Friday, April 22, 2011

On Earth Day, Dreaming About The Future

Photo from the Galileo spacecraft, 1990.
I grew up with dreams of a dazzling future.  As children of the 20th century, I'm sure most of us did.  The future of my imagination had computers you could talk to, fabulous portable electronics, video phones, virtual reality, and people living in space.  Indeed, some of those dreams have become a reality.  In our time we have seen some remarkable technological advances -- the explosion of the internet, the dizzying leaps in computing power, the ubiquity of powerful personal electronics, and breathtaking discoveries in medicine, astronomy, and cosmology, for instance.  In spite of recent economic stagnation, there is the persistent sense that our best days are yet to come.  The future of our dreams holds untold technological wonders.

This future, of course, is predicated on the consumption of power.  Lots of power.  The technologically sophisticated lifestyles we have come to enjoy will require an unending supply of energy, on an enormous scale.  In 2005, the United States alone consumed about 100 quadrillion BTUs, roughly the energy contained in 800 billion gallons of gasoline or 3.6 billion tonnes of coal.  Annual world consumption is on the order of 450 quadrillion BTUs, and with the world population climbing ever upward, it's easy to see that the demand for energy will continue to swell.

But there's a problem.  Our power consumption is responsible for an obscene level of carbon emissions which threaten to alter the climate of the Earth, causing violent storms, coastal flooding, the destruction of ecosystems, the acidification of the oceans, and the widespread extinction of many species, which may have a profound impact on the food chain.  Fueled mainly by coal, oil and natural gas, this level of consumption is unsustainable at best, and extraordinarily reckless at worst. 

On Earth Day, much is made about the need for conservation.  Not only should we recycle and do what we can to minimize pollution, but we should also cut down on our energy consumption.  That's a great idea, and in 2011, that's what you must do if you're serious about saving the planet.  At a time when there is heartbreakingly little political will to make big changes in our energy economy, the only way to reduce our environmental impact is individual responsibility.  Earth Day is an important part of spreading that message, making sure people know what they can do to make a difference, but it may do little toward convincing the millions of Americans who are decidedly hostile toward environmentalism.  And so, even if every environmentalist in America were to minimize their carbon footprint, half of the population might persist in unchecked consumption. 

What is troubling about the energy conservation message, and what is understandably so unattractive to those on the right, is the austerity. 
We are told to turn off our lights when we leave a room.  We should unplug everything when not in use.  But for myself, I don't want to turn off the lights!  I would prefer to have every light on when I'm at home in the evening.  But if I'm going to be serious about the environment, I have to knock it off.  Adding to the frustration is the sense -- familiar to any voter -- that the actions of one single person cannot have much of an impact.  If I'm extremely responsible about my energy consumption, it still doesn't feel like I'm changing anything... the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to tick upward.  And of course the opposite is also true: If I'm terribly irresponsible when it comes to the environment, it doesn't really feel like I'm doing much damage.  After all, I'm just one person, and the world is very large.  But the reality is, you're either a small part of the problem, or a small part of the solution.

But austerity is not how I imagined the future.  None of us dreamed of a future in which we have all learned to be extraordinarily frugal with our energy resources.  We have dreamed of flying cars, faster airplanes, bigger televisions... but that future will require lots of energy.  We might imagine a world where recycling is as routine as brushing your teeth, where saving energy is as natural to us as closing the window on a cold day.  But the inhabitants of the future will not be super-beings, miraculously trained in the ways of environmentalism at some unknown time between now and then.  No, they will be us, and they will be our equally fallible progeny.  We would be foolish to count on a sea change in personal responsibility.

That's why I believe the government has to intervene in some way.  We just can't hope to get all the way there with personal responsibility, and austerity is just not a long-term solution.  But with an energy economy based on clean, renewable sources, we would not have to worry nearly so much about our carbon emissions.  We could consume energy more-or-less unselfconsciously, and I suspect that's an idea America could get behind.

Undoubtedly, the biggest investment would be the energy production itself.  We should not waste much time with technology that seeks to convert corn into fuel; the process simply consumes too much energy to start with.  The yield is too low, and the carbon emissions of production ultimately make the technology insufficient for our needs.  On the other hand, we have a collection of simple, elegant solutions available to us: harness the power of the wind, the power of the Sun, the power of the waves.  None of these on their own are a perfect solution, but together they represent the best answer to solving our energy crisis.  There is an infinite amount of power available from these sources... we are only limited by the number of generators we can build.  There is no need to mine, drill, or grow; we can simply harvest the abundant energy of nature.  Some of the technology is not yet cost competitive, but it could be, given a leg up.

There's a funny thing about technology: as it ages, it becomes much cheaper, but it is obviously no less sophisticated.  A typical VCR in 1986 might have set you back about $300; adjusting for inflation, that's almost $600 in 2010.  But a VCR/DVD combo, purchased in 2010, might cost you as little as $60.  It's not that VCRs are 10 times easier to produce now than they were 25 years ago.  Instead, market forces have dictated the price.  The point is, there is nothing inherently expensive about most of our clean energy alternatives.  Rather, they are simply not quite as cheap as they could be, because they are still comparatively rare.  The one exception to this is solar power... most photovoltaic cells are made from rare Earth materials, so they cannot be made much cheaper.  But we can feel sure that in time, given enough support and demand, wonderfully imaginative ways will be found to create these materials synthetically, or something far less expensive will be found to work almost as well.

Of course, it would be difficult for entrepreneurs to start clean energy companies on their own.  But since it is in the best interest of the nation, the government would be well advised to invest.  We can imagine an arrangement whereby the government fronts much of the initial cost to install a network of clean energy production sites, and then the coal, oil and natural gas companies could buy the government out over time... not unlike the very successful rehabilitation of American car companies in 2009.  In this way, these corporations would not be put out of business by the government.  Rather than stifling growth and passing unfunded mandates, the government would be able to steer the energy economy in a direction that benefits all parties, and allow the private sector to take over gradually.  A partnership between government and business, benefiting the public at large, is essentially what both parties want anyway.  The companies could remain the nation's chief energy suppliers, and the historical opposition to their product would fade away.  And it would make good sense for these companies to take the deal... as time goes on, fossil fuels will be more difficult to access, and as the effects of climate change become more apparent, public opinion could force them out of business altogether.  Other nations are now moving to get in on the clean energy revolution, so the United States would be wise to get ahead of the market while it can.  The time is now to start moving on building a clean energy economy.  The plan I've outlined may be flawed in some way, as the situation is far more complex than can be summed up in a few paragraphs.  But the point here is not to advance a particular idea, so much as to emphasize the need for novel approaches to the problem.  We need a lot more people thinking boldly.  We need imaginative solutions.

Reducing energy consumption in the short-term remains critical.  The transition to a clean energy economy won't happen over night, so we will still rely on fossil fuels to bridge the gap.  But beyond personal responsibility, higher efficiency standards can play a big role here.  The solution would seem to require little in the way of government spending.  We need only be brave enough to tell the corporations that their products will have to be a little more efficient if they want to sell them in the United States.  Efficient windows, light-bulbs, appliances, automobiles... these changes need not put too much strain on the market.  If every company has to play by the same rules, there should be no major fluctuation in the market dynamics.  Besides, the American demand is not going away.  So long as there are Americans, there will be companies itching to sell to them.  And if efficient products are the only ones available, that's all that will be used.  I can no longer choose to purchase leaded gasoline.  It was taken off the market, and we are all better for it.  Any tremors in the market caused by higher efficiency standards should dissipate quickly, and they would be a small price to pay for securing the energy future.  Instead of fearing the economic consequences of doing the right thing, we should focus on finding ways to make sure doing the right thing is economically productive.

President Obama has proposed that 80% of our energy come from clean energy sources by 2050.  That's a step in the right direction, but if history is any guide, this goal will be adjusted, watered down, or downright abandoned in the coming years.  It will take sustained effort to see all of the necessary changes through to completion.  There are powerful interests that would like to maintain the status quo.  But these powerful interests are more concerned with short-term profits than long-term viability, and it is the job of the government to temper the needs of business with the needs of the people.  In a time of economic downturn, there will be those who say we cannot afford to make big investments.  But some people will never be on the side of government solutions.  And I, for one, have a hard time imagining a better investment.

Earth Day is about spreading awareness, and that is crucial in 2011.  There can be no serious plan put into place until there is the political will to do so, and we know that the political will follows sluggishly behind mainstream opinion.  We will have to evangelize for science.  We will have to educate people on the real dangers of climate change.  In the 21st century, we are used to having pills to take for any ailment.  We are vigilant when it comes to our own health.  But there are no magic pills to maintain the health of the Earth, and we have ignored the symptoms for too long.  We've got to save the planet if we're to see the future of our dreams.


  1. I think your opening paragraph sets out the problem. What we imagine the future to be is rarely what it turns out to be.

  2. Life is past, present and future in a same instant, the moment you're living is the future that somene`s dream, and maybe will be the past of someone who`s around you.

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