nuclear reactors, has so many fatal design flaws, it is a wonder this plant and its replicas -- 23 of which still operate in the U.S. -- work at all.

BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill and TEPCO's Fukushima Diachi nuclear crisis are not isolated incidents. They are part of a pattern -- the portent of things to come.

We live among rapidly deteriorating, energy-converting superstructures. These mega machines are time bombs capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people and collapsing entire ecosystems. Their safety systems were universally designed to deal with the predictable circumstances of normal operation -- circumstances that were determined in the laboratories and drawing boards of the 1950s.

With no national energy plan, an economy that cannot deal with the bulging debt of a society living beyond its means, and a roster of dwindling fuels, it may be time, for those of us awake, to read between the lines to take measures far more drastic than screwing in efficient light bulbs and buying hybrid cars.

If we do not begin to act with radical defiance against these antiquated energy systems and those who insist their dominance, we may become like the decedents of the Maya -- the unwitting, neo-tribal inheritors of a hollowed empire, the machines and cities of which were themselves facades of shortsighted hubris.

More about alternatives to petroleum in Fuel:

Earth Week programs can be found here.

Fuel, which is currently available on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD platforms and will be airing on CNBC this week for Earth Week.