If you have a ton of debt on your credit card and you go to consumer credit counseling, the first order of business is to cut up the credit card and develop a strict plan to get you back on track towards living within your means. Our continued dependency on fossil energy is proving to be that credit card we need to cut up. And we need to urgently develop a strong plan to live on the solar income, that is, to live within our means energy-wise.
We live at a time of extreme energy extraction, where, as Barbara Kingsolver puts it, “extravagant excesses of one culture wash up as famine or flood on the shores of another.” She recalls Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days, where the hero of the novel is stranded in the mid-Atlantic on a steamship that has run out of coal. The decision is to extract and throw any part of the ship that burns into the boiler. “On the next day the masts, rafts, and spars were burned. The crew worked lustily, keeping up the fires. There was a perfect rage for demolition.”
We see signs of extreme fossil energy extraction all around us: blowing up mountains to remove coal in Kentucky, blowing up the bedrock of our nation to get oil and natural gas, disfiguring the Mississippi bluff lands in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin to extract sand for fracking, land degrading practices to grow corn for ethanol and, worse of all, acidifying the oceans, and a destabilizing the atmosphere that supports all life. A perfect rage for demolition.
We all have heard and should understand the expression “freedom isn’t free.” So, by now, it should be abundantly clear that cheap energy isn’t cheap, just like cheap food isn’t cheap. This extreme energy extraction invariably requires beating up on other people and places near and far. It is destructive of nature, dangerous to democratic institutions, communities, and human health.
Fossil fuels are not working for us, and it makes no sense to continue on this destructive path. As ecologist Sandra Steingraber puts it, we need to shut the door on fossil energy as we open the door on conservation and renewable energy. This is the overarching task for us right now, with no time to dither. We need to learn to perceive this situation as an emergency and act accordingly, much like Cedar Rapids officials did a couple of weeks ago facing another massive flood.
Ratcheting down fossil fuel use will require divestment at all levels: global, national regional, community and personal. We need to keep showing how dirty fossil energy is, how unglamorous it is. No more new investment in fossil energy infrastructure, such as pipelines, compressor stations, and fertilizer plants requiring massive amounts of natural gas.
According to economist Robert Costanza, “What we have had in the past is a market that really hasn’t been telling us the truth about the costs of our activities. So what we want to do is make the market tell the truth.” Shutting the door on fossil energy will require an array of policies that make fossil energy a lot more expensive through fees, taxes, and disincentives, to reflect the true costs of its troubles.
Moving away from fossil energy will require a cultural change for the better: ending frivolous and wasteful use of energy, massive energy and material conservation, and in general creating everyday community living arrangements that use a lot less energy and material while enhancing ecosystem services.
Meanwhile, investing in and deploying existing renewable energy infrastructure that have been proven effective (wind & solar) is critical in this transition. We need policies and incentives for widespread adoption at many scales. Iowa has demonstrated that utility-scale wind energy is possible, practical and cost-effective. Same can be true with community-scale solar electric systems, solar hotwater systems, and other proven strategies. Solar and wind are our native energy sources. The key is rapid, widespread adoption through public policy, not just voluntarily by a few people at some later point.
As Naomi Klein puts it in This Changes Everything, “the good news is that many of these changes are distinctly uncatastrophic. Many are downright exciting. During WWII, pleasure driving was virtually eliminated in the UK, and between 1933 and 1944 use of public transit went up by 87 percent in the U.S. and by 95 percent in Canada.”
We perceived an emergency and we acted accordingly. We need to see the troubles of our nasty dependency on fossil energy the same way.