Elephants in the Room: The Discussion of Energy in the Presidential Debates
Eve Donegan, Sales and Marketing Assistant
David Ehrenfeld is a professor of biology at Rutgers University and holds degrees in history, medicine, and zoology. He is the founding editor of the journal Conservation Biology, lectures internationally, and is the author of The Arrogance of Humanism and Beginning Again. His most recent book, Becoming Good Ancestors, focuses on the interactions, both negative and positive, among nature, community, and our exploding technology, and explains the critical role of honesty in moving towards a sustainable society. In the post below, Ehrenfeld talks about the role of energy in the presidential debates and suggests that the candidates have not talked about the really big energy problems that we face.
The presidential debates made one thing clear: regardless of who won, energy technologies are about to get a great deal of attention and money from the U.S. government in 2009. John McCain said that in a McCain presidency he would be trying to build dozens of nuclear plants, step up offshore drilling for oil, and fund “clean coal” technology. Barack Obama said he would focus on wind, solar, and geothermal power, on biodiesel, and on increasing energy efficiency. There was considerable overlap between their energy agendas, but neither candidate mentioned the two elephants in the room.
The first elephant, a medium sized one, is that the technologies the candidates said they would promote, and those they didn’t mention, are not sure bets for solving the energy crisis quickly, if at all. Some, like “clean coal,” hydrogen, and oil shale, come with inherent technological problems that will limit their usefulness for the foreseeable future. Others, like offshore drilling and nuclear power, will take years or decades before they pay a net energy dividend, and there are serious safety issues, which cannot be brushed aside. Biodiesel competes with agriculture for land, and can cause ecological problems – oil shale and “clean coal” need lots of fresh water. Geothermal, wind, solar, and tidal technologies, promising as they are, will be limited in the quantity of energy they can supply. Nuclear and many of the other energy technologies yield only electricity – unlike fossil fuels, they don’t provide chemical feedstock for making the plastics, synthetic fabrics, and many other chemicals that modern society demands. Regardless of our hopes and fantasies, there doesn’t seem to be a really cheap and super-abundant energy source like 20th Century oil and gas on the horizon.
It’s true that we have no choice but to continue to develop alternative energy technologies. In some cases, present problems will be overcome, and there is always the possibility that we will discover entirely new ways of producing energy. But it would be reckless to count on it. Chances are slim of finding a replacement for cheap oil and gas in time to keep our current economy running without tremendous disruptions.
And then there is the other elephant in the room. This second elephant is much bigger than the first – maybe it’s a mammoth. Yet if either candidate noticed it, he didn’t want to talk about it, although it’s simple enough to describe. Learning how to cope with the consequences of our excessive energy use, and acquiring some restraint will be even more important than finding new energy sources. In other words, what if we do find ways to keep on supplying ourselves with vast quantities of affordable energy, but do nothing to moderate our energy consumption? What happens then to what remains of the ecosystems on which we all depend?
The winning candidate is going to have to deal with all the secondary issues arising from our overuse of energy. How will we hold back global climate change if we keep on pumping energy into a stressed environment? With many of the ocean fisheries already gone or going, what will happen to the ones that are left if there is limitless energy to fuel all the world’s fishing fleets indefinitely? How long will the remaining tropical forests last if there is unlimited energy for indiscriminate logging and for shipping timber and timber products to markets thousands of miles away? If there is enough cheap energy to maintain high input agriculture – with its energy-consuming nitrogen fertilizers, huge machines, heavy pesticide applications, factory-farmed livestock, and corporate conglomerates – what will happen to our dwindling supply of precious farmlands, soils, animal and crop varieties, and farmers? These are the sorts of problems that will haunt the new president and the rest of the world even more than the problem of energy supply.
The only energy strategy that can make these elephants vanish is learning to get along with less energy. Conservation based on new lifestyles will be as much of a challenge as creating alternative energy technologies, but it’s faster, cheaper, and far more certain of success. Can we do it? Can conservatives and liberals ever agree on an agenda to move to a low-energy society? There is no choice if we want our society to survive.