Richard White explores an interesting point of view in The Organic Machine. It is quite similar to my devils’-advocate argument earlier in the semester, that humans are just as much a part of nature as, well, nature itself. The Columbia River acts like a machine just as much as steam turbines and hydroelectric dams and whatnot. And no matter what we do to it, it does not lose its immense destructive power, as demonstrated during the flood of 1948.
However, as a physicist, I must bring up an important physical concept, that matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed – in other words, you cannot get something from nothing, or turn something into nothing. Orders of magnitude do matter – when you take natural resources from nature in small amounts such that it has ample time to replace what you take, as the Native Americans did when fishing, it does not appear that you are burdening nature. But when you start to fish in large quantities comparable to the total populations of fish, they start losing the ability to sustain their populations. A small waterwheel on the side of the river does not have much of an effect on the river’s overall flow, but large dams used to generate hydroelectricity can impede the movement of salmon or even slow down the mass flow rate of the water by some amount. When the danger of the dams was realized, we turned to nuclear power – but that, too, had its problems, as the river’s water was used to dissipate the heat generated when producing plutonium, and the slight increase in water temperature resulted in further loss of fish. It seems that we cannot fulfill the needs of a society as large as ours without somehow compromising the system from which we take to fulfill said needs.
This being said, the goal of a sustainable society in its current numbers may be theoretically impossible. We have far exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity, and no matter how efficient new technologies become, we will still probably be draining our resources faster than they can be replenished, even with alternative renewable energies. Whatever the source, be it a solar panel or a wind turbine or a nuclear fuel cell, you need to mine the raw materials, use energy to transport and process them, and deal with the waste at the end of the unit’s life cycle.
Going back to the humans-as-part-of-nature concept – I feel like an exception to this, if one exists, is the obtaining of radioisotopes for energy use. The reason for this is because radioisotopes naturally exist in such tiny quantities, as they are unstable and start to decay as soon as they come into being. Every element in existence came from nuclear fusion within a star – they all start with hydrogen, atomic number 1, fusing into helium, and subsequently creating larger and larger atomic nuclei. By the time you reach atomic number, say, 283, the abundance of nuclei with that number becomes a function of probability of formation as well as stability of the nucleus. The nucleus consists of protons and neutrons, and thus has an overall positive charge – when too many positive charges are present, they push away from each other; when these repulsive forces overcome the nuclear forces holding the nucleus together, then you get alpha decay. In essence, the universe simply does not want such materials to exist. By creating them, we literally push against the laws of physics.