Jules Verne

Civilized wasteland: Can clean energy save the planet from sci-fi cliche?

An old man skirts the wreckage of civilization avoiding packs of feral dogs and even more feral sub-humans as he hunts for a hint of salvation.

Most preserved food has long since been picked clean and anything overtly useful taken by those who came before. But something may be waiting over the next hill or valley. His life and the lives of his fellow villagers -- who were too afraid to join his quest -- depend on his success.

The narrative is basically the gist of a book I just plowed through. It's the latest in a series of end-of-world novels I've burned through in the past year and a half. Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," a haunting tale of pointless survival of a man and his son in a world without hope, got me started. I saw it on the "Read This" shelf at the Clovis, Calif. library and read it in six hours.

Blew me away.

End of the world

Since then I've read two series by S.M. Stirling that deconstruct the world in different ways. The first, "Island in the Sea of Time," transports the entire island of Nantucket thousands of years into the past. A follow-up, "The Change" series, unravels society by unceremoniously causing all electrical, combustion and modern mechanical devices to stop working. The result is death and massive destruction by mobs of hungry people.

Just to mix it up, I read Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island," which tosses five men from a balloon on a remote Pacific Island and serves as a sequel to "20,000 Leagues Under Sea." That enticed me to finally tackle "Robinson Crusoe." Both have world-ending elements but create characters who thrive on the challenge of recreating society.

The latest to absorb my full attention is Nick Cole's "Old Man and the Wasteland." Think of it as the follow to McCarthy's ode to destruction. Depressing definitely but Old Man has a spark of hope. It cost me 99 cents via my Kindle wireless, by the way.

Big gain in 'we're doomed' genre

I had forgotten the title of Old Man, so I searched for it on Amazon using the key words "end of the world." The search turned up way too many hits. Some I'd read long ago. One was a Phillip K. Dick novel (gotta read that one). But many were new.

It's that end-of-days trend that got me thinking. American society has been running at 60, 70, 80 mph for the past century. Faster and better, consume and discard. We're tearing it up. Live hard, die young.

Unfortunately, pollution, climate change, environmental destruction and dwindling sources of cheap burnable fuel have revealed all-too-real and scary limits. We don't need the nuclear winter concept to scare our children, just a couple more decades of rising tides, foul air and super nasty weather to drive home the message.

Now authors and screen writers have picked up the torch. Note the plethora of zombie movies.

Studies show danger ahead

The barrage of news that we could be doomed continues unabated. Providing further support are two studies: the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Annual Greenhouse Gas Index and the Civil Society Institute's energy economics report.

The data rich NOAA Index says the growth rate of carbon dioxide averaged about 1.68 parts per million per year from 1979 to 2010. It averaged about 1.43 ppm per year before 1995 and 1.94 ppm per year since. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 390 ppm.

Charts show steady increases in CO2, nitrious oxide and methane.

The unwritten message: If this continues, we're doomed.

We do have alternatives

The CSI report has a bit of an optimistic feel, saying that a transition to clean energy would save $83 billion over the next 40 years. The report, "Toward a Sustainable Future for the U.S. Power Sector: Beyond Business as Usual 2011," says the move would avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths due to pollution, would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, would force sharp cuts in carbon pollution and would curtail water consumption for power production.

Institute President Pam Solo says: "The truth is that America can and should embrace a workable and cost-effective future that is built on safe, renewable energy. Not only is it feasible and less expensive to do so, but we really have no other choice as a nation."

Would you prefer to envision your 20-year-old son as the old man wandering a desolate world in 40 years?

I prefer optimistic endings

Not what I want for my boy, especially after paying $32,000 a year to send him to Seattle University. I would hope the investment pays off.

I vote for the responsible option. The Institute says 65 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of Independents, 88 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Tea Party members (77 percent overall) agree with the following statement: "The U.S. needs to be a clean energy technology leader and it should invest in the research and domestic manufacturing of wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies."

Others are on board, but a switch won't be easy. And it won't be fast. I hope it's inevitable. And I'll just keep reading this stuff until I'm lured away by another genre.

From the Earth to the Moon with clean energy

American ingenuity has raged this the past century like Genghis Khan through technological obstacles.

What was science fiction just decades ago can now be held in the palm of a hand or the top of a pinhead. While perhaps the greatest leap for mankind took place at 3:17 p.m. Eastern time on July 20, 1969, when the Apollo 11 lunar module the Eagle landed on the moon, the next may be just aound the corner.

"Nothing can astound an American," wrote Jules Verne prophetically in "From the Earth to the Moon" in 1865. "In America, all is easy, all is simple; and as for mechanical difficulties, they are overcome before they arise. ... A thing with them (Yankees) is no sooner said than done."

Likewise, entrepreneurs in this country have scored success after success. Note iPad sales.

OK. How about figuring out a way to make clean energy the dominant form of electricity production?

It can't be too soon.

A study led by West Virginia University researcher Dr. Michael Hendryx found cancer rates twice as high in a community exposed to mountaintop removal mining as compared with an unexposed town, said Jeff Biggers, a journalist and author, in a piece for Huffington Post. The study links the strip mining method to 60,000 additional cancer cases.

And the production of carbon and air pollution by burning fossil fuels appears destined to ignite a climate disaster that will flummox even the most jaded naysayer.

So we need a plan. Blogger Michael Graham Richard, like me, fixated on the space race of the 1960s, in which the United States pummeled the USSR's efforts, for a model to follow.

"Like in the 1960s, we'll need an inspiring vision to rally our efforts, we'll need to take existing technologies and rapidly push them to the next level, as well as invent new ones," writes Richard in a post on treehugger.com. "But most importantly, we'll need focus; to keep doing the hard work and sacrifices until we reach our goals."

Verne wrote his novel about space travel before any real work on the practical mathematics of such trajectories had been formulated. Yet, his rough calculations and ideas proved remarkably accurate

I use the book in this analogy primarily because I just read the above passage and was impressed, proud even. "Heck yes, that's the spirit," I thought. Mind you, this is my fifth Verne book after plowing through "A Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "The Mysterious Island," and I'm starting to think like a long-dead translated French author.

Verne's hero in the novel is Impey Barbicane, an industrialist sidelined by the halt of the Civil War. Barbicane's comments at the start of the book made me realize I'm reading something akin to anti-war satire.

"My brave, colleagues, too long already a paralyzing peace has plunged the members of the Gun Club in deplorable inactivity," Barbicane says.

Let's apply that to current day geopolitics. Perhaps stopping all wars, official and unofficial, will give the nation's military industrial complex the incentive to pursue -- like the members of Barbicane's fictional Gun Club -- alternatives like clean energy.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his famous 1961 speech that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

But he also said its "total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government." That power, harnessed for clean energy profits, could be world-changing.

In the meantime, smaller businesses are doing quite well on their own.

Michael Kanellos of greentechmedia.com reports that First Solar has developed a cadmium telluride solar cell returning a record 17.3 percent efficiency. The breakthrough beats the old record of 16.7 percent set by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory a decade ago.

And Timon Singh of inhabitat.com reports that start-up Semprius has unveiled a solar cell half the size of a pinhead, which when combined with powerful but inexpensive lenses can concentrate sunlight more than 11,000 times and convert it to electricity.

Other breakthroughs and cost reductions are happening throughout the solar industry, bringing us closer to the day when solar will compete head to head, without subsidies, with fossil fuels.

For now, we wait. And I'll be discovering just how protagonist Barbicane reaches the moon.

Photo: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin takes his steps for mankind.