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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Energy Illiteracy: An Obstacle to a Sustainable Future

As mankind continues to try to maintain the status quo, and energy consumption continues unabated, the question of peak oil occurring sooner, rather than later, seems almost assured. In the end, this question of disruption may be the most crucial of them all; for it is not simply change that affects us, but the rate of change—how quickly and easily one way of life is exchanged for another. A swift, chaotic shift in our energy economy almost guarantees disruption, uncertainty, economic loss, even violence. By contrast, were we able to somehow manage a gradual phase-in over time, we might be able to adapt and cope to these changes without a socio-economic upheaval.

Americans, it seems, have an insidious disease that is pandemic across the country—energy illiteracy: most of us have no idea whatsoever how our energy economy works, much less are we able to discern with any degree of certitude, when it is beginning to unravel. Beyond the price of gasoline and maybe heating oil, most consumers understand very little about the energy that they use. It is taken for granted. Few can say how much energy they consume in the course of a day or a year, or where it comes from. In fact, most people feel that most of their electricity comes from hydroelectric dams, when, in actuality, it is produced primarily by coal-fired and nuclear power plants with natural gas increasingly replacing coal.

Whereas residents of poor nations are acutely aware of every aspect of their energy use; every stick of wood, (sometimes carried for miles) and every gallon of cooking fuel is closely watched. Oil, in our affluent culture, has become an invisible commodity, something we vaguely understand as to be important on a national and international level, but something that doesn’t really affect our personal daily lives, except in the price of gasoline. This energy obliviousness helps explain why we have so often misspent our” efficiency dividend;” we make lights more efficient and we install more of them. Gas mileage improves and we build bigger cars. These mindsets help make it clear why, despite great improvements in energy efficiency, demand continues to spiral upwards. No matter how efficient we become, we must somehow alter the historic trend whereby any gains made through energy efficiency are more than wiped out by a corresponding increase in overall energy consumption.

As energy historian Vaclav Smil points out, “whatever the future gains may be, the historical evidence is clear: higher energy efficiency of energy conversions leads eventually to higher, rather than lower, energy use.” This is also known as “Jevon’s Paradox,” so lucidly explained by my colleague in a recent post.

As a possible catalyst for the next energy economy, conservation finds itself in an awkward position; caught between its great potential for saving energy and the obstacles facing it, ranging from consumer ignorance and prejudices, to a market and political system that still assigns greater value to producing energy rather than trying to conserve it. It is awareness of these stark realities that often gets me the label of doomsayer. I just cannot foresee any viable way to overcome these ingrained obstacles and make that all important transition to a renewable energy world without chaos and economic collapse. And even post-collapse, there will be a predominant will and desire to once again try to rebuild the “empire” of old. There is an old saying, “The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The set of possible futures includes a great variety of paths. But the possible futures do not include indefinite growth in energy nor physical output. The only real choice is to decrease energy consumption to sustainable levels by choice, or to let nature force the decision through lack of food, energy, and materials, or through a severely compromised environment. I’m sorry to say, that many of those choices have already been made for us, due to inaction on our part, many, many years ago.


Bubba said...

Look, I am a strong believer in the concept of Peak Oil, but I can tell you that the only way people are going to change their habits about the amount of energy they use is by making it cost more. Period!

As the price goes up, consumption will go down and conservation will go up. Government, if it had the will, could make a small difference, but the only way people will give up their FREEDOM and LIFESTYLE symbols is through economic pressure.

t said...

maybe the future is here?