The post-fossil-fuel-economy is a morality issue

I have been long familiar with the framing of the need for a massive renewables plan as a new Apollo project, but something always sat wrong with me on that. I finally put my finger on it – the need to move away from fossil fuels is a morality issue, not a glitzy, cold-war race, public invigoration issue. In the need to preserve the present viability of our planet for the children of those creatures currently alive, and to prevent resource wars, it is more akin to the need to abolish slavery because slavery is wrong. Even though economic results may initially be painful. Like the abolition of slavery, a big push away from fossil fuels will meet plenty of hiccups and political maneuvering and resistance. It will require many to totally change their lives. It can not happen gradually enough to not be painful in the short term, or things will likely be very painful in the long term. I found some words on the internet to echo my sentiments – the following is extracted by a published talk by Pat Murphy as given at the 2005 Community Solutions Conference (I am not familiar with the speaker or the conference):

Some people are calling for a new Manhattan project or a new Apollo project to solve fossil fuel depletion. But the Manhattan project brought us the possibility of instant planet annihilation and the Apollo project has shown us the limits of expansion. Star Trek is only a child’s story. We and our children will live here – on this planet – in this place … forever. If we destroy it, then we will disappear. If we foolishly waste the resources we will suffer. There is no escape at warp speed to Alpha Centura. There are no dilithium crystals.

There are much better analogies of major change in the past that are not based on technology and science. We need the equivalent effort of the abolition of slavery. We need the equivalent force of the work for getting the vote for women. We need the equivalent of the banning of child labor. We need an effort something like the Civil Rights Movement. We need a Copernican Revolution – a change in mindset from the fantasy model of infinite fossil fuel driven growth and pollution to one of understanding our physical limitations. We don’t need another war on something – poverty, government spending or terrorism. We need no wars or even analogies of wars. What we need are metaphors of creation. We need a new society. And it has to be based on low-energy ways of living.

My fellow scientists may be a bit rebuffed at the dismissal of scientific solutions, and I am not sure that rebuff is totally warranted, but I do believe that turning the light switch off manually (every time), is better than the gizmo that does it for you and fails in 10 years, is better than building a wind turbine to power the light. A new mindset and way of living first, and then some appropriate technological solutions. Most of us reading this can make a lot of “sacrifices” in our current lifestyles before we truly deserve the world’s pity.


8 responses to “The post-fossil-fuel-economy is a morality issue

  1. I agree that this is not a technological issue with a ‘fix’, but rather a social and political (and moral) issue… however, as a social and political issue, sacrifice-as-first-resort is a non-starter, both for those of us who are already affluent, and for the couple of billion people waiting in line for their turn. It may ultimately turn out to be necessary (in spades even), but I think I disagree that it should be our primary focus. In fact, I think it may even be counterproductive given how politically poisonous it is, and given the fact that the systems we live within are, regardless of our personal choices of how to use them, already catastrophically unsustainable.

    You should check out E.O. Wilson’s book, “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth”

    And also this hour long talk by Alex Steffen, on trying to envision and build a “one planet” future by 2030:

  2. I used the word sacrifices in quotes, because there are a whole lot of things we would never really notice are missing. I agree that it may be counterproductive to politically focus on negatives, they must be framed as positives – building a better alternative transportation infrastructure (rather than focusing on roads not being built), but the solutions must be a radical departure from our current consumer mindset, not a new world of green consumerism. My main point is that it should not be an option to put off greenhouse gas goals, etc because the economy might be hurt, any more than it was an option to put off freeing people because economies would be hurt.

    Not that I have the answers for how this actually manifests in our world and political system, but pricing seems to be key in this culture, if people are unswayed by other arguments (though spirituality, ideology, habit, and many other factors do play a part). Energy prices (from all sources) and non-necessary or ill-conceived, long-traveled goods need to be priced prohibitively enough that they are used sustainably. I’m stopping now, because my thoughts are pulled into population issues, true poverty and unhappiness issues, war, etc. There is no golden arrow, though most issues are related. I will not be coming up with the solution to all our problems here, at least not one guaranteed to be implemented, and neither will E. F. Schumacher, E.O. Wilson, or any number of others more intelligent and educated than myself.

    I must admit to a certain amount of alienation from my culture, in that I find shopping and purchasing (even “good” things) painful. I find sacrifice that meets my ideals pleasant and rewarding. I probably have more in common with my deeply religious forebearers than with most of the people around me – despite being non-religious and fairly non-spiritual (the last, I feel, a personal failing). I am, however, undoubtedly, an idealist.

  3. Your example is inspiring.

    ” Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis all by itself for a sound, comprehensive energy policy. ”

    Hmmmm.. Check out this rant:

  4. Good rant 🙂

  5. I’d agree it’s not sufficient. But it’s sure as hell necessary!

  6. and incidentally, the little bit about how consumers won’t conserve in response to higher prices is completely bogus. Maybe not when gas goes from $1 to $1.10, but (as we’ve just recently seen), the transition from $2 to $4.50 does make a difference, and if it were sustained for the length of time it takes the vehicle fleet to turn over (~10 years), it would make a much bigger difference.

  7. Funny how as children of the 70s and that fuel price spike, and shortage, we grew up with coloring books about gluttons– we learned how to turn off lights when we left the room in summer camp (I WAS 5). Where is that today? I know that green is the new trendy, but as my humble sister points out, most of it is linked to consumerism…how to buy green– new $h!& — and as the economy tanks people keep talking about how to jump start consumer spending and to get growth rates back up– what about a sustainable economy?? At some point, politically popular or not people are going to at least have to start having some sort of realization about their personal impact and how it adds up. Yes, I know I am not the shining example, but I am at least aware and don’t try to falsify things like someone we all know and voted against…trying to claim that we don’t really know the impact we have or that it isn’t actually negative. People need to just stopping kidding themselves… so make it tied to money– go ahead, then they take notice. BILLIONS of miles that people stopped driving because of high gas prices. GOOD.

  8. That’s my Girls! A couple comments from an old fossil – Todays green and conservation is more hype than the action I saw in the 70s! Lots and lots of talk today and companies are wrapping themselves in “green” but. . . In Honolulu (my home now) when gas was over $5 surveys showed no decrease in auto use. So people like to bitch more than change!

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