by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
“The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, even unto the third and fourth generation.”
The above passage from the Old Testament (Numbers 14:18) has widespread applications. I am not a theologian, but research leads me to believe that the message intended therein is that “poor judgments and selfish actions of one generation will have negative consequences for future generations.”
It is hard to argue with that; especially when the poor judgments and selfish actions are predicated on borrowing with no plan for repayment (which is also known as “stealing”). Consider a rich family, with an annual income of one million dollars, along with billions in savings. Suppose the generation in control of the savings began spending it at a rate of ten million dollars a year. What would be our judgment?
We would disdain that generation for squandering the family’s wealth at an unsustainable rate. We would likely say, “The wealth belongs to the family now and in the future. It is the family’s wealth, not just this generation’s. The people of this generation are merely the stewards of the wealth, not only for themselves but also for their descendants.” We would castigate them as profligate, imprudent, uncaring, self-serving. Certainly we would call them terrible stewards of what has been entrusted to them.
Yet we persist in doing the same thing ourselves, but on a global scale. The last couple of centuries have seen a dramatic increase in standard of living for the industrialized world, primarily as the result of spending the capital of nature. The abundance of energy provided by fossil fuel sources has made this possible.
Image credit: mormonmedianetwork.com
The family of humanity has a huge energy income in the form of solar radiation. This includes not just solar energy, but also wind energy (as wind is the result of the sun’s uneven heating of the earth’s surface), and water energy (insofar as the heat acquired from sunlight enables the water cycle). Non-solar energy sources such as tidal movement are also available as energy income.
Notwithstanding this abundant income, we have chosen to ignore it and instead to raid our “energy savings account.” The oil and natural gas being squandered represent millions upon millions of years of savings of solar energy.
Solar energy makes possible the photosynthesis that grows plants, and those plants have fed herbivorous creatures such as dinosaurs. All this organic material has been accumulating all this time, slowly becoming oil, natural gas, and coal. All these products are currently being spent not so much to produce energy as to release the energy that was stored in them over millennia of millennia.
Is there a shortage of oil, gas, or coal? Not now, in the sense that there is a sufficient supply to meet current needs. But the same could be said of a billion-dollar bank account being spent at the rate of a hundred thousand dollars a day. There is no shortage now, but there will be nothing left in less than 28 years. In that sense, there was an oil shortage as soon as the first barrel was taken out of the ground.
There are three things that define the wise use of energy. Energy must be accessible, it must be responsible, and it must be sustainable. The problem lies in making all of these work together.
Accessibility means “the availability of energy to all people everywhere.”
Responsibility means “the wise use of energy, both economically and environmentally.”
Sustainability means “the ability to continue the provision of sufficient energy indefinitely.”
There are geographic considerations, such as supplying power to remote villages and in places where traditional forms of power generation are not readily accessible. There are also economic considerations, in that the majority of the world’s citizens are too poor to have much to spend on energy acquisition.
In the case of fossil fuel energy, the first two factors work at cross-purposes. In order to ensure accessibility, such energy must be priced low. In order to ensure responsibility, it must be priced high.
Even disregarding these contradictory aims, the fossil fuel dilemma still cannot be resolved. While the expenditure problem appeals to the economist in all of us, it will not be an issue if the continued use of fossil fuels makes our planet uninhabitable.
Global warming is real. The climate change caused by it is real. The cause of it is human misuse of fossil fuels. We can either grow up and accept that, or we can continue to be children in an adult world.
Yes, the earth’s climate is cyclical, but that does not mean global warming isn’t causing climate change. How do we know the earth’s climate is cyclical? We know it because it was discovered by climatologists and geophysicists – the same climatologists and geophysicists who are almost unanimously warning us about man-made climate change today. If we believe their findings about the former, by what justification can we deny their findings about the latter?
Let us go back to our spendthrift family. Suppose now that, in addition to their prodigal waste of the family capital, funding short-term gain with long-term pain, they are filling the family’s property with the waste produced by their irresponsible lifestyle, and soon their home will be uninhabitable.
This is where we find ourselves today. There are two major flaws in our energy policy, one relatively long-term, and one most assuredly short-term. The short-term danger – that of climate change caused by global warming – is the more pressing, and solving it will essentially solve the long-term danger.
There is important action on this front today. Climate-change activist Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez, whom I have written about several times previously, along with twenty other young people and legendary climate-change scientist James Hansen, are being heard in Federal court, where they are suing the United States government to compel action on the stewardship of natural resources. Read about it here and stay tuned for an update in my next blog post on the environment!