By now it is clear that oil, oil sands, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power all have major environmental and/or safety problems. In comparison, renewables have minimal but some problems. Further, whether renewables can fully pick up the slack for those other fossil fuels is uncertain. What's left?
Energy conservation by reduced use! Books such as Small is Beautiful and 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth are having a resurgence. And none too soon. Energy conservation/reduction should be a major component of the energy mix and yet it's playing nowhere the role it should or can. Why is that?
For one thing, urging energy thrift runs counter to the dominant paradigm of "bigger, better, faster, more." We became a colossus not by modest living but by conquering nature and the planet. Then too, the conventional wisdom is that wealth and power are commensurate with striking out rather than pulling back. Add in the belief that energy resources are infinite. Of course, many now realize that peak-oil is looming, if not already here.
Within the energy reduction framework most of the attention is paid to technological improvements. I leave it to others to discuss the strides that have been made in such endeavors and they have been very, very considerable . . . though often not without their own problems. For example, compact fluorescent bulbs have traces of mercury and other minerals which are carcinogenic, but incandescents have far bigger problems and are being phased out.
But here I focus on the human factor—that is, how human beings either will or will not embrace the less energy path—and some of the challenges humans must surmount. We like our creature comforts and are reluctant to part with them. Clothes dryers are easier than using clothes pins to hang garments. And for many, driving 75 miles per hour brings a rush that driving 55 miles per hour just won't produce.
A variation on the matter above is we don't care, or aren't conscious of our embracing products which require heightened energy use to reach us. Foods like fresh fruits come from hundreds if not thousands of miles away and yet that causes us not a blink of the eye. Well, maybe we are conscious but still we believe it's a "reasonable" trade off.
And, our penchant for "bigger, better, faster, more" runs counter to its opposites. Bigger cars, in the absence of very high gasoline prices, beat small cars. Ditto larger houses and a more extravagant life-style. Further, it's the newest product that we want. Last year's model of an electronic device is ready for the dust heap—probably without being recycled.
Recently I was chatting with a friend over what would drive us to live more modestly. He suggested three factors and I throw them out for your consideration.
First is cost. The increase in gas prices in the last month has led nationally to a three percent reduction in miles driven. Some suggest further gas price taxes to further curb driving but that may be draconian since many people need their vehicles for essential, work-related reasons. It would be cruel and wrong to penalize people by forcing them to give up of their livelihoods.
Second is fear. Fukushima has led to, at least temporarily, a renewed fear of nuclear power though we are told "it can't happen here" and we can surmount any emergency situation. The Gulf Oil spill and its destructive environmental impacts, mountain top coal removal that devastates the landscape and causes illness and death, and natural gas fracking which taints drinking water all have become unacceptable, at least temporarily.
And third is a more noble calling. It is a calling reflected in the growing sense of global connectedness in this speck of the universe. Hundreds, nay thousands, of organizations and millions of citizens around the world are engaged in a quest to retake the earth. This may sound naïve but naïveté is in the eyes of the beholder. Economic gain and fear are powerful forces, but not as powerful as our combining to usher in a new age of sustainability and livability.
The way forward is uncertain. For instance, a recent report out of the Bay Area said that water bills would rise because of water conservation. Why? The answer given is that water company expenses do not decline as water usage declines and water users pay less accordingly. Thus, water rate increases will result from reduced consumption to cover the difference. Two factoids: One, those who use more should certainly pay at a higher rate. Two: Government subsidies to support water conservation efforts, if it comes to that, are a far better investment than massive subsidies and loan guarantees, say, for the nuclear power industry. The public good demands it. People who conserve should be rewarded and those who are profligate should be definitely penalized.
Indeed, government subsidies, tax breaks, and other support mechanisms for multibillion dollar energy companies are out of control. Many of these companies, it was recently reported, pay no taxes at all and some get some get sizable refunds. But that is another subject for another day. The energy conundrum lies with government, with the corporations, and with us. We are all responsible.
We all must get involved and urge city, state, and federal governments to show the public how much conservation will pay off in a cleaner and safer environment—and in our pocketbooks. Letting government and corporations operate without major public input is a design for failure.
Let me end on the upbeat. A report just out states that smaller homes are getting more attention from would-be buyers than larger ones. Ditto people wanting to live closer to where they work. I'd like to believe the tide is slowly turning.