What Scale Relevant Lessons should we Take from the Energy Problem?
Too Much Energy Can Be a Problem
There is no denying the importance of energy to a comfortable level of human well being. Energy technologies have removed considerable amounts of drudgery from basic tasks for much of the human population. The abundance of fossil fuels made this a relatively easy task, but in the process they also created a level of throughput in greenhouse gases that threatens global climate stability. The vast amounts of energy used also contributed indirectly to greenhouse gas emissions in terms of various land use practices – destruction of forests, conversion to agricultural land, the rise of cities and transportation systems, etc. As much as abundant energy has contributed to human well being there is no denying that its abundance has also produced global problems that we will struggle with for decades if not centuries. Abundant energy has produced increasing amounts of material throughput which in turn threatens critical global ecosystem functions (see Critical Natural Capital). The large increase in human population stimulated by the “green revolution” in agriculture would not have been possible without massive use of fossil fuels. More people require more energy, which produces yet more throughputs to threaten yet more life supporting ecosystems. The basic lesson is that we must learn to understand the full life cycle impacts of our technologies before they are widely adopted. Even obviously good technologies can lead to disastrous consequences.
Sweating the Small (Slow) Stuff Before It Becomes Global
What we do in our homes and cities has consequences for critical global ecosystem functions. Local problems generated by energy uses may be small and tolerable at the local level relative to the benefits derived from such use. However, the cumulative effect of these problems not only changes their significance in terms of the impact on critical global ecosystem functions, but these global problems come back to haunt us in our homes and cities. Furthermore, the costs of these problems are often higher for people who derive no benefit from our energy use, adding further injustices to preexisting inequities. Our technologies have become so complex and powerful that they are threatening our well being, but on a time and spatial scale that we do not experience directly, for it is the cumulative effect of their use over time and space that causes the problems. The lesson here is to attend more to the slow processes that underlie critical life support systems to ensure our long term well being. It is not the size of the local problem itself which creates the problem but the accumulated global scale of the local impacts that threaten our well being.
What We Take for Granted Can Bite Us
Studies of the collapse of civilizations indicate that unquestioning commitments to basic values, assumptions or worldviews are often key issues in a civilizations’ demise. When success has been built on particular values or assumptions it is very difficult to consider giving them up when major problems occur. Our global civilization is characterized by a variety of values and assumptions that have both contributed to our success and created global problems that could bring us down. These include: our belief in technological progress; our belief that economic growth is the solution to all our problems; our belief that material goods are the main determinants of well being; and the belief that we need ever greater amounts of energy to satisfy our needs and well being. It is time to question these basic values and assumptions from the perspective of sustainable scale for energy use.
Energy Justice Essential for a Sustainable World
The energy justice issue has two faces – waste or over consumption, and energy poverty. Some developed nations use as much as 300% more energy than needed for a high quality of life (see A Hopeful Note? in Scale Relevant Solutions). Such waste, especially of what are largely non-renewable resources, would be unconscionable even if everyone had adequate access to energy. Such waste is even less acceptable in light of the energy gap which leaves some 2 billion people without electricity. Such inequities are problematic from both a justice and sustainability perspective. Both excess and deprivation present significant challenges to ecological sustainability from a global perspective. The simple lesson here is that we are all in this together, and that energy equity is necessary for both justice and ecological sustainability.