Friday, July 21, 2006

Energy Heresy and Humanity

Numerous recents events have conspired to urge me toward this post. The first is being without power for a few days after Tuesday night's storms here in the NYC area, then the press coverage of states abandoning the 55 mph speed limit, and finally, this post I wrote about how it is that we don't 'waste' water in this country. It got me thinking about how that young woman's skewed thinking is the exact same view that pervades our thinking about energy, which prompted me to go back and reread the best book on energy I've ever read. The essence of my post on water as it relates to energy is right there on page 3, illuminating the first of Huber and Mills' seven heresies:

"'Energy supply' is determined not by 'what's out there' but by how good we are at finding and extracting it. What is scarce is not raw energy but the drive and the logic that is able to locate, purify, and channel it to our own ends."

You may have noticed that the death of the 55 mph speed limit has been getting press lately(maybe because some limits are going up toward 80 or 85 mph and safety scolds are howling). Huber and Mills put the 55 mph speed limit in its historical context as a tactic of what they dub "the Lethargists":

"...the national 55 mph speed limit slowed people down and thus limited how far we drove."

The Lethargists is how H&M describe the doomsday predictors like Paul Ehrlich and Amory Lovins that wanted to reduce energy consumption not by promoting efficiency but by mandating terms of our use of resources and thus denying us a certain lifestyle:

"Slower trips, dimmer bulbs, smaller refrigerators, and such aren't more efficient; they're slower, smaller, darker - they nudge us toward a less frenetic, peripatetic, and physically expansive way of life. Perhaps it is a good thing. But it is not more efficient, it is more sedentary, calm, and quiet - in short, more lethargic."

People paid no attention to the 55 mph speed limit almost from the get-go, but the recent headlines indicate a positive - that we have killed it off completely and in fact have metaphorically rejected its premise, we don't want lethargy. That point was driven home being without power for a few days. Sure it was inconvient but I discovered that the loss was deeper. In the sticky, humid July weather I was sluggish and sweaty, less inclined to play wrestle with my kids, less inclined to hug my wife, less inclined to do anything helpful or positive. And when the sun went down I gazed upon my family's faces illuminated by the faint hue of candles. I don't see my wife and kids all day long, I don't want to see them at night lit faintly by candlelight. I want to see those faces under blazing lights as if it were noon and I want to be cool and comfortable and ready to play wrestle, give horsey rides, hugs and all that. Slower, smaller, darker etc. is not a good thing, it, in fact, sucks.

And that, my friends, is the essence behind our pursuit of ever more abundant energy - we want to have richer, fuller lives, pack more things into our lives, travel more places, meet more people, communicate more often, save time, defeat illnesses, enhance leisure, etc. Huber and Mills:

"Humanity is destined to find and consume more energy, and still more, forever."

Lethargists are always with us. Let's continue to be on guard against them and clearminded about what they want, and clearminded about what we want. Huber and Mills's heresy is our humanity.


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