It really is about the energy
January 6, 2009, 2:11 pm
Filed under: Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

Via Denise, an interesting post by Alex Steffen at WorldChanging the comments to which lead through to some thoughts by Tim O’Reilly on an old piece of Wendell Berry’s. Alex’s point:

What if, contrary to conventional wisdom, climate change is not actually primarily an energy problem, and by thinking of it as an energy problem, we risk making huge mistakes in the coming years?

When we look to address the central challenge presented by climate change — creating widespread prosperity while lowering, and then eliminating, emissions — changing energy sources might play a much less important role than we’ve been trained to think. The kind of energy we use, in other words, while important, may not be anywhere near as important as three other considerations: whether we use the energy we create at all; how we use it; and how we live.

He goes on to talk about those three considerations: efficiency of energy transmission and generation (energy lost in grids, baseload energy shed for lack of a market), efficiency in use, and the effects of lifestyle on overall usage patterns. But though there are some good points here, I don’t come away convinced. For a start, though I think smart grids and so on are great,  I’m not sure that efficiency is necessarily what you want to maximise in such a system, especially if there is any sort of trade off with resilience. Smart grids strike me as being a bit like just-in-time manufacturing, on which David Brin and James Fallows had some wise words recently. Great system if there aren’t external shocks and you’re sure there never will be; but when Toyota itself is getting less JITty, you know that its not a system to emulate exactly in an absolutely vital modality like energy transmission (and that is before you  factor in the possibility that some smart grids might in fact be  smartest-guys-in-the-room grids).

Energy-use efficiency and low energy lifestyles are good things in various ways. Maybe with huge efforts Americans could develop Japanese lifestyles, with denser populations, efficient cars, low energy housing and so on; then they might end up using a little more than half the electricity and oil that they use today, as the Japanese do. Seems unlikely, but maybe it could happen. Unfortunately that is not enough to get global emissions down far enough. More fundamentally, the challenge isn’t just, or even mainly, to make Americans emit less. It is to allow people in developing nations to live as if they emitted more, but without the emissions. There’s no need for everyone or indeed anyone to aspire to as energy rich a lifestyle as present day Americans enjoy, but it’s only right that the poorer billions be able to aspire to something better, energy wise, than they have at present: light, refrigeration, personal transportation, heating where necessary, computing power, the products of industrial processes (and industrial fertilisers, too, but let’s not go there right now). And it would be catastrophic for them to get that energy from fossil fuels. That is why this remains an energy question — because the unmet energy needs of the majority of humanity have to be serviced without ever greater recourse to fossil fuels.

There’s also, to me, a secondary moral/political reason for concentrating on energy. Alex’s post is stuffed full with the first person plural — what we want, what we should do, and so on. That use of “we” assumes a set of values. The same is true of the Berry piece and the way Tim writes about it. But no-one defines the “we”, and its significance floats. Sometimes it’s we = me-and-you-the-reader, sometimes it’s we-the-right-thinking, sometimes it’s we-americans, sometimes its we-humanity. Sometimes it’s a we-of-reporting — a real group. Sometimes it’s a we-of-exhortation — an imagined community invoked for rhetorical purposes.

Such writing feels slippery. It’s almost as though it is trying to lead the readers away from a key point —  there is no “we” with united standards and agenda that can act independently and decisively. Allied to this, in a way I should analyse more closely at some point, is the sense that “we” take “ourselves” to be not merely right, but also good. Doing as “we” say is not simply practical. It is also moral.

The moral discourse in environmental discussion always  worries me. Given its preoccupation with the natural, environmental thought of a moral character runs head on into the issues of the naturalistic fallacy, basing what ought to be on what “is” without looking in sufficient depth at the rather contingent character of our concept of what is natural. Making the green movement a matter of a particular type morality also means that some people feel and to some extent are excluded. Indeed I am one of them (I have a moral agenda here, but its not the same one: it’s pretty clearly expressed three paras up). An implicitly exclusionist approach strikes me as bad politics, on top of everything else. Saying that you need to embrace a whole worldview to be one of us, and that just making common cause on some policies is not enough, makes it hard to form alliances. It becomes a matter of “us” and “them”, with both seeing the other as an outgroup in opposition. That, in turn engenders the suspicion that arguments about what to do are in fact arguments about who to be — much harder to resolve.

Sorting out how other people think and feel, what they aspire to, and such like are necessarily complex, personal and piecemeal processes. Changes in worldview happen, and sometimes happen at surprising speed. Maybe they can be nudged, for what it’s worth. But to a liberal of my stamp it is unacceptable that they should be imposed, and I am very leary of making such changes policy objectives. I am happy to see laws restrict what my fellow citizens can do within certain bounds; there are behaviours that damage us all. I am far less keen on strategies that aim at changing their values, especially when I suspect that the value-change is what people are really looking for, more than the improved environmental outcomes.

Changes in energy policy are, by comparison, much more easily and more acceptably imposed top down. We — humanity as a collective — have to sort out energy; we can sort out energy without massive shifts in worldview which may not be achieved soon, or at all: that’s why energy is a primary focus.


2 Comments so far
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the focus would likely be ‘nudged’ a little faster and a little farther if the underlying issue that surrounds the climate/energy nexus was given appropriate attention….water.

Comment by michael ferrari

[…] Andrew Revkin has an interesting post on dot.earth. It’s common to talk (as I sort-of did back here) as if cheap energy solves, if not everything, all the big stuff. But might it just bring more […]

Pingback by Is it just about the energy? « Heliophage

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