Sustainable Energy is Not a Partisan Issue
Ideological purism has been on the rise for at least a decade now and does not appear to be abating. Which is a true shame as it has inflicted massive damage on our nation’s, and possibly the world’s, political stability and productivity. In doing so, it has unnecessarily held back human progress which, again, is a shame as we’ve probably never had such great technological potential on which to base another generation or two of remarkable peace and prosperity.
Ideological purism is also an equal opportunity afflicter to both ends of the political spectrum, if political beliefs can really be mapped to nothing more sophisticated than a dangerously simple continuum. Since being eligible to vote, I have been proudly aligned with no political party as I find no shortage of intellectual or policy deficits in either of America’s dominant parties. At various points in my life, I’ve predominantly voted for one or the other, though at this time one of our parties is so far off the rails I cannot in good conscience enable them with my vote (despite the fact that historically I have held many views consistent with theirs). These days, whenever I can, I try to support third-party candidates, but they, too, cannot be too far off the rails to be worthy of my vote.
So, as I said last week, I cannot support in any way politics founded on the belief that anyone and everyone is entitled to possess whatever “arms” they want at any time for any reason. Similarly, though, “defund the police” is a truly stupid idea. Such extreme ideas are, I think, properly rejected by a significant majority of the population in favor of sensible gun laws and a smarter approach to policing, but given how our political system is structured, far, far, too many of our candidates for office are chosen at the extremes instead of by the sensible and overwhelming majority.
This didn’t used to happen in this country, but, as I opened with, it’s definitely still on the rise and now has taken a foothold in mainstream politics. And that foothold is strong and large enough that we cannot even get political traction for policies and plans that may very well be necessary for the continued existence of stable civilization. “Global Warming,” “Climate Change,” or, whatever other label you’d like to apply to it, absolutely has the potential during this century of decimating our natural world, our nations, and us, too, if we fail to act.
It’s astounding to me that such an important issue could be politicized at all. I have clearly underestimated the influence a well-funded and well-honed message can have if it’s repeated often enough to an audience that fears the unknowns of change and is unwilling to truly examine for themselves the risks. Another perfect example of the problems caused by the coziness of too much wealth intermingling with our media and politics.
Ideological purism enables perversion of the truth. Perversion of the truth leads to poor decisions.
One of my earliest memories is during the first energy crisis of the 1970s. The town I grew up in was smallish at the time, but definitely growing. We had a handful of gas stations, the largest of which sat at the intersection of the two main roads running through town. At least at one point, this largest of stations was the only one in town with gas and, as I recall, they would allow you only to buy five gallons of gas at a time, or something like that.
Even so, a line of cars would wrap around to the next block and far down that road. Getting gas had become a form of prolonged excursion and, since it took so long, I’d go with my father, I guess, to keep him company or something.
That first energy crisis was a shock and people started to press for solutions, though the “press” probably wasn’t wildly strong (there was a lot of other “stuff” going on at the same time). Before the decade was out, there was a second energy crisis and, at that point, people were seriously looking for solutions.
Energy, simply, is the fuel (pun not intended) on which a modern technological economy runs. And, there is no truly decent standard of living without inexpensive (relatively speaking) and pervasively available energy. Period.
In the late 1970s, there were not a ton of good options with regard to renewable energy. Solar energy became part of the conversation, but the price for even a small unit of energy was astronomical. Wind mills were something you pictured in paintings of Holland of centuries past. Nuclear was supposed to become so cheap that we’d not even meter it, but it was always expensive and Three Mile Island scared us enough that the industry never really recovered from that accident. Thus, we were pretty much left with conservation and fossil fuels.
President Reagan’s plan for the energy “problem” was to reform oil markets such that there were increased incentives to explore and drill. These efforts paid off economically for the country as gas prices plummeted. Additionally, the market changes made energy shocks like those of the 1970s far less likely.
But, as always seems to be the case with energy, there was at least one significant and unexpected price to pay. That is, Global Warming, which I first heard about in 1983 in a college class called Environment Issues. At the time, the two science professors teaching the class were careful to state that the science was not yet conclusive, but was indicative enough of a problem that it required further investigation. In 2022, the science is considered by scientists to be conclusive. And, I personally believe that anyone over the age of 40, scientist or not, can surely observe on their own changes caused by a warming planet.
But, Climate Change isn’t the only negative outcome from our continued use of fossil fuels. The availability of such resources isn’t uniformly spread around the globe. Some regions are blessed with an abundance of oil and gas and/or coal while others have virtually no economically viable fossil resources.
Consequently, given that our miraculous standard of living relies on (relatively) inexpensive energy, geopolitics can easily become badly distorted. The majority of "energy rich” countries seem to end up with leadership that is domestically repressive and internationally menacing. The Iranian Revolution and the taking of American hostages arose in the wake of decades of geopolitical distortions and repression caused by the importance of oil. Saddam Hussein without oil would have been, with all likelihood, a minor menace at best and certainly oil wealth was at the heart of his invasion of Kuwait. There would have been no 9/11 without the war in Kuwait or the repression of the Saudi people. Currently, I cannot see how Putin could have invaded Ukraine without money derived from fossil fuel sales and the Russian economic and societal stability afforded by it.
We pay a huge military price for keeping cheap oil flowing globally. Societies similarly pay a high price, too, some directly (the repressed) and some indirectly (the Ukranians, for example, and those killed on 9/11). National security is clearly impacted by our continued use of fossil fuels.
Economic security is also affected. I mentioned earlier waiting in long lines for gasoline during the 1970s. We are fifty years on from that crisis, but yet we are experiencing a modern crisis of sorts with gas prices currently soaring. The whole economic order seems to have been turned on its head after years of pandemic affecting supply chains and product availability, what has probably been an excess of stimulus spending over two American administrations, and now Putin’s war, which is directly impacting world oil and food markets (never forget that energy is a basic component in the cost of almost everything). Whereas we have failed to wean ourselves off of foreign sources of energy, we are not only negatively impacted when there is conflict, but we should also be left with the unsatisfying knowledge that we have helped finance the conflict. Which we have.
And, speaking of economics, it seems to me that by not investing more aggressively as a nation in renewable energies, we are passing up what is probably the economic opportunity of the century. The time during which most humans have escaped from desperate poverty is truly far less than the past three centuries. The change in almost everything about our world since the early 20th century, in particular, is profound. People from the 19th century would stand in absolute disbelief of our technologies and the many comforts we now enjoy. Life is far easier today than they could have possibly imagined.
However, we have not fully learned how to live in our new world. The impact we are having on the climate is not sustainable and, I truly believe, history will record the success or failure of this century based on how well we address creating sustainable solutions to the issue of Global Warming which, in turn, has a cascading set of repercussions to our safety and our standard of living.
The good news is that we have invented all of the technologies we need to save ourselves. And, at the same time, these technologies are getting better and cheaper by the day. But, we need the resolve to bring them forward within the timeframe needed for humanity’s ongoing success. These technologies will win on their own eventually, but they almost certainly need a “nudge” (or two or three) to accellerate their adoption.
Forecasts suggest that the relative cost of action is pretty small if taken now, especially when balanced against the immensely negative economic catastrophe of a climate cataclysm.
And, as noted above, addressing climate change has the potential of being the mother of all economic opportunities. As a country, we are great at innovating and inventing the new technologies that we need. Imagine if we set up our economy such that we backed that invention up with a renewed focus on domestic manufacturing and production, supported by local project engineering and deployment, which would be further reinforced by Americans performing all of the maintenance as well. People of all skill levels could benefit from a massive deployment of domestically-produced energy, the demand for which is not decreasing. And, we haven’t even touched on export possibilities!
Finally, there is clearly a huge health benefit, too. Whenever we extract resources from the ground and burn them, we are releasing toxins into the air that we all breathe. We know definitively that atmospheric pollution contributes to a host of cancers and respiratory ailments. We know that these health conditions are worse in areas that have concentrated levels of pollutants and that the cost of treatment, like all things medical, is enormous, as is the human cost of poor health and the pain associated with the premature deaths of friends and family.
And, there you have it—what I see as a slam dunk set of arguments for addressing Climate Change through an aggressive campaign to switch to renewable sources of clean energy. Any one of these benefits alone could be rationale enough, but yet we struggle to adopt a national strategy that would likely: make us (and the rest of the world) safer in terms of national security; insulate us from economic shocks created by despots and dictators over whom we have little control; create new national industries that could create jobs for people of a huge range of skill levels; and, increase our national wealth by increasing the nation’s exports to the rest of the world all while we simultaneously increase the breathability of our air, the drinkability of our water, and the overall health of all people.
Our struggle, I think, comes from a toxic ideological purism that is fed by the lies of well-funded special interests who have, over three or four decades, been able to craft a narrative that resonates for a variety of reasons (some sound, some not so defensible) with a certain audience. And this audience is not stupid, but simply misguided by the same types of arguments the tobacco industry made for decades about the safety of its products. If anything, the energy equivalent is much better funded and far better connected than tobacco could have dreamt.
Solar and wind energy are not part of some “liberal conspiracy,” nor are electric cars and new types of batteries. They all simply represent technologies, or tools, neither left wing nor right wing, that we can use to make our world and our lives better. And, you can pick the benefits(s) that are “better” for you and your political perspective. Surely everyone can find something to like in a list that includes better national security, improved economic security, greater economic growth and prosperity, better health, and even, possibly, the long-term livability of our only planetary home. Fundamentally, it’s about sustainability and we are extremely fortunate to be able at this moment to make a choice in favor of a sustainable nation and a sustainable world. We just have to choose wisely.