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Lack of systems thinking

While it's understandable to focus on a single problem, what succeeds in providing domestic energy may, for example, worsen global warming. Thus, we find triumphant articles that celebrate energy independence, as if extracting more domestic fossil fuel were an overall solution rather than, as it is, a continuation of a problem of a different kind.

An example is an article in the New York Times, which reports, according to the headline, that the U.S. "inches toward goal of energy independence," or in the much stronger words of the article itself, "increasing production and declining consumption have unexpectedly brought [the U.S.] markedly closer" to that elusive goal.

Reported in part from the Permian Basin in Texas, the home of George Bush the younger before he became president, the article claims that "in 2011, the country imported just 45% of the liquid fuels it used, down from a record high of 60% in 2005."

What the article doesn't focus upon, at least until a brief allusion near the end, is the greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere whether the fossil fuel comes from the U.S. or from abroad. A critic of fracking is quoted there as not only defending the "dunes sagebrush lizard," but also complaining, as even the second President Bush did, about our "energy addiction." (Why is this a problem?)

In the nicest possible way, the article notes that U.S. foreign policy could shift if the country no longer had to assure foreign supplies of fossil fuel, presumably by a combination of military power and a hefty cash flow abroad for purchases. However, for that to be the case, imports would have to come way down from the present 45%.

Honoring the New York Times tradition of balance, the article does mention environmental costs of fracking for gas and oil, including a degradation of air quality, threats to habitats, and liquid pollution. (No mention of a triggering of earthquakes, in spite of an Ohio finding.) However, liquid pollution is mentioned in this strange context: fracking "has also been blamed for wastewater problems," as if the exudates of "highly pressurized water, sand, and chemical lubricants" could come from anything else.

The New York Times article focuses on energy independence, not global warming, of which there is only a ritual mention. However, it's less than helpful to discuss energy independence, as if it's detached from a major result of dependence on fossil fuels. It's less than helpful to celebrate the new Permian Basin boom, dependent on higher prices for oil, as if the rising cost of oil is detached from the current recession.

In short, this article, in one of our finest mainstream news sources, is a little like reporting on the technical triumph of making ethanol from corn without considering the effect on food prices or the net energy used in that process as compared to the energy in the ethanol or the much greater efficiency in making ethanol from sugar, as Brazil does.

The New York Times (and the many editors who read it) could do a real service by venturing beyond the paradigm of endless economic growth and by thinking systematically rather than praising a single trend that could serve to distract us from the biggest problem of our age. Our best hope is systems thinking.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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