It is 11:39 pm, April 14, 1912 and you are comfortably enjoying a transatlantic voyage from England to New York on the world’s newest, largest, and safest ocean liner—the RMS Titanic. The weather outside has turned clear and brisk due to air and water temperatures having rapidly fallen in the last few hours. Stepping outside, the sky is awash in stars from horizon to horizon on the moonless night. The water is almost flat due to the absence of wind. The unrivaled power of the Titanic can be felt through the decking as it steams at near its maximum speed. Unknown to you, disaster is less than a minute away, your live or die moment at the hands of the heartless Atlantic less than three hours away; the cause yet unseen, however, by the forward observers.
The captain—an experienced mariner of these Transatlantic voyages—has made a fatefully wrong assumption. In 1912, eyes were still the herald of danger ahead. The captain has assumed that, with such clear viewing conditions, his observers in the crow’s nest and his bridge crew will have twenty minutes or so of warning should an iceberg or ice pack appear ahead of the ship. With that amount of warning, stopping or turning the ship to avoid the ice can easily be accomplished.
Fig. 1. View from S.S. CARPATHIA of the iceberg which sank the Titanic. Note the other ice and sea condition. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002721381/
What the captain did not understand was that nature was playing a trick on him that evening. A mirage had formed, due to the difference in air and water temperatures ahead of the ship, which hid the iceberg from view. The mirage brought the image of stars down to the horizon ahead, masking the iceberg from sight. Only too late did the observers in the crow’s nest spot the iceberg. No matter what could then have been done by even the most experienced crew, the 40 seconds or so available to respond from first sighting was simply insufficient. The ship and well over a thousand souls were lost. In this small bubble of human civilization crossing an ocean in the leading edge of human technology, its leader judged poorly by ignoring radioed warning messages of ice ahead. He thought he had plenty of time to respond. In reality, he did not understand the dire circumstances his ship faced. Entirely within his control, he let his ship steam into disaster.
Just as the Titanic had blindly entered an ice field that fateful night, its captain confident that he controlled his ship’s future, American civilization has entered a new energy security crisis as it blindly pushes forward in the 21st century. Simply put, the United States lacks sufficient technically recoverable, affordable fossil fuels to sustain its increasingly energy-hungry culture through the end of this century. Consequently, absent the building of substantial new sustainable energy sources, in time to transition smoothly from fossil fuels, American culture will undergo disaster. Only the foolish will shrug off this disaster-in-the-making.
The facts supporting this contention are quantifiable and easily understandable. The conclusion is simple arithmetic showing that the U.S. energy security ledger is substantially in the red. While our leaders—our politicians, our government officials, our leading businessmen—probably know this information, it is very clear that they do not understand the severity of the very real threat and the “ice” ahead into which they are steaming. Because of this, American culture—and civilization—is at very serious risk.
The purpose of this paper is to provide the quantitative information needed to understand the seriousness of this crisis, to examine the technological alternatives available to resolve this crisis, and to make clear why space-based solar power is, at this time, the only alternative to pursue. With this information, a new generation of American leadership can arise to lead America out of this crisis.