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To collapse or to continue?

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For over a decade, I've been working on two projects that have kept me off the streets and held my nose to the grindstone. Briefly stated, it was 1995 when I read The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, by John McPhee, the story about a company in New Jersey that in the late sixties tried to develop an energy efficient airship that would "glide up" as well as down, and use no traditional means of propulsion. I became immediately fascinated with this concept, since it tied together so many strands of my experience, from sailing, skiing, and scuba diving, to an interest in physics, flying, and energy efficiency, among many others.

Beginning the day after I read that book, I spent untold thousands of hours trying to develop the "perfect shape" that would accomplish what the Aereon Corporation had been unable to do. Through what seems like an infinitely long series of "conceptual bread crumbs," slowly and one by one being placed in my head, from wherever ideas come from, and combined with a seemingly infinite number of trials and errors-it would be fair to say around 10,000-I developed a water toy that "glides up" across a swimming pool. And I arrived at a design for highly efficient airships, so efficient that they can run on sunlight alone. (See links to YouTube clips on these below.)

At long last, an Australian toy company picked up the water toy (that I believe has considerable educational value) and manufactured it, planning to sell the item during this Australian summer, then move to the northern hemisphere next year. A few weeks ago, I got an email informing me that Australia is in its worst drought in recorded history, and no one is allowed to use swimming pools. Thus this project has come to a screeching halt, at least in Australia, due to what I can only believe is the result of global warming.

Then two days ago, I went to my regular supplier here in Salt Lake to get helium for the airship project, and was told there is no more helium!

"What," I exclaimed, "do you mean by that?"

"Just what we said. There is no more helium available."

As it turns out, there is indeed a helium shortage, which you can read more about with a simple Google search. It also turns out that, according to Wired Magazine:

"Nearly all of the world's helium supply is found within a 250-mile radius of Amarillo, Texas (the Helium Capital of the World). A byproduct of billions of years of decay, helium is distilled from natural gas that has accumulated in the presence of radioactive uranium and thorium deposits. If it's not extracted during the natural gas refining process, helium simply soars off when the gas is burned, unrecoverable.

The federal government first identified helium as a strategic resource in the 1920s; in 1960 Uncle Sam began socking it away in earnest. Thirty-two billion cubic feet of the gas are bunkered underground in Cliffside, a field of porous rock near Amarillo. But now the government is getting out of the helium business, and it's selling the stockpile to all comers."

Thus it appears that another natural public resource-i.e., yours-is being auctioned off by the Bush Administration, I presume to Haliburton and its ilk.

One of my first thoughts was, "Oh. So this is what something like what it will be like when we run out of usable fossil fuels. There simply is no more."
Of course I've long contemplated that scenario. But now, being told bluntly that there is no more helium (there may be some available in a few weeks, when production facilities get reorganized), it was something like a brick to my head. This project I've been working on for over a decade is presently and indefinitely on hold.

Thus I am impacted by global warming and by a natural resource shortage, in less than three weeks, in what I happen to feel is a very personal way. These are not "life-threatening events," but as near as I can tell, they are symptomatic of what is to come in our lifetime and that of our children, in many forms.
What will happen when our agricultural lands are too dry-as they are now in Australia-for farming to continue? Or when our underground aquifers are depleted? Or when the salts build up to make the soil unusable? Or when any number of eventual certainties close down agriculture as we know it?

And can we even imagine the magnitude of the blow when we are told "there are no more fossil fuels"? There, in a nutshell, goes industrialized civilization. All our resource extraction and processing capabilities are gone; manufacturing comes to a standstill; agriculture as we know it is no more; transportation... well, let's hope you have a good bicycle, though we won't be able to make those much longer either; trucking doesn't exist; building supplies are no more; clothing can't be made; buildings can't be heated; medicines can't be produced; and so on and on and on.

The lead time we need to convert to conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy, and reduced population, assuming such can actually happen, is draining away like sand in an hourglass, while we quibble and obsess over such earth-shattering issues as flag burning, gay marriage, and-wait, let me check the Drudge Report-newly released unseen Marilyn Monroe photos* and a government publication called "Skeptic's Guide to Global Warming."

I recently finished reading Jared Diamond's remarkable book, Collapse, which is about the collapse of civilizations, including Mayans, Aztecs, Easter Islanders, Vikings, and others. Jared claims to have written this book at least partly in hope that we might learn from the errors of various once-thriving but now vanished civilizations, and see the signs of our own impending demise, so that we might take corrective action. The signs are there in abundance, ranging from overpopulation, resource depletion, killing forms of pollution, inability to perceive or comprehend the reality of what is happening, interconnections of societies that link the fate of one to another, and now, of course, nuclear weapons, global warming, and ozone depletion.

This absolute genius of a person, Jared Diamond, comes away with a question mark himself, telling us things we can do to prevent collapse, but also with a calm but clear warning that we had best open our eyes a little wider and begin acting on what we see. In the book, he also gives examples of societies that have survived by taking action in advance, sometimes by chance and involuntary circumstance-such as the Dominican Republic, as compared to Haiti-and other times by seeing what was happening and taking deliberate corrective action, such as Japan did when its forests had virtually disappeared.

A friend of mine once told me, while visiting the solar-powered and heated home I had built in Idaho years ago, that I was "really out there on the foreskin of things." Well, maybe so and maybe no, but in either case I have clearly seen what appear to be the direct results of both climate change and resource shortage. And about all I can do is come back as a messenger and say, "Hey, my friends! We really need to look down the road a little bit and decide if this is the one we want to stay on. From my perspective, I don't think it is."

Links to water toy, gliding airship, solar airship, and highly efficient, maneuverable airship:

Water toy

Upward gliding airship

Solar airship

Highly efficient, maneuverable airship

*Well, ok, I admit I will go back and check those out. But I promise to keep working on airships too! (I just learned that I can get helium from a certain source, and I have used hydrogen before-it has ten percent more lifting power, is one third the cost, is renewable, and can be safe if proper precautions are taken.)
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In my run for U.S. Senate against Utah's Orrin Hatch, I posted many progressive ideas and principles that I internalized over the years. I'm leaving that site up indefinitely, since it describes what I believe most members of our species truly (more...)

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