This week will be a little different: We’re going to look at energy. It pervades everything — the economy, the environment, politics and social justice, just to name a handful — because it powers everything. Life simply cannot exist without it and yet, as fundamental as it is, it’s equally as controversial.
And at the end of the day, energy makes hypocrites of all of us.
I bring this up in some sort of hope that as we hold up a mirror to the challenges we face, maybe some inspired, candid and creative thinking will result. Short of that, it should at least get us all reflecting a bit more on our attitudes toward energy, our hopes and aspirations, our shortcomings.
Energy is everywhere
What is energy? In essence, it’s everything and anything that powers something else, in its basic form or manipulated by humans to our benefit. It’s sun, wind, water. It’s gas and oil and coal and elements and the reactions created through heat and fire and refinement and fusion. It produces food, which is also energy.
There’s nothing we do, buy or use that isn’t dependent on it. There’s no life without it.
Energy has fueled population growth and progress since (before) humankind began; now growth and consumption are damaging our planet and our people and I’m as alarmed by that as anyone else. However, I think/admit that I’m also either more pragmatic or pessimistic about our ability to change.
Energy: Economics, politics and the environment
Can we do enough to make a difference for the environment while balancing economic stability and growth — and, importantly, without penalizing those who can least afford it, here in the U.S. and around the world?
For example, if gas in the U.S. was $5 or even $10 per gallon, this would undoubtedly have an impact on the way millions of Americans drive. We’d want smaller cars with better mileage; we’d buy hybrids and EVs in earnest. In reality, though, lower-income Americans would be most negatively impacted, in no small way because they’re also the same people who have to drive furthest because rents and property prices have gotten so high in the cities and towns where they work — and because EVs and hybrids probably aren’t high on their list when they’re worried about food on the table.
And so it goes, as our federal government works hard to keep fuel prices down.
In fact — and I’ve never understood this, because it’s sticking our heads in the sand — energy prices and food prices are not factored into core inflation
when they’re the two things that we use and need the most. I understand that the exclusions are made because of necessity and volatility, but that’s exactly why we should include them: Are there any lower-to-middle-income households that don’t feel the impacts of the cost of gas for their cars or utilities for their home or food for them and their families?
If the federal government was to allow gas prices to rise, it would have a devastating impact on many households. No one wants that on their shoulders, so we’ve kept prices low — and taken it for granted.
Although America can be energy-independent due to its vast resources, we still pursue complete independence. As America pursues complete energy independence, we still import based on pricing and environmental/political issues. How realistic are our alternatives? We’ll probably be asking that question a lot in the coming months, as the calendar winds into winter and energy prices rise. As reported by CNN
The cost of energy was dirt cheap in the spring of 2020 as roads and airports sat nearly empty during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Energy demand is back today as the world economy reopens — but supply simply hasn’t kept up. That’s why US oil prices have skyrocketed $120 since crashing to negative $40 a barrel in April 2020. US oil prices finished above $80 a barrel on Monday for the first time in nearly seven years.
The article continues, “The national average price for gasoline hit a fresh seven-year high of $3.27 a gallon on Monday, up by 7 cents in the past week alone, according to AAA.
Gas has nearly doubled since bottoming at $1.77 in April 2020.”
Add to this predictions for a very cold winter and about the only thing I can say is, ouch.
Are alternative fuels viable alternatives?
I don’t disagree that we need to explore and expand energy sources that are renewable, sustainable, and environmentally sound, but although NASA can send exploratory technology to the ends of our solar system (powered by the sun, by the way), we here on Earth are still fumbling with how to create a battery for cars that’s safe, long-lasting, won’t damage the planet and is economically viable.
How many Americans are excited to see every open field in the southwestern U.S. covered in solar panels? Is this what we envision as sustainable and secure energy?
Hydropower can make a dent — or, perhaps it could have before our planet was besieged by the current drought/deluge scenario that we’re seeing around the world. We can barely water our farms in the U.S. southwest now: Are we going to drain that resource even more to make up for reductions of fossil fuels? Are the inefficiencies of renewables too difficult? I hope not but right now, I also can’t see what we move away from and what we move toward.
Everything has costs and consequences
Again, I raise these questions but I have no answers. And as we mull this over, I can’t help but wonder if what we think is better today is just as bad or even worse?
For example, I sometimes wonder if we’ve thought through the long-term implications of eliminating greenhouse gasses. We know they have devastating impacts today and we have to reduce emissions. But how would our atmosphere change if we successfully eradicated them — and are we certain that all of those changes are beneficial?
About 150 years ago, crude oil was pulled from the Earth,
and kerosene was extracted to light our homes. Then, when cars came along, we finally had a use for crude’s other byproduct, gas. Then, when we realized how much cleaner gas burned than kerosene or coal, it became the energy source of choice to light our homes and power our businesses, and we powered our farms and raised more cattle (which meant more methane, too). Then we realized we could generate electricity using a whole host of things, so we took gas lighting out of the house and off of the streets. And here we are.
As the old saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The hard truth
I can’t help but feel that we’re barking up the wrong tree right now, trying to create the right answers to what I believe are fundamentally the wrong questions. The hard truth is that as long as we continue to be a consumption-driven society, we need to get real about our habits — and then we can try to figure out how to live in ways that are impactful, sustainable and still enjoyable. For now, a lot of us are just hypocrites.
Energy is often thought of in silos: By type of energy, by source, by class or by use. I think that for us to collectively reach any meaningful goals, it would be useful to think of it more holistically, more universally.
So, maybe we need to get a lot better at using our main resources — gas and oil — rather than trying to eliminate them. Maybe it also means killing off the “growth or death” mentality that pushes corporations to produce at any and call costs. Maybe it means a renewed focus on manufacturing at home to reduce the cycle of overproduction and waste, along with environmentally disruptive shipping and distribution. Maybe that also means accepting a steady GDP, rather than looking for significant growth every year. And I don’t even know where to go on the question of meat consumption (I like steak).
I think the question we need to be asking about energy, then, is, “How do we help restore equilibrium to the Earth while still allowing for the best of what it is to be human: Our desire to explore, create and grow?”
An interesting proposition
As I said from the start, my point today was not to solve this, but to get us thinking a bit differently. On that note, a colleague proposed an interesting thought that I’ll leave you with: What if each household had annual allocations for gas, water and electricity (and maybe even throw in petroleum-based products, like plastics), with the ability to decide how to “spend” each of our allocations, based on our own needs and priorities?
I think it’s an interesting exercise to get us thinking about correlative behaviors and how our lives, and our planet, could potentially change for the better.