Debating Energy as if Communities Mattered

Congress is debating legislation that will impact our capacity to address the global warming crisis.

An energy bill, titled the Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection, and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007, is now being considered on the Senate floor. Proposals include fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, funding of biofuels research, and the strategic idea that OPEC should no longer be allowed to price gouge as gasoline prices rise. These are commendable goals, certainly an improvement over the stagnation of the conservative government in recent years that has refused to even acknowledge the immense threats of global warming and a volatile dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

But there are other important considerations that belong in the energy debate if we are to actually rise to the challenges humanity faces. Progressives have not articulated the idea that sound energy policy is meant to promote livable communities and a livable world for all life forms, half of which now face extinction. My purpose here is to clarify the terms of the current debate to reveal a path the discourse can take to promote this central progressive idea.

Narrow Focus on Fuels

The climate crisis has finally become a household concern and decision makers are struggling with policy choices. We have gone from thinking about dependence on foreign oil to the recognition that we must reduce our dependence on oil itself. Talk has begun to focus on alternative sources of energy that do not release as many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The public discourse is obsessed with fuel!

The same thing happens when we talk about energy independence. The concept for energy includes the source of energy being some kind of fuel. Because the focus on energy independence has been on Middle East oil, energy is commonly taken as referring to fuel. The terms oil and foreign oil, are also associated with fuels. This is why public discourse keeps coming back to the topic of fuel. Each concept has its own frame, thus the meaning shifts as one term is replaced with another, but the problem is being defined as finding an alternative source of fuel.

This narrow discussion has missed the most fundamental concern of all, which is that we want our societies and life on Earth to survive indefinitely into the future. Ecology teaches us to think in terms of whole systems, but energy problems have not been approached holistically. We need to look at the society-wide patterns for energy production, distribution, and consumption to find workable solutions at the level of communities as well as the wider patterns that threaten half of the life on Earth. "Energy independence" is an issue with much wider consequences.

Clarifying the Terms of Debate

Before exploring the noteworthy ideas that have been excluded from the debate, it is necessary to clarify what is there now. This is not straightforward because the terms of debate have not been made explicit. Progressives and conservatives are using the same words, but as Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin has famously observed "sometimes words have two meanings." There is a lot of talk about alternative fuels, sustainability, and efficiency. These terms do not mean the same things across the political spectrum.

Conservatives talk about being dependent on conventional fuels that threaten our national security, economic independence, and lastly environmental harm, seen as limited to the production of greenhouse gases. They recommend alternative fuels such as nuclear, coal, and corn-based ethanol as ways to become independent from energy sources that pose those threats. They frame the problem as being about the direct link between foreign oil and domestic alternatives.

Progressives mean something quite different when we talk about the harms of conventional fuels. Our understanding is based on the systems-approach in ecology that reveals the harms of our energy consumption patterns. Our energy demands are out of balance with healthy ecosystem functioning, especially the heating of the Earth's atmosphere by emitting carbon dioxide through the combustion of fossil fuels. The location relative to national boundaries of energy production is not the principle concern. Rather, it is the impact of using the kinds of fuels in the ways -- and the amounts -- that we do now that are not working.

Care must also be taken when using the word sustainability because it too is contested. Conservatives have started talking about sustaining our current way of life, as though Americans can keep consuming 23% of global energy produced with less than 5% of the population (a discussion of these statistics can be found here). They describe how coal reserves can sustain us for 236 years, as if it were immune to the problems from fossil fuel combustion and the environmental destruction and pollution associated with extracting it. By their argument, it is more important to preserve our consumer choice to drive SUVs than to preserve a livable planet.

Sustainability means something else to progressives. It is about having livable communities and a livable world that are built around ecological principles to balance human consumption with the capacity for ecosystems to replenish what we extract. In this view, our current way of life is not sustainable because our consumption patterns are drastically out of balance with ecological rates of recovery. We explicitly recognize our responsibility to our children and grandchildren to restore this balance.

This difference is evident with biofuels. While conservatives tout them as a viable alternative fuel that allows Americans to continue current consumption patterns, progressives recognize several problems that need to be taken into consideration:

  1. Biofuel production requires us to replace farm land used for food production
  2. The use of monoculture practices (only one crop in a large field) makes the crops vulnerable to pests and diseases
  3. Genetic engineering introduces possibilities for the creation of new invasive species
  4. Excessive use of fertilizers are necessary for large-scale agricultural production, which can harm ecosystems and negatively impact human health

We can emphasize the progressive meaning by focusing the energy debate on livability for our communities now and into the future.

Missing Ingredients Crucial for Success

So what's missing from the energy debate? The necessity to look at our society and our world holistically is absent. This is why the idea of livable communities doesn't pop up in discussions about energy use. Central to the energy crisis is the amount of energy required to live the way we do now. Here are two new ideas that have not infiltrated the debate:

The way our cities have been structured wastes energy.

The current debate makes no reference to the way cities are structured. For example, the suburban satellite-community structure of our cities entraps people through geographic constraints (e.g. the travel distance between home and work, how freeways are designed, lack of adequate public transportation, etc.) that make them dependent upon automobiles. The separation of food production from population centers is another consequence of these structures, requiring us to transport heavy loads over long distances. Energy use is deeply intertwined with the kinds of communities we have. This includes the way we lay out our cities and move around within them.

Explore the relationship between people and energy infrastructure.

The energy bill includes proposals to improve efficiency at the source of production (e.g. power plants updated with new technology) and the source of use (e.g. replace wasteful incandescent light bulbs with superior fluorescent bulbs that use less energy, but may have health problems, e.g. migraines). But we do not talk about the relationship between production and use. Our current energy grid is set up so that large production facilities produce electricity that is transmitted over long distances to end-users. This centralized mode of production is very wasteful. We can cut our energy demand considerably by rethinking the role of people in this relationship. Energy users can become local energy producers. This can happen by promoting local communities to become self-reliant by generating their own electricity (e.g. solar panels, windmills, "green" home designs, etc.).

These ideas make sense from the perspective that energy issues are intertwined with the kinds of communities we have. They have not entered the debate because too much emphasis is on energy production in the debate about fuel, which implicitly assumes that the way we live now cannot improve.

Energy Use is a Way of Life

Ultimately, the survival of our civilization will depend upon the way we envision community life. Central to this is how we use energy. We must ask ourselves such things as whether to invest in interstate highways and more suburban and exurban development that requires more automobiles, or develop new housing by "infill," with residences close to work and shopping, allowing for walking, public transportation, even bicycles. This is not merely a personal choice because the structure of our communities places constraints on the feasibility of different options.

The challenges we face today are vast. They require a broad vision that includes all central issues. We can no longer afford to merely tweak the system we have without asking if it is the system we should have and can have.

The future history of the world depends more than is appreciated on the way the problem is framed, because "solutions" depend on the definition of the problem. What America does will be copied around the world. We have to do it right, not just for America's sake, but for the world's sake.

I find the proposals put forth in the energy bill to be commendable because they acknowledge that change is essential to preserve our security as a nation. The next step is to broaden the energy debate so that workable solutions become clear. Once the problems are understood, overall workable solutions can be found.

Our leaders need to recognize the central idea that livable communities and a livable world are a central component of energy reform.

Joe Brewer of the Rockridge Institute.

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