Energy Modes: Towards a Harmony of the Biosphere

by Lorna Salzman

Industrial society is now in the process of reinventing the wheel. Having extracted and converted most of the easily available fossil fuels, we are now re-embracing the same renewable energy sources that fueled human societies and endeavors before the Industrial Revolution. Amazingly enough in those "Dark Ages," human beings accomplished tasks like farming, foreign exploration, war, the construction of ships, monuments, aqueducts and cities, by using flowing water, wind, geothermal sources, direct solar energy, biomass fuels (like wood, peat and manure) and human energy.

Looking back we can see that Nature has not been miserly with us, but that it is we, especially in the western world, who have been profligate in our breeding habits and appetites. In the space of a little over 150 years we have almost exhausted the finite stock of energy resources which, aside from coal, were only discovered in the last century. Having done so, we have inflated our expectations and technologies to a degree that can be supported only as long as these resources last.

The abundance was misleading and relatively short-lived. While it lasted, it created the illusion that technology gave us the power to outwit Nature and overcome basic cosmic laws. At the same time we lost all sense of responsibility for our physical environment and came to rely more and more on experts, rather than on the common sense and evolved wisdom that enabled previous societies to live and flourish without such bounty.

But this era, in which people are called consumers instead of citizens, is ending. The utopian promises of industrial society–the end of poverty, disease, illiteracy and hunger–have not materialized, and it is doubtful that they ever will. If there was ever a golden age of industrialism, it is over. The abundance of material wealth that has slipped through the fingers of Western industrial society will never be possessed by the Third World. The finite pie will have to be sliced very differently, and this in turn will mean new political and economic structures and geographical relationships.

Now, it is not very pleasant to talk about the end of affluence. I prefer to call it an end to profligacy and a redefining of economics in its traditional sense–the science of efficient and equitable allocation of resources, not the science that maximizes private short-term profit at the expense of the public and of future generations. This may sound like the doomsayers condemning the masses to starvation, but it is really the reverse. The fact is that industrial, growth- and profit-oriented societies have not visibly alleviated starvation.

Traditionally, our religious faith in technology has made us see the biosphere's economy as an infinitely expanding one. Rejection of this faith entails rejection of many articles of faith–the marketplace, free enterprise, and other artifacts of the global consumer economy. It also means rejecting the Faustian bargain wherein we attempted to control the very processes of Nature–what ecologist David Ehrenfeld calls "the arrogance of humanism." Perhaps we need to admit that not only may we be unable to do anything we want, but that we may have to reject some desired things in the entirety.

If we wish to examine what the miracle-workers promise us in the future, we should look at what they have already wrought. They claim to have brought us affluence, but in so doing they have brought about resource depletion, with polluted air and water. Instead of ending starvation and social ills, they have created a world where inequities of distribution of material wealth and political power loom larger than ever. Instead of bringing the global population to a modest but decent standard of living, they have widened the gap between rich and poor. (The World Bank now says that it would take 100 years to bring the undeveloped world up to our Western standard of living, assuming no growth for us in that period.) Instead of conquering disease, eradicating dangerous working and living conditions, and ending unemployment, they have created new diseases to replace old ones, disseminated dangerous substances that threaten our lives and environment, and substituted energy and machines for human endeavor. In so doing they have methodically substituted what Edward Goldsmith calls the technosphere for the biosphere, and we have become reliant on non-renewable energy and technology-based life-support systems. Having done this without having corrected the resulting inequities and environmental problems, can we really trust the technocrats to correct in the future what they have consistently refused to correct all along?

Somehow we have forgotten about the insidious nature of exponential growth. Somehow we have forgotten the dangerous side-effects of technology and seen it as a deus ex machina that would eventually extricate us from our predicament and permit untrammeled growth and infinite consumption. The truth is that we can no longer escape the fact of ecological scarcity–shortages of resources, limits of pollution in natural systems, population pressures and accumulation of waste–all of which are true constraints on human action.

We ignore these realities at our peril, but the danger goes beyond the specific environmental impact of energy conversion, whether it be ionizing radiation, CO2, sulfur oxides or carcinogens. The real danger is that instead of deciding ahead of time what kind of society we want, and matching our technologies to our social and ethical goals, we are doing it backwards, and choosing technologies because they fit our present value system.

The case of nuclear power is a perfect example. Nuclear scientists have posed as impartial experts while acting as political promoters. Failing at both, they have perverted the scientific method beyond recognition. They have selected the pro-nuclear hypothesis (that nuclear energy is cheap, safe and necessary), discarded all others, and then gone to desperate lengths to find data to support this hypothesis.

They have also used a double standard in judging nuclear and non-nuclear sources. They claim that solar energy, our oldest, best-known energy source, is "esoteric", remote, expensive and inappropriate. Yet they fail to apply the same criteria to nuclear power and ignore the facts: that nuclear power, even after 20 years of force-feeding from public funds, is still immature and unreliable; that it produces dangerous waste products whose safe storage and isolation for eons no engineer or geologist has yet resolved; that it is a barely working and unpredictable technology which readily lends itself to military purposes; that it is vulnerable to accidents, human errors and malicious acts that can cause irreversible catastrophe on a cosmic scale. Also ignored is the fact that nuclear plants are extremely capital-intensive and thereby exacerbate unemployment. Indeed reactor construction monopolizes investment capital so other sources cannot compete on the market. Finally, no one points out that the inherent dangers of nuclear plants are so enormous that they necessitate stringent regulation and centralized control by technocratic elites in decision-making processes which effectively exclude citizen participation and control.

Now if you look at solar energy, you come up with a very different picture. If you fall off your roof and break a leg repairing your solar collector, you neighbors will not be endangered or much inconvenienced. If your wind generator stops, only one freezer full of food will be lost and a Public Service Commission investigation will not be required. if you insulate and renovate commercial building to conserve energy, you will create jobs and reduce electric demand. Instead of relying on computer codes, engineers and regulatory commissions, you can turn to electricians, plumbers, an carpenters. A solar collector war between the superpowers won't threaten future generations. And the money you save by putting in storm windows or insulating your home will be freed to be spent in other ways in your community. In fact the real challenge is simplicity. How do you tell highly paid engineers that they must become plumbers? How do you turn a high-tech society, reliant on specialization and compartmentalization, into a society reliant on semi-skilled labor? How do you change social values so that progress is measured by how little energy we use to accomplish a task rather than by how much?

Scientists are fond of comparative risk assessment, first telling us that no society is risk-free and then comparing actual risks, like the incidence of lung disease in coal miners, to the potential of nuclear accident or the imperceptible (but certain) long-term effects of low-level radiation. However, they are not really giving us a choice but forcing us, by inaccurate growth projections for energy consumption, to assume both risks. In effect they are asking us whether we would rather die by a knife or a gun.

The social, economic and environmental costs of centralized energy production based on fossil and nuclear fuels have been cleverly concealed by underpricing, hidden subsidies and the illusory freedom to choose among 20 brands of air conditioners. What we have not been offered, however, is the freedom not to be exposed to radiation or to choke on dirty air or to eat chemically contaminated food. In exchange for short-term affluence and mobility, we have traded our political power, an unknown number of molecules of the human gene pool, clean air and water. The British economist Ezra Mishan has said that as the carpet of increased choice is unrolled before us by the foot, it is being rolled up behind us by the yard.

We have not really asked the right questions about energy and thus have received the wrong answers. Rather than assuming we will need more energy for unspecified purposes, we should be asking: How much energy do we need and for what purposes? Who pays for it? Who benefits and who is at risk? What are the alternatives?

The push for nuclear energy and coal, for example, assumes that we need more electricity; that, after all, is all these plants produce. Yet we do not have an electricity crisis in this country but a crisis in liquid fuels. Electricity will not grow our crops, run our cars, build our roads or run our petrochemical industries. Right now we have a 35% excess generating capacity nationwide–more electricity than the utilities can sell and more than people can afford to buy. Even if we did need more electricity, we would have to ask whether in fact nuclear energy could do the job: after 20 years, nuclear power still provides only about as much of our energy as wood. The 20 years in which nuclear power was unopposed were years of untrammeled development with easy-to-get money, acquiescent regulatory agencies, favorable tax treatment, high energy demand, low prices and initial consumer acceptance–conditions that no longer exist. The next 20 years are likely to provide negative electric growth.

Nuclear opponents and solar proponents are often described as "radicals," dreamy idealists, head-in-the-clouds optimists, while nuclear proponents are depicted as pragmatists living in the "real" world. A closer look, however, reveals that it is nuclear energy and synthetic fuels that are hypothetical, untested, high-risk, and replete with unknown problems, while solar energy is really the low-risk, empirically tested conservative technology. The definitions of "radical" and "conservative" have somehow become reversed. Those who urge caution and impartial assessment are called "radicals," while those who urge full-speed ahead on economic and technological decisions are called "conservatives."

On a broader level, another dichotomy exists. There are those who perceive pollution, ill health, unemployment, resource depletion, waste, and wildlife destruction as inevitable byproducts of capitalism, and who see the remedy lying in a system of centralized economic planning and distribution of resources. On the other side are those, myself included, who see far deeper underlying causes, which are not unique to capitalism, but common to all industrial consumer-based economies. These causes do not lend themselves to political rhetoric or easy solutions, for they involve re-examination of the very nature of our universe and the laws under which all creatures and systems operate.

Thus, for some, a simple change of leadership and control of resources will solve the problem; certain socialists oppose nuclear power in the U.S. but not in socialist countries where, presumably, greater central control eliminates human error and technological failure.* However, if in fact the roots of our environmental crisis are embedded in our relationship to Nature, the limits to growth and our use of the earth's resources, then all societies–socialist, capitalist, anarchist or whatever–must come to recognize this and adjust their goals accordingly. Some cherished values and institutions will have to be discarded not merely because they are distasteful but because they cannot be sustained in a world of physical limits. Without recognition of the root causes, we will be subjected to cosmetic patchwork that will make the problem worse.

The concept of constraints connotes to many a loss of personal liberty, choice and mobility, and the onset of hardship, deprivation and sacrifice. I prefer to look at it another way, one in which we expend effort to prevent problems in the first place rather than expend billions to mitigate them once they appear. In this way people would have real freedom: not to be guinea pigs in global radiation and chemical experiments, not to ingest toxic chemicals, not to eat synthetic foods, not to be deafened by off-road vehicles while walking in the woods, and so forth.

If all this seems like a harsh indictment of our society, then look around you, and ask yourself some questions. Do you see things getting better as a result of material economic growth? Are social systems becoming more stable? Do you think your children will have a better life than you? Is science reducing risks to society or creating new ones? Do you think you control your life and future? Do you trust the technocrats to control it for you?

When you have answered these and other questions, then ask yourself which available technologies and energy sources fit in with your paradigm of society. Then go fight for them.

* In the Soviet Union, for example, nuclear reactors have been built in proximity to cities and without containment buildings. What may be the worst nuclear accident occurred in the highly industrial Ural region in the mid-50s, with thousands of square miles devastated, unknown numbers killed and irreversible contamination of the area. In addition, severe pollution by paper and pulp mills and other industries of the once-pristine Lake Baikal has been documented by scientists the world over. Also, in Great Britain, where energy is state-managed, the dumping of radioactive wastes in the North Sea continues year after year. This country has perhaps the most repressive law on the books–the Official Secrets Act–which prohibits publishing, disseminating information or talking about even trivial nuclear accidents.

Source: Heresies ,#13, 1987.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.