Richard Heinberg: What We Stand For

Post Carbon Institute 

Every activist engaged in combating human-caused climate change or specific elements of the current energy economy knows that the work is primarily oppositional. It could hardly be otherwise; for citizens who care about ecological integrity, a sustainable economy, and the health of nature and people, there is plenty to oppose—biomass logging in Massachusetts, mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia, natural gas drilling in Wyoming, poorly sited solar developments in California, river-killing dams in Chile and Brazil, and new nuclear and coal plants around the globe.

These and many other fights against destructive energy projects are crucial, but they can be draining and tend to focus the conversation in negative terms. Sometimes it’s useful to reframe the discourse about ecological limits and economic restructuring in positive terms, that is, about what we’re for. The following list is not comprehensive, but beauty and biodiversity are fundamentals that the energy economy must not diminish. And energy literacy, conservation, relocalization of economic systems, and family planning are necessary tools to achieve our vision of a day when resilient human communities are imbedded in healthy ecosystems, and all members of the land community have space enough to flourish.

Energy Literacy
Energy is arguably the most decisive factor in both ecosystems and human economies. It is the fulcrum of history, the enabler of all that we do. Yet few people have more than the sketchiest understanding of how energy makes the world go ’round.

Basic energy literacy consists of a familiarity with the laws of thermodynamics, and with the concepts of energy density and energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). It requires a familiarity with the costs and benefits of our various energy sources—including oil, coal, gas, nuclear, wind, and solar. It also implies numeracy—the ability to meaningfully compare numbers referring to quantities of energy and rates of use, so as to be able to evaluate matters of scale.

Without energy literacy, citizens and policy makers are at the mercy of interest groups wanting to sell us their vision of the future energy economy. We hear from the fossil fuel industry, for example, that Canada’s oil reserves (in the form of “tar sands”) are second only to Saudi Arabia’s, or that the United States has over 100 years of natural gas thanks to newly tapped “shale gas” resources. And it’s tempting to conclude (as many people do) that there are no real constraints to national fossil fuel supplies other than environmental regulations preventing the exploitation of our immense natural treasures.

On the other end of the spectrum, we hear from techno-optimists that, with the right mix of innovative energy generation and efficiency technologies, we can run the growth economy on wind, solar, hydropower, and biofuels. And it’s tempting to conclude that we only need better government incentives and targeted regulatory reform to open the floodgates to a “green” high-tech sustainable future.

Energy literacy arms us with the intellectual tools to ask the right questions: What is the energy density of these new fossil fuel resources? How much energy will have to be invested to produce each energy unit of synthetic crude oil from oil shale, or electricity from thin-film solar panels? How quickly can these energy sources be brought online, and at what rate can they realistically deliver energy to consumers? When we do ask such questions, the situation suddenly looks very different. We realize that the new fossil fuels are actually third-rate energy sources that require immense and risky investments and may never be produced at a significant scale. We find that renewable energy technologies face their own serious constraints in energy and materials needs, and that transitioning to a majority-renewable energy economy would require a phenomenal re-tooling of our energy and transportation infrastructure.

With energy literacy, citizens and policy makers have a basis for sound decisions. Householders can measure how much energy they use and strategize to obtain the most useful services from the smallest energy input. Cities, states, and nations can invest wisely in infrastructure both to produce and use energy with greatest efficiency and with minimal damage to the natural world. With energy literacy, we can undertake a serious, clear-eyed societal conversation about the policies and actions needed to reshape our energy system…

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