Sunday, April 13, 2008

More Than Technology

We have heard in class, and learned from reading that there is no “silver bullet” to the energy problem. …maybe “silver buckshot,” Professor Webber said. Scientists and engineers come out with papers quoting the potential for this or that technology, calculating the time to make it economical, reporting the number of barrels of oil displaced or tons of carbon emissions reduced. All of this work, however, misses a critical element of the solution – the human element.

“A Solar Grand Plan” by Zweibel et al. (2007) and “Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free” by Makhijani (2007) are good examples of technological solutions created in a vacuum outside of social, political, and environmental reality. The “fixes” they describe, were they actually implemented, would at best only delay or alter our energy problems. At worst, these “solutions” will make things worse.

How does a huge solar generator or wind farm only perpetuate our energy problems? Implicit in our current thinking about energy is the idea that our quality of life is in direct correlation to our energy use. The more barrels of oil or kWh of energy we consume per capita, the greater our standard of living. We assume this in part because it seems obvious, and in part because our energy consumption tracks with the GDP (never mind that we have no evidence that people are any happier today than they were one, two, or ten generations ago). In fact, we are led to believe that “energy poverty is in fact emerging as the new killer in developing nations, the root cause of a vast number of other problems, and perhaps the deepest divide between the haves and have-nots.” (Paul Roberts, End of Oil, p. 8)

But by our fuzzy economic thinking, the GDP must grow in perpetuity, and correspondingly our energy consumption must increase as well. Each energy solution thus becomes a temporary stopgap as demand increases and we require more and more energy for more and more uses. Nuclear energy once offered the hope of limitless, cheap energy – somehow the utopian futures promised by solar and wind enthusiasts are more practical? I submit the possibility that our problem is not a scarcity of energy; it is that we completely misuse energy, that we use altogether too much energy. As a society, we have no ethics around appropriate or inappropriate use of energy. We have no reverence for energy use or its impacts, and no understanding of the devastating toll it takes on our communities and our bodies.

Not only do technological “solutions” perpetuate our problems, they create new, greater problems. Consider, for example, the case of the streetcar and the horse in the early 1900’s. “The private car was initially regarded as the very salvation of the city, a clean and efficient alternative to the old-fashioned, manure-befouled, odiferous, space-intensive horse.” (Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, pp. 163-164) Similar enthusiasms were founded on our discovery of oil, and now we have biodiversity losses related to unrestrained land development, as well as national security concerns related to oil dependence on “rogue” regimes along with terrorism and war in the Middle East. Or consider the Nobel Prize winning discovery of the Haber-Bosch process to produce fertilizers, such that we have devitalized foods and a huge disruption in our nitrogen cycle creating hypoxic zones in streams and oceans. Or technological improvements in irrigation for dry-land farming, such that we draw more water from the Great Plains aquifers than they currently recharge. And on and on.

If we manage to address our energy problems with energy solutions, we will continue to create more and larger problems for society. Advocating purely technical solutions is not only ignorant of the larger impact of our energy use on our environment, it is a dangerous message that scientists and engineers are sending to society. Real, significant change will come about by addressing the underlying social issues related to our energy use. We cannot engineer our way out of this one – social change requires social solutions brought about by vocal, grassroots advocacy from all segments of society.

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