Sunday, March 20, 2005


Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too?

This article by Lester Brown sounds very encouraging because he’s telling us that we can have our cake and eat it, too. But when you think carefully about it, you realize that the chances of this happening are pretty darn slim.

In many cases, I would of course defer to Lester Brown. But just let me make a few remarks on this article.

First of all, the political obstacles alone reduce the chances of getting very far with renewables. President Dubya says we need an energy bill that encourages consumption, and the rest of Washington either agrees or is browbeaten into not pointing out that Dubya is off his rocker. They want to spend money on weapons, not on windmills. But for the sake of argument, let’s say this political obstacle does not exist.

If Americans would use hybrid automobiles, that would indeed save a lot of fuel. But we’re going to need a lot of energy to make the cars that people are going to buy and replace, and to make and install the windmills. Is Brown really factoring in all the fossil-fuel energy needed to build and maintain these cars and infrastructure?

Brown talks about the “need for modernizing our antiquated set of regional grids, and replacing them with a strong national grid,” but that is the opposite of what is needed. A national grid would act as a huge power drain because pumping electricity long distances entails considerable loss. It is also much more vulnerable. America needs small, localized grids. Trying to solve the problem of a power shortage in one area by bringing power in from another area is the old-school approach. The right way to eliminate the problem of localized power shortages is a combination of conservation and diversification. Conservation means that lifestyles and social systems change so as to use as little energy as possible, and diversification means installing a number of different renewable sources (backed up by storage) to even out the power flow.

Those who (correctly, of course) advocate renewables have to be careful that renewable energy just doesn’t end up being a supplement for fossil fuels, which would increase consumption. Renewables must be sold as a replacement. But since they cannot support a system built on hydrocarbons, the pitch for renewables has to be coupled with the exhortation to consume less. If you try to run an oil-based economy on renewables, you will of course have constant energy shortages and blackouts.

The word “conservation” doesn’t show up anywhere in Brown’s article. Conservation — lots of it — is needed to ensure that the world has any kind of decent future. By telling us that more efficient automobiles can make us independent even with “no change in the number of vehicles, no change in miles driven,” I assume that Brown is trying to show us what amazing things better efficiency can do, but most Americans are going to assume it means they don’t have to mend their profligate ways — and that is sending the wrong message: You can have your cake and eat it, too.

What always comes to mind when I consider energy issues is American profligacy. Our leaders have done us a singular disservice by building a wasteful system and telling us that it’s our God-given right to consume extravagantly.

“The American way of life” has to be redefined, and fast. What we need more than anything else right now is some serious belt-tightening.

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