As energy needs and global warming are both rapidly increasing, the search for alternatives to the gas and oil with which we are familiar is also speeding up. Two intriguing sources of quite different kinds illustrate the potential and the problems of the search.
The first is jatropha, an unfamiliar name for what is generally regarded as a pesky weed whose only contribution to human welfare has been its occasional use as a laxative. Like a weed, it will grow under adverse circumstances in poor soil, survive drought conditions for up to three years, and live for fifty. What differentiates jatropha from a mere dandelion is that it can be used to produce biofuels that are carbon neutral. It can produce 4 times more biofuel per acre as soya, 10 times more than corn, and because it can grow on wasteland, it can help generate topsoil and stall erosion.
But jatropha is not without problems. It is poisonous, so poisonous that it is banned in Western Australia because it is so invasive and deadly if it is ingested by animals. There is also a fear that, because it will grow almost anywhere, subsistence farmers on marginal land will switch from growing food to growing jatropha. It’s a concern that using fields to grow any crop for biofuels instead of food might greatly increase the risk of famine. It is almost certainly going to increase the real cost of food to families throughout the world.
The Russians are trying to tap a second energy source. They are claiming that the Russian land mass extends below the sea into the Arctic Ocean where scientists believe there might be up to 100 billion tonnes of oil. The Russians have sent a polar expedition not to the surface of the North Pole but to the seabed lying beneath it to explore the possibilities of claiming it. Denmark and Canada argue that the territories Russia wants to claim belong to them.
If oil is found there, who is right will not be an inconsequential question.