Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An issue about our larger place

Today’s post isn’t so much about a place but about what we might end up doing to our overall place… I’m a teacher. You’ve heard of those teachers who went into the profession because they are optimistic and forward looking and want to help build the future. I’m one of those. Given my optimistic and forward looking nature, I like to think that we will gradually wean ourselves from fossil fuels. For a long time, the economists and free-marketers have been teaching us that we will transition away from fossil fuels because, as the remaining reserves gets so expensive to extract, we’ll switch to other forms of energy that make more economic sense. Putting it another way, they tell us that we won’t actually run out of fossil fuel, we’ll run out of easy and cheap to get at fuel and as the cost goes up as it gets harder and more expensive to get at, the alternatives will get developed. As I said, I am optimistic by nature. I see initiatives about energy conservation and see the work going on to develop and promote alternative energy sources. I see conservation initiatives and projects like Transition Towns. Some people are working hard to pave the way for alternatives to take over. But it seems that as fossil fuels get more expensive, we’re just turning to more expensive ways to get at them. We’re so excited about the supposed 100 years of natural gas in shale (but maybe it’s more like 20 years*) and the oil-field-bigger-than-Saudi-Arabia in the tar sands of Canada and the coal that only requires that we take the tops off the Appalachians to get to it. (And I won’t get into the geopolitics other than to mention the chill I felt when I saw a bumper sticker with a rude cartoon of what I guess was supposed to be a middle eastern person that said ‘Let’s Kick Their Ass and Take Their Gas’ – it makes my heart hurt to even write that down). So while my optimistic side sees a future of conservation and local, clean energy, there’s another image that creeps into my mind. President Bush was close when we said we’re addicted to fossil fuels. But I have another image. Instead of drug-addled addicts after that next source of fuel, I see us a zombies who will do anything to get our hands on some more fossil fuels. There’s too much riding on it to do otherwise. We will turn our precious ground water into poisons, we will industrialize our neighborhoods, nothing is too precious to endanger to get more fossil fuel. (In a recent interview on fracked-gas wells going into suburban neighborhoods, the interviewer asked the gas company rep, ‘but doesn’t a rig in a suburban neighborhood infringe on the rights of people to live in a suburb and not an industrial site?’ The rep answered, ‘I think those kinds of restrictions on drilling infringe on the property owners right to earn money off their property.’ So I guess zoning is a casualty of our desperation for natural gas. I guess the ‘kick their ass and take their gas’ can refer to suburban neighborhoods, too.) Is it corporate greed that driving this? I don’t think so. I think it’s our own greed. If you’re old enough, you know what Pogo said back in the 60s. We all want cheap energy. Very few of us are weaning ourselves off of it. We’re all zombies. (A clever poster after Exxon Valdez stated “It’s not the ship captain’s driving that caused the spill, it’s our driving that caused the spill”) So instead of criticizing the energy companies for what they’re doing, I guess we should be sending them thank you letters for going to such trouble and expense to feed our unquenchable thirst for fuel. But, wait. There is that other future of conservation and local, clean energy with justice for all. So how do we get there? One step would be to start being explicit and honest about the trade offs we’re willing to make. When we marginalize those trade offs, that next pool of fossil fuel sure looks enticing. Let’s face those tradeoffs honestly, and, in the words of the economists, put a market value on the externalities. Even that, though, requires that we become mindful, thinking people, not zombies. *

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