The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism
University of Nebraska Press
Ozzie Zehner is a Visiting Scholar at Berkley’s Science, Technology and Society Center at the University of California
Massive multinational firms control the bulk of media operations. These multinationals own other companies in diverse sectors such as defense, logging, real estate, oil, agriculture, banking, manufacturing, and utilities. Media boards typically reserve spaces at their weighty hardwood tables for these business leaders. Start to see the issue here? These relations assure that the majority of stories, as fair and balanced as they may sometimes seem, are ultimately conceived and developed within the womb of corporate, not public, influence. This may be good, bad, or neutral, depending on your perspective. Regardless, it should hardly come as a surprise that the aggregate of media cover· age contains more news segments and articles on alternative energy technologies, which can be bought and sold, than on conservation and simplicity efforts, which are not as involved in the market mechanism and could in some cases threaten to reduce the very consumption patterns multinationals rely on to achieve quarterly sales forecasts.
We have all witnessed these pit fights: wind versus coal for electrical production, ethanol versus petroleum for vehicular fuels.
Pitting production against production effectively sidelines energy reduction options, as if productivist methods are the only choices available. Have you ever seen news segments that pit solar cells against energy-efficient lighting or that toss biofuels in the ring with walkable communities? Probably not. I have so far come across only a handful of examples out of thousands of reports.
Pitting production versus production seems natural, but it leads to some unintended effects. First, these debates set a low bar for alternative-energy technologies; it's not difficult to look good when you are being compared with perfectly dismal practices of mining, distributing and burning oil, gas, and coal. Imagine if wine critics judged every Bordeaux against a big bottle of acidic vinegar that's been sitting in grandpa's cupboard for two decades; it would be difficult for a winemaker to perform poorly in such a contest. Secondly, journalistic dichotomies reduce apparent options to an emaciated choice between Technology A and Technology B. This leaves little space for non-technical alternatives. It also misses negative effects that both Techologies A and B have in common. Finally, pitting alternative-energy technologies against fossil fuel gives the impression that increasing alternative-energy flows will correspondingly decrease fossil-fuel consumption. It won't - at least no in America's current socioeconomic system....
Unsurprisingly, profit motives likely induce much of the gravitational field surrounding productivist energy solutions. For the most part, knowledge elites can patent or otherwise control productivist technologies - manufacturing, marketing, and selling them for a profit (or at least federal handouts). On the other hand, many energy reduction strategies are not patentable because they are based on age-old wisdom and common sense. Solar photovoltaic circuitry, wind turbine modulators, nuclear processes, and even biomass crops arc all patentable and commodifiable in a way that passive solar strategies and walkable neighborhoods are not. The profit motive of this ilk is a chronic theme in America; we are a country that values drug research (commodifiable) over preventative health (not comdifiable); most of our soybean fields are planted with corporate-issue genetically modified plants (patentable) rather than seed saved from last year's crop (not patentable). The debate about whether profits are a noble or a corrupted motivation is a political matter to be argued over a pint of beer, not here in these pages. I aim only to shed the humblest flicker of light on the illusion that the world of alternative energy operates within some virtuous form of economics. It doesn't. The global economic system rewards the commoditization of knowledge and resources for profit - why would we expect it to be any different for the field of alternative energy?
There's another problem. Even though energy consumers might not spend their efficiency savings to buy more energy, they may to spend these savings on other products or endeavors that sti11 1ead to energy consumption. In this case, energy-efficiency measures can unintentionally inspire other types of consumption, leaving overall energy footprints unchanged or even larger. This occurs at the macroeconmic level as well. In short, energy-efficiency savings frequently lead to larger profits, which spur more growth and thus higher energy consumption.
For instance, another Rocky Mountain Institute study shows that reducing drafts, increasing natural light, and otherwise making workplaces more efficient, can increase worker productivity by as much as 16 percent." This higher productivity allows firms to grow, and the resulting labor cost savings can be spent on new machinery, buildings, or expansion. These rebound effects often dwarf the original energy-efficiency effects, leading to far greater overall energy consumption. In fact, the authors of a central report on the rebound effect conclude, "While the promotion of energy efficiency has an important role to play in achieving a sustainable economy, it is unlikely to be sufficient while rich countries continue to pursue high levels of economic growth." Thus, efficiency efforts will only prove effective as long as we institute contemporaneous reforms to move from a consumption-based economy to one grounded in sufficiency.
When author Joel Makower wrote The Green Consumer in 1990, he advanced the idea that we could help to alleviate many of the world's environmental problems though green consumerism: "By choosing carefully, you can have a positive impact on the environment without significantly compromising your way of life. That's what being a Green Consumer is all about."
Today, he disagrees.
"I fought the good fight. Twenty years later, I'm thinking of waving the white flag," he laments. "Green consumerism, it seems, was one of those well-intentioned passing fancies, testament to Americans' never-ending quest for simple, quick, and efficient solutions to complex problems." Makower's consternations do not stand alone.
Perhaps Socrates had a point when he claimed, “contentment is natural wealth, luxury, artificial poverty.”
Cheap power drives growth, expands GDP, ratchets up sprawl, and fuels surplus material consumption. Generating even more power, regardless means used, won't quench these factors but will rather extend their reach. Given present American demographics and consumption, an alternative-energy future doesn't look especially probable or desirable.
Nevertheless, energy rhetoric in the United States has largely devolved into arguments pitting production versus production in manufactured pseudodebates that fool us into thinking we are making genuine energy choices. The only reason these appear to be reasonable comparisons is that we are so deeply immersed in the dirty fossil-fuel way of life that a less-dirty bad idea can seem good. (We should remember that the rise of petroleum itself was seen initially as an environmental benefit as it slowed the extermination of whales for their oil.)
Numerous researchers have attempted to locate where you'd get the best bang for your buck. Nearly a decade ago, Robert Socolow and Stephan Pacala published an article in Science envisioning fifteen potential "wedges" to flatten the upward trend of CO2 emissions (e.g. vehicle efficiency, carbon sequestration, solar power, cropping alterations) only seven of which have to be fully implemented for success. Another team at the consultancy of McKinsey and Company extended this work by ranking CO2 reduction schemes by cost and benefit. Their rankings fall into three overlapping clusters: (1) energy-efficiency strategies that typically save money, (2) agriculture and forestry management that either save a little or cost a little, and (3) energy-production strategies that cost the most per ton of “avoided CO2.” Both of these prominent studies greatly influence environmental research and policy. Nevertheless, while these studies are helpful analytical tools, they are perfectly unsuitable for high-level decision making. First, they draw upon the ahistorical assumption that increasing efficiency or expanding alternative-energy production will automatically displace fossil-fuel use. Further, they limit their options to trendy interventions and leave their results to be narrowly dictated by convenient cost and CO2 abatement measurements. More fundamentally, they attend to the symptoms rather than the sources of our energy troubles. Foundational strategies such as human rights, costs extending beyond dollars and cents, or benefits aside from CO2 abatement are all unintelligible within such fact-making missions. Truths are as much a matter of questions as answers.
So where to spend your time, energy, or million bucks? As I hope I have convincingly argued, spending a million to deploy solar cells, wind turbines, or biofuels will do little if anything toward achieving the intended goal. It may even instigate real harms, given the present American context. And if you spend your cash on alternative-energy production, you can't spend it elsewhere. Whether you're a philanthropist, student, environmentalist, policymaker, or voter, it's helpful to keep in mind this opportunity cost of investment – spending an ounce of humanity's value on one initiative necessarily means that it cannot be used for another. It follows that as citizens in a democracy, we should orient our priorities toward the most promising funding opportunities.
If you just can't part from an alternative-energy mindset (or your boss says you need the symbolic power of alternative energy for your quarterly report), you'd likely be better off directing your resources toward research rather than immediate deployment of today's highly problematic alternative-energy schemes. Focusing on women's rights, walkable communities, or improving consumption practices would yield excellent returns. Still, if rebound effects kick in, they could negate some or all of those benefits. It seems that wherever you make your contribution, it risks great dilution. Your efforts might produce greater returns if they flowed through another context.
Environmentalists of the future will imagine and create these contexts both domestically and internationally. Domestically, environmentalists can address economic and social fundamentals such as upgrading municipal zoning, improving governance developing voting reforms, providing health care to all citizens, and the like. Internationally, environmentalists will forge closer relationships to support context-development globally. Here, environmentalists could make a convincing argument for redirecting military spending toward supporting diplomacy, transparency, and human rights. As Bill Gates recently quipped, "We spend $80 billion a year on military R&D and we're good at shooting people. You get what you pay for.”