Why? My favorite question. Perhaps yours too. It’s been my favorite since I was a few years old—just old enough to know that when I asked it, my parents had to struggle to come up with an explanation that would satisfy my curiosity.
For such a simple question it can still be quite useful. When I tell people I have a degree in Philosophy they often respond in one of a few ways. They might ask this question outright: Why? Why study philosophy? Or, sometimes they'll give my favorite response. That is, they won't ask the question. Instead, they'll tell me a story about the question: Why? The story is about some aunt or uncle, or perhaps a cousin or friend, who took a philosophy course once.
And, yes, they all tell me the same story. It goes like this:
The hero (the relative or friend) shows up to the final exam ready to reason through all the arguments she learned throughout the semester. She is ready for anything. Or so she thinks. The final exam is handed out, but the exam is mostly blank. There is only a single question. The question, of course: “Why?” The narrator pauses for effect. This is the make-or-break moment. What will our hero do? She boldly scribbles down two words “Why not?” and turns the test back in. Our hero confidently strolls out of the room to the astonishment of the rest of her peers. The kicker? She earns an A!
If you’ve ever taken a philosophy course or if you know someone who has it’s possible that you’ve heard the same story. It is part of the lore and legend of undergraduate philosophy. I’d like to believe that one of these family members or friends was indeed the person who wrote, “Why not?” How poetic!
At this site, though, our chief concern will not be poetry (this is of course not an affront to poetry; I actually plan to feature some poetry on the site; it just won’t be the primary focus). To retort “Why not?” will not be good enough. If we ask why, it won’t be open-ended. If we ask ourselves why we should transform the way we produce and consume energy, we will not answer with, “Why not?” We won’t be able to use it as a defense-mechanism. We will answer in a way that will shine a light on things.
In this way light will provide our first analogy. To say nothing of vitamin D, we are completely dependent on light. All the food we eat exists because of the light from the sun. All the fossil fuels we burn are decayed organic matter which was nourished by the energy from the sun. The ecosystems we inhabit are wholly dependent upon the light from the sun. So, for us, light is a simple consideration. Without light humanity and all the life we are familiar with would end.
Light is so important to us that to “shed light on something” is to make it clearer, to understand it better, to bring it into comprehension. So, while it is quite easy to see the extent to which light is an integral part of our world, our ecosystem, our daily life, it might be less clear how dependent we are on other things that are essential to our industrial way of life.
You probably know that it’s toxic, but did you know that it is essential for your lifestyle? Without our current process of producing ammonia (the Haber-Bosch process), we would have to change the way we consume numerous goods. Production of fertilizer, nylon, and rayon would need to be drastically changed; we would have to find alternative ways to dye cotton, wool, and silk; and, we would have to modify the way we process rubber and metal alloys. The large-scale production of ammonia is necessary for all of these materials. So, anything we consume that has relied on any of these products has relied on ammonia. If we are concerned about the sustainability of all of these products, then we must ask an important question.
Is ammonia production sustainable?
Right now we primarily use natural gas as the source of hydrogen for ammonia (NH3). So, if fossil fuels are not sustainable, and they are a large component for the production of ammonia, then is ammonia not sustainable? What if we only used a small amount of natural gas to produce ammonia? Would that be okay? Or must we completely remove the influence of fossil fuels?
As we journey together, we will explore these unseen dependencies. So, let's shed a little light on things. Specifically, I want to consider solar panels. If we want to know if solar panels are a sustainable source of energy, we need to know a few things first. What does sustainable mean? Does it just mean that sunlight is a renewable resource? Or does it say something more? Should it say something more? What does it take to make a solar panel? How much toxic waste is generated to produce a solar panel? Is the waste disposed of properly? How much energy and water are necessary to process all the essential components of a solar panel? Does it matter that the solar panel is produced in China, where the electric grid is much dirtier due to an increased dependence on coal?
Absolutely! All the small production decisions add up. Solar panel panel production uses energy. And quite a bit of it! A solar panel needs to produce electricity for a couple of years at least in order to make up for the energy used to produce it (the less carbon-intensive the production of a solar panel is, the smaller carbon debt it has to repay). If a solar panel continues to produce electricity for decades beyond repayment of its debt then we can start to see some substantial benefit to solar power. But, if solar panels are used only for a short time, their benefit could be quite small.
Now that this post is coming to an end I am hopeful. I am not hopeful that we have solved any big problems, but I am hopeful that we have some context for just how nuanced and interconnected these problems might be. I want to end on this note of time frame in relation to solar panels because I believe an understanding of sustainability presupposes a proper appreciation for time. As a result, time span will play a big part in every post on this site.
Being sustainable doesn’t mean preparing for tomorrow or next week or next year. It means preparing for next decade, next generation, and next century (at least).
 Of course there are some ecosystems on the ocean floor out of lights reach that do not have photosynthesis as the starting point for capturing energy. Instead, they are chemosynthetic. They get their energy from Hydrogen, Sulfur, Sulfides, and Methane. Here is a great article on BioEd Online that discusses a couple types of chemosynthetic organisms.
 I have assumed that "fossil fuels are not sustainable." I believe they are unsustainable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they are non-renewable. A recentjournal article in Nature outlines the relationship between climate studies and future warming of the Earth. It suggests that in order to avoid a 2°C increase in average global temperature (above pre-industrial times) we should not use more than a third of the natural gas still in the earth between now and 2050. Even then we are still only left with a 50% chance of the average global temperature remaining below that mark. Because of this I believe that continuing to use fossil fuels as we currently do is unsustainable.