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Archive for August, 2010

False Alarm

Posted by wastedenergy on August 29, 2010

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about communicative strategies recently.  If you have read many of my other writings here at WastedEnergy, you know that I believe we face an imminent, even ongoing crisis due to the rising costs of obtaining energy and resources.

I am quite aware of the many commentators who accuse those advancing ecological principles of “alarmism” or of promoting a particular political agenda.  But what if a careful examination of the facts reveals that some alarms should be sounded, lest a window of opportunity pass us by?  On the other hand, is the very idea of sustainable development truly a contradiction in terms as some observers have suggested, and would we be better off preparing to revert to a pre- or proto-industrial society and abandoning the ideas of mass production and technological progress wholesale, rather than attempting, presumably in vain, some transformation of the existing economy based on new, sustainable industries?  The role of technology and degree of faith in technological progress to deliver solutions appear to be central to determining one’s approach to this question.  As a result, discussions of sustainability tend to degenerate into Luddites arguing against hedonists, ultimately irreconcilable viewpoints leaving little room for nuance.  I think both ways of framing the issue are incorrect, and each obscures the path forward in its own way.

There is a more complicated view that says renewable energy and other clean industry, as components of sustainable living systems, are not really about maintaining business-as-usual at all, and it would be far too late for that already if they were.  What this matter is really about is building a necessary component of resilience networks, creating a safety net in the likely event that fossil fuel depletion continues apace and creates otherwise unmanageable problems in tearing apart the fabric of society as we have built it.  In other words, if you would like to get around your city and possibly even visit other cities at some point, it might be a good idea to build some trains, and some batteries to store the energy needed to make them move around, rather than assuming we can or should keep the fantasy of endless compulsive personalized motoring alive forever.  In the absence of this level of planning, what is most likely to emerge in the wake of an energy crisis is not a resilient society, but fragmented and insular communities distrustful of outsiders and unable to manage new problems that emerge in ways that require movement of people and goods.  The rhetoric in political discussions on this issue, when they do take place, does not often reflect the urgency of the matter, instead framing the debate over fossil fuels as being about saving polar bears versus keeping the economy humming.  This rhetorical approach accepts and repeats the conceit of cheap fossil fuels versus expensive alternatives, as if that were really the choice we face.

The reasoning behind this approach is not difficult to understand: our political institutions give no quarter to those who point to resource constraints as practical limitations on growth.  It is as if the notion damaged the central thesis of modernity, that advances in technology and our understanding of the world will make it possible to achieve ever more complex and advanced structures both physical and social, and to make the benefits of progress, expressed through higher material living standards, available an ever-growing share of the world’s population (which is itself ever-growing).  Such a view has long been enshrined in classical economic models and deeply ingrained in the minds of those living in developed countries, exemplified by the idea of the American Dream.  Increasingly, however, the sciences of the earth and its ecosystems have revealed such abstracted thinking about progress and faith in technology to be at odds with the physical reality of the human body and the space it occupies. 

So in choosing which points to emphasize and which alarms to sound, it becomes clear that one need not and should not make an all-or-nothing choice between supporting business-as-usual and returning to pre-industrial modes of living.  One need not dispense with the idea of progress in its entirety to deal with the matter of limits; it requires, rather, that we take a sober and realistic look at the options available.  It does not strain the ideal of progress to accept that some ventures are simply too costly or unrealistic to maintain. Part of the idea of progress is to shed the superfluous trappings of the material world that bring us needless burdens and suffering, like our nation’s present crises of debt and obesity driven by overconsumption as expected and continually reinforced by popular myths in our culture and media.  It is possible to agree that we are capable of making great strides in perceiving and understanding the world around us while still accepting that our perception and understanding are imperfect, and that we are capable of making great strides backwards as well.

We are likely on the verge of such a backslide if we fail to take appropriate corrective measures quickly.  The point to emphasize in discussions of energy and resource consumption is that altruism and “green” conscience hardly even enter into the picture.  What is really at stake, and hardly a foregone conclusion at this point, is our own survival and well-being.  Energy transitions take generations to accomplish and require generations of planning in advance.  Our great technological progress has instilled in us a certain way of thinking about problems, so that we expect the market to provide solutions quickly and avert any possible crisis just in time.  This approach will not work with a crisis in energy systems, which underlie such progress in all other areas and make possible the style of just-in-time delivery of new technologies to which we have become accustomed in communications, health care, and information technology.  We cannot afford to sputter between complacency and panic modes on energy as we have become accustomed to doing.  If we wait to act until the gas pumps begin to run dry, it will be far too late already.  Most Americans in particular have a strange and largely unwarranted faith in this deus ex technologica approach to energy, even though, as the late Matt Simmons was fond of saying, America has no Plan B.  We have done less than almost anyone else to prepare for the end of cheap energy, even though we are never more than a few days away from a total society-wide breakdown at all times given the possibility of a sudden disruption in our networked systems of infrastructure.

In any case, two central themes seem to have emerged from my reading of the existing communication strategies on energy, natural resources, and other questions ecological.  First, extreme proclamations from either Cassandra or Pangloss are unlikely to get us very far when the truth is far more complicated than either position allows; second, some positions associated heretofore with ideological extremism, like the “limits to growth” hypothesis, may turn out not to be so extreme after all, and we would do well to adapt our language on such matters so our voices are not so easily dismissed or drowned out.  The only way meaningful ideas about sustainability are likely to achieve any traction is if ecological insights become mainstream thinking and associated with self-interested rather than merely altruistic motivation to action.  All signs point to vast and rapid changes in the terrain ahead of us.  Will we continue to rely on a system that keeps these matters out of sight, out of mind, and off the table, all the while promising us that nothing could possibly go wrong?  Will we give up hope for modernity altogether and refuse to build bridges to the future on the grounds that such bridges are manifestations of the technological demon that brought about crisis in the first place?  Or will we choose locally-based, adaptable, organic and democratic approaches to changing economic cultures, to prioritize the advancement of technologies needed to avert a total collapse and to make the resources we consume real to us again?

The way we read the signs makes all the difference in how we choose to respond.

“Full speed ahead!”

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