Mew Lake campground, Algonquin Park, Ontario, January 17 2015, four a.m. I’m alone in a 3-season tent, acutely aware that one of those three seasons is not winter. I’m acutely aware of this because the outside temperature must be close to minus-30° C (about 243 Kelvins). And I know this because the inside temperature is also not far from minus-30° C. This is why I am wearing thermal long underwear, and a fleece jacket, and I am in a sleeping bag that is inside another sleeping bag, under a pile of three blankets with my heavy winter parka on top. It is especially why I am wearing on my head a balaclava, with a headband, and a heavy wool touque, and my face is wrapped in a heavy wool scarf. Each breath I take fills my lungs with frigid arctic air, and each outbreath deposits a fresh coating of frost on the scarf.
I am warm but not comfortable: lying nearly fully clothed inside two sleeping bags with blankets on top and my face wrapped feels a bit claustrophobic. I recall, with annoyance, the figures, often repeated by proponents of solar power, of the sheer amount of solar energy that saturates each square meter of the surface of our planet. Geologist Iain Stewart, in his otherwise very interesting documentary series How to Grow a Planet, makes exactly that point in Episode 2.
But my point, lying in my 3-season tent at Mew Lake in minus-30 and unable to sleep at four a.m., is: yes, all this solar energy is part of why the average energy level (i.e. temperature) in molecules that comprise the ambient air around Mew Lake is 243 Kelvins while the energy level of gas molecules in outer space 2 to 4 Kelvins. The plethora of solar photons arriving on earth are indeed part of what is keeping the surface air near Mew Lake at 243 K and not 2 to 4 K. But they cannot even prevent water from freezing, let alone boiling—that happens at 373 K.
The more I work this thermodynamic fact over in my head the more annoyed I become. As my annoyance grows, so does my claustrophobia inside my thermal straitjacket. I begin obsessing on the cruel irony that my straitjacket is necessary precisely because the plethora of solar photons arriving on earth are not now, and likely won’t for at least the next six months be, sufficient to bring the ambient temperature around Mew Lake toward anything close to the 37°C (310 K) temperature that my body functions at.
On top of all this, I feel Nature calling. This means I have to get out of “bed” and walk to the “washroom”—i.e., to the snowbank next to the bushes on the other side of the campsite. It’s not like at home, where I just get out of bed. Here, I have to get dressed, and do it quickly. Like I said, the temperature inside my 3-season tent is not much different than the outside temperature, and that, to repeat, is near minus-30 C or 243 Kelvin.
I am now simply exasperated. I abandon hope of getting in even a decent short nap. I brace myself, mentally run through the escape routine like an astronaut rehearses a spacewalk. The escape routine is the following. As quickly as possible:
- Sit up.
- Feel for the battery-powered PrincetonTech headlamp, turn it on and strap it on over my touque.
- Put on the heavy parka that is perched on top of the pile of blankets draped over the two sleeping bags I am tucked into.
- Pull my legs out of the sleeping bags, and slip into my winter pants.
- Put my boots on.
- Collect my heavy mittens, which are in the inside flap.
The whole choreography takes about twenty seconds and before it is done my hands are numb with cold.
I unzip the tent flap, step outside and stand up, and put on the mittens. As I wait for my hands to recover normal feeling, I look up into a spectacular star-filled northern winter sky. I reflect with bitter wonder that just like the sun keeps the temperature at Mew Lake, at four a.m. on January 17 2015, at 243 K instead of 2 to 4 K, it’s those countless dots of light that keep outer space at 2 to 4 K.
Once my hands have recovered normal feeling, I realize I am cowed, whipped, by this cold. Three times earlier this night I had, when Nature called, performed the urgent choreography just described, then taken the short walk over to snow-draped bushes, then hurried back to the tent and performed the exact reverse of that choreography to get back into the thermal straitjacket. But this time I decide I will avail myself of the Mew Lake Campground Comfort Station, a heated building with hot and cold running water, toilets, and a shower. It is a five-minute walk away. I start stiffly off, my boots crunching loudly in the snow. There is no wind, but I can feel heat draining out of my six-layer thermal shell just with the air flow caused by my own motion.
The comfort station is all cheerfully lit up, and when I open the door and step into the warm room I feel immediate relief.
I reflect, as I luxuriate during a perhaps-too-long four-thirty-a.m. shower, that most of the energy that makes this shower possible is being manufactured in the three Ontario nuclear plants that are located hundreds of kilometers away. Not a single watt of the power that keeps the water at around 318 Kelvins—75 K higher than outside—and the lights on is coming from solar panels.
I also reflect that my Mew Lake circumstances embody in microcosm the circumstances of thirteen million of my fellow Ontarians. Ontario from Kenora to Niagara Falls and everywhere in between, is very, very cold at this moment. Those nuclear plants are providing millions of people, not just me and my fellow campers in Algonquin Park, with life-sustaining energy.
The State of the Union
Three days later I will, from the comfort of my home living room—powered to a large extent by the same Ontario nuclear plants—watch the U.S. president give his sixth State of the Union speech. I will shake my head as he touts the amount of solar power America is bringing online. Does nobody, including the president himself, want to admit that solar panels in America are contributing about as many of the watts that are broadcasting his speech around the world as were making the Mew Lake comfort station comfortable at four-thirty a.m. last Saturday?
In wonderment at this implicit but nearly breathtaking denial of reality, I compose the following little note:
Seven score and ten years ago, your country emerged from a vicious, bloody, traumatic civil war over slavery. The brutality of that war reverberated violently for more than a half century; I can feel the reverberations, from Canada, even today, in 2015. The civil war was waged by those who knew slavery is wrong and had developed an economy that had rendered it technologically obsolete, against those who, through a confluence of circumstances utterly unique in history, used slavery to reap profits so fabulous as to inoculate them against its wrongness, close their minds to the possibility of economic production without subjugation of their fellow humans, and indeed to rationalize the institution with all manner of highfalutin reality-denying rhetoric.
Now, in the midst of a great global struggle to avoid further destabilization of the global climate, you tout solar energy, an energy source that cannot power the machines that made slavery obsolete. You do not claim it can power these machines because you must know it cannot. Indeed, you extol your country’s pre-eminence in the production of oil and gas—two energy sources that can.
But while oil and gas can power the machines that made slavery obsolete, they are also two energy sources that have contributed to destabilizing the climate. In touting solar power as a way to not destabilize the climate, you gave life to an idea that sustains those who have forgotten that seven score and ten years ago your country won a war over whether machines should perform hard labour for all people, or people for some.
It is for us, those who remember this, to dedicate ourselves to the great task of powering machines so they can perform hard labour for all people all over the world—without destabilizing the global climate, so that all people, in my country and yours and all countries in the whole world, can not just yearn for but actually live in freedom and prosperity.