This really bursts my balloon.
It could be a scene in a sci-fi comedy: children standing slack-jawed, facing skyward, next to a clown in tear-stained makeup, as the world’s last bunch of lighter-than-air balloons heads for the heavens…
But the situation is real, and potentially dire: we are running out of helium.
Kids and clowns won’t be the only ones crying when the stuff’s all gone.
Turns out, there’s a limited amount of helium on planet Earth, although it’s the second-most abundant element in the rest of the universe. Here, it’s a non-renewable resource, like some others we could name. Oil, anyone? Natural gas? In fact, helium is closely linked to natural gas: it’s a by-product of the extraction process.
So we’ve had lots of it for a while. The price has been cheap enough for this relatively rare – and finite – commodity to be used for its novelty effect, as in the ubiquitous balloons. It’s also found in blimps, replacing the lighter, but far more flammable hydrogen that went out of favour after the Hindenburg crash.
More importantly, helium plays a key role in everything from medicine to military applications: MRI scanners, radiation detectors, and other pieces of equipment whose function we depend on and largely take for granted.
Speaking of taking for granted – have you ever wondered before where helium actually comes from, or how much of it there is? I sure hadn’t, until I learned it was disappearing – partly because a shortsighted US law passed in 1996 has mandated getting rid of the world’s biggest helium reserve.
But think about it: the stuff is lighter than air. When it escapes, it goes up, up, and away. It doesn’t come back. It can’t. All those balloons that get joyously released at big celebrations… the rubber skins come back to earth as trash when they pop and fall. The precious irreplaceable gas is gone forever into the outer regions of the atmosphere.
We’ve basically been using the whole world’s supply, FOR ALL TIME, in our time.
Sound familiar? It’s what we’ve been doing with oil, gas, fish, trees, water, and virtually every precious but limited thing on the planet.
As Joni Mitchell said, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?”
When I got a balloon as a kid, my mother would tie it to my wrist to prevent the heartbreak that follows a brief moment of carelessness.
Too bad preventing the future from floating away isn’t that easy.
Oh, the humanity…