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Do We Need More Energy? Illuminating the Energy Paradox

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24 November 2011

This year’s events in Japan are again causing people to question the safety and sanity of nuclear energy, and to look at the economic and regulatory forces that justify its existence. One quickly growing viewpoint is the simple but common sense conclusion that nuclear energy is inherently dangerous, toxic, the waste can't be properly disposed, and is clearly an insane response to the world’s energy needs. Others argue that nuclear is cleaner than fossil fuels and point out that other alternatives tend to be successfully lobbied against by the Fossil Fools of BigEnergy.

The clean argument, though, depends on how much of the entire system one is willing to consider. Uranium mining is anything but clean, and uranium is also a non-renewable resource that follows the same type of depletion curve as fossil fuels. When you look at the thousands of tons of concrete necessary for both the reactor foundation and the containment dome you have to consider that producing a ton of concrete produces a ton of CO2. Then there's the disposal problem--both of the spent fuel and the cooling water--and scattering depleted uranium across the desert in Iraq is hardly an elegant disposal solution. There's really nothing clean in the entire nuclear energy process. The best that can be said about nuclear is that it is “less bad” on a few limited criteria that are themselves constrained by questionable assumptions and ignored variables.

There are other misconceptions and assumptions that must be examined in any energy and economics discussion, especially for anyone wanting to pay more than lip service to sustainability.

Let's quickly look at some of the common arguments that get used to justify the axiomatic assumption that energy production must increase to keep civilization (the Western version, anyway) on the path to progress and prosperity. I’ll throw in some quick rebuttals that should provide food for thought and to start raising awareness that there is an alternative to the “growth is necessary and always good” assumption before going into a few contexts in more depth.

The argument I hear too often from “green” advocates is that nuclear energy is necessary to take over current energy needs to meet CO2 reduction goals. A closely related rationalization is that growth can be green, which is almost always coupled with one or more techno-fix "solutions." These are offshoots of the “growth is necessary for economic recovery”, and “growth is necessary to clean up pollution and fund ecosystem restoration” arguments. These all ignore the fact that sustainable growth is an oxymoron of the highest degree, especially on a planet that is as far into the overshoot range as planet Earth is today. These arguments also assume--without ever being honest enough to come right out and say so--that profit and power are more important than people and planet.

It is also common to hear that we have to live simple and consume less, with simple often being some idealized romantic notion of pre-industrial life. Yes, the overdeveloped North, especially the United States, must start consuming much less if life on the planet is to be sustained. But this overall argument is a matter of perspective. Simple can be seen as disconnected, unattached and unhealthy after realizing that an interconnected and interdependent web of healthy relationships has a richer and more fulfilling complexity and potentials than mindless consumption and a dumbed-down politics of scapegoating and nationalism. Simple and austere are not synonymous.

Outright suppression of clean energy technologies by The Powers That Be is always a possibility, of course. But even with totally green and universally free energy, at today's rates of energy consumption, we will still consume ourselves into extinction at the current population levels with currently deployed production processes. This is why sustainability is a more fundamental goal to strive toward than peace, as we could quite peacefully consume our life support system. However, a sustainable world will be a peaceful world.

Another common assumption is that people won’t sacrifice and are unwilling to cooperate. First, let’s be honest about what we’d actually be sacrificing. Stress, depression, the rat race, long commutes, an increasingly toxic body burden, unsustainable debt, and an overall lack of time to develop family, personal and community relationships. People are unwilling to cooperate, not because it’s part of our natural tendencies, but because it’s part of the cultural story of individualism and the outmoded myth that people are inherently selfish and constantly scheme to take advantage and exploit. Once we embody these falsehoods, they do create our reality. The fact is, we have fulfilling, life-sustaining alternatives. Plus, the overall tendency of life in general is to cooperate in the development of mutually supportive relationships. It is only our human stories that keep us from maximizing and benefitting from this natural reality.

The more rationally we can power-down the better off we'll all be. Powering down does mean an end to empire and replacing a financial system dependent on debt that makes growth necessary for little more than repaying the debt. Powering down does not, however, require donning hair-shirts and returning to the cave. It’s instructive to remember that people don't demand more when basic needs have been met. Lifestyles that require consumerism require an extensive, power hungry, constantly operating propaganda machine to maintain the core system of elite control and financial hierarchies.

Considering the mess the Industrial Growth Society has created, many are starting to question whether any type of industrial process could ever be considered green, let alone sustainable. I think there is some industrial activity that could be considered clean and green, with a couple of caveats. The first is the necessity to admit the carrying capacity aspect of sustainability. This is the balance point among population, consumption, and waste assimilation.

Questions that must guide community conversations include “What standard of living do we want that can provide a quality of life that can contribute to progress and prosperity in a manner that doesn't degrade the planet's resources or decrease possibilities for future generations, and what is the maximum population size for which this could be accomplished?” Answering these questions means we must truly define sustainability in an ecologically strong and legally defensible manner.

The other caveat is that when it comes to non-renewable resources, it must be understood that any use will lead to their decrease, and continued use will lead to depletion--at least on a time scale that has any relevance to human civilization, let alone to the corporate bottom line. After all, there will be no economy, let alone justice, democracy or peace on a dead planet.

There is actually quite a bit we know today about non-toxic zero-waste manufacturing technologies. The primary reason they aren't used is because they detract from profitability or would put product prices out of market feasibility. The same is true for carbon neutral buildings. So, the question is “How much are you willing to pay for plastic trinkets or a living space that won't cause an early death from cancer or harm future generations from genetic mutations?” A much better approach--from my perspective anyway--would be honestly assessing the manner in which excess accumulation of material goods and financial wealth are being offered as addictive substitutes for natural expectations of fulfillment.

Regarding predictions of increased energy consumption, it is vital to first look at the manner and purposes for which energy is used today. For instance, we lose up to 50% of the energy produced in the long distance transmission of a centralized energy grid. Energy is shipped across regions and continents not to save a penny, but to make a penny. Over 90% of consumer goods in the Global North are either in a landfill or gathering dust in a closet within six months of their purchase. Planned obsolescence serves no other purpose than attempting to maintain infinite economic growth on a finite planet. The already wealthy get even wealthier; the rest of us get poorer as we work longer hours producing stuff to throw away that makes us and our children ill while it is being used. Meanwhile, our planet--the life support system on which we all depend--is being denuded and degraded for greedily selfish purposes.

The broad range of consumer products is no longer made to be repaired or even easily recycled, let alone efficient in its operation (including most of the production process itself). We constantly produce more because it makes someone else a lot of money. A related factoid is that only 4% of the American population will ever rise from the lower middle class to the upper middle class. This is the lowest percentage in any industrial nation, and exposes the myth that with a little hard work you too can become a wealthy elite.

We could easily halve our energy requirements just with the above. And we can't forget the overall energy requirements to keep a culture running on fear--but that's quite another conversation.

We could also greatly reduce our energy and consumption requirements with a few simple things like learning how to share. For example, why does everyone in a neighborhood need their own lawn mower that only gets used about once every two weeks? What unmet needs are being expressed here for little more than psychological/emotional status symbols? I mean, c'mon, let's start being honest with ourselves. A neighborhood association could have and maintain one or two high quality mowers that everyone could use.

Then again, why do we even have lawns instead of edible landscapes? More questions for serious community conversations.

There's the whole suburban sprawl and transportation issue. All that sprawling growth serves special interests and degrades our humanity and the environment. We have collectively bought the story that economic growth is necessary for progress and prosperity. We think a financial motivation is necessary for innovation, and have forgotten that humans are naturally inquisitive, innovative, and intelligent. So, let's press that intelligence into service, reverse direction as we can no longer deny we're headed the wrong way, and shift our focus to becoming better instead of bigger. After all, when you find yourself at the edge of a cliff, taking a step back is a sign of progress.

A more than fair question at this point would be how do we go about putting this information to use in the creation of systemic change that has equity, justice, and peace as a foundation?

The short answer is relocalization--a practical, affordable process to create a sustainable future. By taking an honest look at the Triumvirate of Collapse--peak oil, global warming, and corporatism--we can see where the common diseased root is and change that instead of continuing to slap band-aids on the wounds of empire. In part we do this by removing the legitimacy we provide for the status quo. We also do this in part by putting alternative systems in place such as steady-state economics and using an Earth jurisprudence as a pillar for our governance. There's a process in applied ecopsychology that heads us on the path to remembering how to think and act the way that nature works by reconnecting all 53 or so of the senses we share with the natural world to their roots in nature. We can put ecocity and permaculture design principles into city charters and comprehensive plan updates if we start by adopting a legally defensible and ecologically sound definition of sustainability. This will give planning commissions the ability to properly evaluate the long-term soundness and viability of development proposals that support human and environmental health.

The fact of the matter is that we can start moving toward sustainability and remain a technologically advanced society with probably 90% less energy than we use today without sacrificing much more than corporate CEO salaries and our bloated military budgets. We'd have to give up our myth of specialness, and return to being denizens of a sensuous living planet who focus on those aspects and values that support and further life such as cooperation, compassion, nurturance, and creativity.

Anybody have a major problem with any of that?


Dave Ewoldt is writer, co-founder of Natural Systems Solutions and member of a national speakers bureau on global warming.


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