Although it may sound like one of those catch-all terms that the media throws around to make some story sound sensational, it's time we admitted to ourselves that we have developed a severe carbon addiction.
What exactly does that mean? Let's begin by defining carbon addiction as a physical dependence on fossil fuels. From electricity generated by coal-burning power plants to the gasoline we put in our automobiles, we would find it hard to live today without carbon.
Life was not always this way. The world's earliest humans knew how to live without fire. In Medieval times, water wheels powered mills and provided irrigation, while animals pulled plows. Rudolf Diesel didn't patent his internal combustion engine until 1894—just a little more than a century ago.
No one is suggesting that we return to ox carts, but judging from the size of our current carbon footprint, there's a very real need to cut down our use of fossil fuels before the Earth's finite quantities of coal, oil and natural gas are depleted.
That's right. According to several studies , at the rate we are consuming these non-renewable natural resources, projected crude oil reserves will near an end between 2050 and 2075. What's more, supplies of natural gas are expected to last only till 2166, and there could be no more coal by 2230.
By far, the greatest use of fossil fuels is for power generation. Even though some two billion people still live without electricity, more than two-thirds of the primary fuels consumed in the world are used for its production.
The United States, China and Russia are the biggest addicts. Together, they consume 41% of all carbon-generated power. Clearly, if newly industrialized and developing nations add to this consumption, fossil fuels will be depleted even more rapidly.
What can individuals do to halt carbon addiction on a macro scale? For one, we can tell our governments to move beyond coal and oil. Alternative non-carbon energy sources, especially sustainable ones such as wind, solar, hydro and geo-thermal, must be developed now if humanity's future electric power needs are to be met.
Additionally, each of us can begin weaning ourselves off carbon, too. Take plastics, for instance. Made from petrochemicals, they show up virtually everywhere in our lives. We may not be able to totally rid ourselves of them, but we can moderate our usage through recycling, repurposing and reuse.
We can also start walking and bicycling instead of driving gas-guzzling cars. We can take steps to reduce energy consumption in our homes and businesses. And just as in any twelve-step program, we can begin by admitting how dependent we are carbon and stop denying our addiction.
Alfablue, January 2012