While the pundits analyze the fossil fuel subsidies and nuclear industry giveaways in the energy bill only just signed by President Bush, they miss the overall. From the standpoint of ecology, the primary strategy behind the bill is a simple one: Increase the rate of drawdown in order to shore up a world economic and social system that is suffering gravely from the effects of a global environmental meltdown.
Drawdown, you may recall, is one of two strategies that animals use to obtain food and other resources they need. Drawdown is a strategy of drawing down finite resources in a way that temporarily increases the carrying capacity of a given area. (The other strategy is takover, as in taking over land, forest and other renewable resources for one’s own use.)
In his brilliant 1980 book, Overshoot William Catton describes The Great Depression as an ecological crisis. Occupational niches were wiped out willy nilly within a couple of years as a worldwide economic system devolved into a more national and local one with all the attendant disruptions. The solution: In Hitler’s Germany it was to create vast new occupational niches in the armaments industry and put others to work by increasing the size of the military. All of this was accomplished, of course, by increasing the drawdown of finite fossil fuels, especially coal and oil.
In World War II, the United States followed suit, creating a vast new military-industrial complex that remains with us today as an indispensible source of employment. That complex is all based, of course, on drawdown. As is the case with any drawdown situation, the faster you draw down resources, the richer and better you feel. Everything goes along swimmingly until the rate at which you can draw down the crucial resources starts to decline–oil comes to mind.
America’s new energy policy isn’t so much about the future as it is about the past. Drawing down precious finite resources of coal, oil and natural gas worked in the past to “solve” our problems, so we are going to try doing even more of it now. Of course, the irony of this is that all the money spent on better technology to draw down finite resources at faster rates only brings the inevitable crisis that much closer while making it that much worse when it does arrive.
Those who think that technology will save us fail to recognize that technology is what got us here. Technology is what has enabled us to draw down finite energy and other resources at faster and faster rates with all sorts of deleterious environmental side effects–global warming comes to mind.
Perhaps the answer to our energy woes is something Congress can’t even contemplate. Perhaps the answer is less technology. After all, technology is what consumes such great amounts of energy while promising to provide the means to get more of it faster. Thus, technology creates an ever accelerating circle of activity from which there is no escape.
Is it possible so slow that circle down or even step outside of it? Would we be better off if we did?
Don’t expect anyone in Congress* to discuss such an approach or to campaign on it in the coming election. Preaching restraint is a certain loser and every politician knows it. That may seem odd since self-restraint used to be a virtue. Now it is considered an economic impediment. Unfortunately, restraint is also the only path to long-term sustainability.
How much longer will we be able to afford to ignore the warning signals of resource exhaustion and environmental pollution before the day of reckoning arrives? No one really knows. But one thing is certain. The president’s rapid energy depletion bill is certain to move that day ever closer.
*There is one brave exception. One must give Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland a great deal of credit for trying to bring the issue of peak oil to the attention of his colleagues. So far he’s not making much progress.