Thursday, May 03, 2007

The crisis of too much energy

A number of people have emailed me pointing out the recently announced collaboration between the University of California and BP in a big-money deal to research biofuels and thus address sustainability, tackle the energy crisis, etc. I guess this is the biggest collaboration between the corporate sector and academia in history or something, and I feel kind of obligated to say something about it, although I’m getting too tired to keep digging into these things and besides I’m beginning to feel like a broken record when it comes to criticizing the corporate-military-academic complex. But I can try to be concise, so here goes…

All you need to understand is that the real energy crisis is that we have too much energy. The way politicians, the media, corporations, economists, etc. make it sound you’d think we don’t have enough now, and that we’re really anxious about the future when our energy needs will be even greater because of population growth and economic expansion and stuff like that. But this is a just a good test for my rule of thumb about reality: whatever they’re saying on the TV news – on Fox, on CNN, etc. – is probably just about the opposite of reality. I mean if you watch the news and play a game of “opposite day,” like we did in third grade, then you will have a better idea of reality more than fifty percent of the time.

So if we play opposite day, then we’re supposed to get all excited that BP and UC are going to spend a lot of money (mostly public subsidies) on high-tech research and development to discover and invent technologies to solve the environmental and economic problems created by our use of high-technologies to-date. Since this is the biggest, most expensive collaboration of its type so far, then surely it will be able to (finally) discover and apply technology to solve the problems created by technology. Talk about fighting fire with fire!

What this is meant to do is allow us to continue conducting business-as-usual. The fundamental tenets of the faith of modern economics aren’t being questioned. This UC-BP collaboration is just the latest and most ostentatious (so far) denial and refusal to address the only two rational questions that can be put regarding the so-called energy crisis.

These two questions are:

(1) “What are we doing with all the energy we have now?”


(2) “Do we really need to do those things?”

To address the first question, in only a cursory way (since it’s totally unnecessary to make a research project out of this), I’ll offer a few examples. For one, a ton of energy goes into the military. The military is fighting in Iraq and elsewhere to get more energy (e.g. oil). So if we just stopped fighting so much then we wouldn’t need so much energy, and fewer people would be hurt and killed and there would be less incentive for terrorism. So that solves a bunch of problems at once. But the military contractors, engineering outfits and weapons corporations don’t like this easy solution.

Also, a huge amount of our energy goes for pumping water. A lot of water is pumped all around to service industrial agriculture. In addition to the pumping, industrial agriculture uses scads of energy for fertilizers, pesticides, farm machinery and food processing and transport, and is in general an all-around nightmare (I’m not going to explain why here, you can read about it on your own). So if we reformed our agriculture system and embraced small-scale, self-reliant permaculture and organic agriculture systems then that would use way less energy. But the big agribusiness corporations don’t like this easy solution either.

Where else do we use a lot of energy? Well, we drive a lot. People in cities like Atlanta commute, on average, over an hour to work, one way. That’s a lot of driving time, lot of gas burned. Some very silly people, like me, use a lot of energy flying all around the world in airplanes to learn about and work for ecological sustainability. (I plead no contest. So it goes.)

And we use a lot of electricity. TVs for instance. In the average American home, the TV is on almost eight hours per day. And it’s a double wammy since what’s mostly on TV is advertisement that cajoles people to go out (in their car) and go to the mall and shop, shop, shop. So there’s loads more energy there, in people going out to buy tons of crap they don’t need, because commercials have made them feel inferior.

OK so you get the point. A lot of what happens with the energy we have now is destructive, wasteful, and/or unnecessary. None of the stuff I have listed (and I could go on for hours and hours listing stuff like this) makes our lives any better. In fact, all this stuff makes our lives worse. Three hour’s round-trip commuting in Atlanta traffic sucks ass. I don’t care if you do it in air-conditioned style in your new plush Lexus SUV. It blows.

The medium of television could make our lives better but it doesn’t. Most of what’s on there is garbage. The rest is advertisement – advertisement for garbage. Sometimes people ask me, “Josh, what’s the one thing I can do to really make a difference in my life and the world?” I don’t know why people think I’m a good person to ask but this is what happens. First I give them a hard time for wanting the easy way out, for looking for the one thing, the conscience-cleansing “silver bullet” they can do for a better world. Once I’ve dressed them down for being lame I tell them that probably the best thing they can do is to stop watching TV. I tell them, “It’s mind poison. Literally. Stop poisoning yourself.”

If I could do one massive experiment on the whole US I would take away TV for a month, or maybe for six months. Once a chunk of the population got through the mind-poison withdrawal I bet great things would start to happen. People would shop less, exercise more, talk to their neighbors, maybe even, dare I say, read a book or plant a garden. The social and political landscape of the US would look mighty different you can bet.

Anyway, that’s a digression. Let me bring it on home for you:

The status quo assumes we need lots of energy for good quality of life. On the contrary, we have too much energy now and our use of it has damaged our quality of life and the environment as well, which is inextricably linked with our quality of life. Right now our use of energy is very often damaging, inefficient, wasteful and unnecessary – accessing new energy sources will certainly exacerbate this problem, not ameliorate it.

As an example in support of my argument I offer myself – I spent the winter living fantastically abundantly with a very small Ecological Footprint in a locally self-reliant organic farming community in northern Thailand. I can attest that the quality of life is very high, despite the relatively low (material and energetic) standard of living. So there you go.

But you can also see why the proponents of the big-money, high-tech R&D deals like the UC-BP collaboration will never get this. Because it’s hard-wired into their paradigm that quality of life and standard of living are positively correlated, even that they’re synonymous. That’s how they can be so tremendously irrational in assuming that continually pursuing more and better technology will solve the problems created by technological expansion. You try to tell them that quality of life and standard of living, at this point in history, for many people in the developing world and almost everyone in the West, are inversely related and see how far you get. It’s like trying to tell conventional economists that economic growth is making us worse off instead of better off. They just won’t get it, just can’t get it. It means calling into serious question fundamental axioms of the whole modern paradigm and they’re just not going to do that. If they did they’d be out of a job and replaced with people who’d more assiduously keep the dogma.

So remember, the real energy crisis is that we have too much energy. Over the past century, modern civilization has behaved like a ten-year-old with a fire hose when it comes to our energy use. We need to ask ourselves what really makes for quality of life, and go for that. Our rampant pursuit and use of energy for transport and to power all sorts of new techno-gizmos, not to mention the out-and-out destruction caused by militarism, economic globalization and industrial agriculture, is killing us and the ecosystems we depend on. The win-win solution of embracing high-quality, low energy and small Footprint lifestyles is there, it just requires a bit of swimming upstream in the current cultural milieu. You can start by turning off the TV.


Tim said...

Josh, it's good to have you back. Don't go too far into the black.

The photos were stunning. I'm re-inspired to get to the Himalayas again, ASAP.

The Energy post - Nail. Hit. Head. Thanks.

If you're still looking for places to post your writing - may I recommend, and, if you're feeling ambitious, Orion Magazine. You write really well, about important stuff - hell, go for Harpers, or The Nation, or The Atlantic Monthly.

A couple blogs I've been enjoying lately are No Impact Man and Little Blog in the Big Woods. Google 'em.

I'll be in the Rocky Mountains in July. If you can get there, it would be great to see you.

Flick said...

This is brilliant! It has occurred to me in fits and starts over the years that we are dangerous enough with the energy that we have and as a culture and perhaps as a species are lacking the wisdom to be trusted with more, but you have fleshed it out so clearly. I would love to plaster your article on quasi-public urban surfaces and hand it out on the escalator of the Metro in D.C. Inspiring such feelings is surely a sign of excellent thinking/writing. Also thanks for keeping bits of Vonnegut alive and circulating. Like Jesus and Elvis he is everywhere!