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Energy: Recognizing how much isn’t there

There’s no shortage of political blather in this year’s mid-term election campaigns, but most of us yearn for substantive discussion of the serious problems we face. What should the politicians be discussing? The University of Texas at Austin asked faculty members who teach about politics “to analyze, examine and provide their perspectives” on key political issues for the university’s web site, with new essays posted each weekday throughout the campaign season.
http://www.utexas.edu/know/2010/10/04/mid_term_elections/

[On my website] are my contributions, three short essays that raise critical questions about economics, empire, and energy that are routinely ignored by most politicians.
- Robert Jensen

Will America’s energy crisis be solved by more aggressive pursuit of fossil fuels or by more vigorous development of renewables?

In this campaign season, there are politicians on all sides. Chants of “drill, baby, drill” ring out, while others sing the praises of wind and solar, and some argue we must try everything.

Unfortunately, politicians don’t seem willing to face a more difficult reality: There is no solution, if by “solution” we mean producing enough energy to maintain our current levels of consumption indefinitely.

To deal with the energy crisis we must deal with a consumption crisis, but politicians are reluctant to run a campaign based on a call for “less” -- the American Dream, after all, is always “more.” But, whether the public and politicians like it or not, our future is about learning to live with less, starting with a lot less energy.

In the United States, we have been living with the abundance produced by an industrial economy, all made possible by the concentrated energy of fossil fuels. We tell ourselves this is the product of our hard work, but our life of plenty was made possible by the incredible energy stored in coal, oil, and natural gas. How long can that continue?

It’s true that there’s a lot of coal in the ground, but burning all that coal means an acceleration of global warming and climate disruption. Easily accessible reserves of oil and gas are quickly being exhausted, and while geologists can’t tell us for sure when the wells will run dry, we should be thinking in decades, not centuries.

High-tech schemes for extracting oil from tar sands or “fracking” -- hydraulic fracturing, a process of injecting water and chemicals deep underground to force out pockets of gas -- are so ecologically destructive that they should be abandoned immediately. The same for most deep-water drilling; the Gulf disaster of the past year is a reminder that no matter how sophisticated the technology, we cannot control these processes. Nuclear energy presents the same trade-offs, magnified by our inability to dispose of the deadly waste safely.

There are more reasons to be positive about renewable energy sources, and intensifying research funding for wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy is the sensible move. But the reality to face there also is one of limits: None of those technologies, alone or in combination, will ever replace the energy stored in fossil fuels. The belief that because we want that energy we will create ways to produce it is the most naïve technological fundamentalism.

The most important step in dealing with our energy crisis is to realize just how much isn’t there. Either approach -- believing that we can drill our way or invent our way out of the predicament -- is magical thinking. Instead of fantasies of endless abundance, we have to recognize that a radical shift in the way our lives are arranged is necessary for survival. The most obvious of these arrangements we need to change is our car-based culture, but it doesn’t stop there. If there is to be a livable future, we need to commit in the present to major changes in our entire infrastructure.

The solution to the energy crisis can be stated simply: We must move around less and consume less. That means the solution is not only about where we get our energy, but how we define ourselves.

Editorial Notes: Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a regular contributor to Energy Bulletin. All three of Robert's posts on what politicians should be talking about are available at his website: http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/wishlist.htm -BA

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