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The Two Impossibles: Greta Thunberg's Dream and Our Way of Living

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Message Arshad M Khan

"Blah! Blah! Blah! And then they go back to making money." The 'blah' part of the quote from Greta Thunberg is now being carried on placards in protest demonstrations on climate change.

When Greta goes back to Sweden and flips a switch, her room floods with light -- the magic of electricity. Those wires in her home connect to transmission lines, through substations and eventually to a generator at a power station. It takes superheated steam to drive it and its attached alternator to produce the electricity for Greta.

The question is how to heat the water to generate the steam. The solutions run from coal to natural gas to a nuclear reactor. Of the fossil fuels, coal is the most polluting and abundant. The nuclear reactor also produces waste but its dangers are invisible radioactivity. So it has to be stored deep, often inside a mountain, to protect us from its effects. With a half-life of about thirty years, it will take some time to render it safe. Power stations are a big investment and last thirty years or so, meaning no one wants to abandon one while it is still in good shape.

How did Greta get to the protest demonstration? If she used an automobile, we are all familiar with its pollution. Perhaps she used an electric car, a Tesla maybe. Now there's a plug-in car. Plug it to the electric socket, charge it up and you're ready to go. But not so fast. The electrical wires from the socket connect to transmission lines through substations and eventually to a generator. We are back at the power station.

It is a thorny problem and well-intentioned people can be stuck with it. So while Greta performs a necessary and admirable task in keeping us focused on the issue, the solutions are clearly not easy for they revolve around a change in our way of living.

One can eat grapes in winter. Often they are brought from Chile. New Yorkers and others can enjoy California and Florida oranges and Texas grapefruit, brought to them by truck. Pineapples from Hawaii, bananas from Central America, oranges from South Africa, salmon from Alaska -- even from Norway, shrimp from Thailand ... There is no end to that list.

Our houses are heated, and cooled, at the touch of a switch. Not just our food, but our clothes come from the four corners of the earth. Ordinary people enjoy luxuries unimaginable to the kings and potentates of just a few centuries ago. Is it too good to last and are we about to choke ourselves on a bone from Norwegian salmon?

Just some questions to ponder as we go around turning off unnecessary lights and adjusting thermostats to a barely bearable temperature. That is until some other crisis takes our minds off the topic and on to another issue.

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Arshad M Khan is a former Professor. Educated at King's College London, Oklahoma State University and the University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. He was elected a Fellow of the (more...)
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