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Nuclear Firewood

This letter appeared in Science, Feb 1 1974.

Important aspects of the energy shortage are being ignored in both science and government. We tend to forget that most of the energy used by man is solar energy that has been fixed recently through photosynthesis. This energy provides food, fuel, fibers, and services that are essential for a habitable environment. Although the total amount of energy available as net primary production through this route has been estimated as 20 times the amount of energy in current use from fossil fuels, nuclear power, and hydropovuer, these flows of energy from the sun are being reduced. When the complex political, social, and economic systems of industrialized nations falter, as they appear to be doing at the moment, we turn immediately to biotic resources that are close to us. We substitute fish for beef, wood for fuel. Mounting world food shortages are contributing to the pressures on these resources.

Shortages of both oil and food will get worse: worldwide demand is soaring, and supplies are limited. Reckless efforts to "solve" an energy problem that is unsolvable in the current context of growth threaten to speed destruction of renewable resources. Acid rains are a good example. Relaxation of air pollution standards for sulfur will result in continuation of the trend of rising acidity in rain in the Northeast. There is little doubt that a decade or more of precipitation with a pH of between 3.0 and 4.2 will reduce the net production of forests and agriculture. A 10 percent loss of net production in the New England states would be the equivalent of the power output of 15 1000-megawatt reactors. Would the people of New England agree to supply such a subsidy to the rest of the country if they had a choice?

There is no simple technical or social solution to the shortage of energy. Growth in energy consumption in the pattern of past years is over for the present. In addition, biotic flows of energy are now being lost, often irreversibly; the biota is being mined. Environmental problems are not simply those of adjusting techniques of energy production to reduce intrusions on the environment; they also include the preservation of the flows of energy— including food, materials, and services— through the biota to man.

The shortage of fossil fuels presents a challenge to technologists to find more efficient ways of exploiting biotic energy flows on a renewable basis. The problem warrants, but does not have, major consideration in the President's energy program. Facilities comparable to those of a major national laboratory should be devoted to the problems generated by the worldwide spread of biotic improverishment that is caused In large degree by current rates of exploitation of nonrenewable energy sources.