Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Business as Usual

"Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night

"Lord what fools these mortals be!"

Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream

"Energy is eternal delight."

William Blake

Last month I did a post on obesity in which I argued that the "heroic" ideal, according to which we expect the average obese person to shed (and keep shed!) the pounds through sheer willpower, is unrealistic. Rather, systemic incentives must compensate for human frailty. I would submit that the same is true of our now daily vilified "addiction" to fossil fuels, now blamed for both climate change and the kind of reckless quest for oil dominating the airwaves.

In a recent column Thomas Friedman suggested that maybe now, in the wake of the calamity in the Gulf of Mexico, we will decide to take drastic action as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint. His article was entitled "This Time It's Different." No, it's not, at least so far as individual, existential, by-the-bootstraps decision-making is concerned.

Human beings on average are wired to appreciate threats and crises that affect them or their kin or close neighbors in a direct and concrete way. Climate change and, notwithstanding ubiquitous images of oiled wildlife, oil spills are too remote and abstract to change daily behavior. Human beings crave energy, whether in the form of culinary calories or fossil fuel horsepower, and we seek to enjoy this energy without its deleterious drawbacks. Like the true addict, we wish not to decrease or cease our use, but to use without consequences.

Fossil fuel consumption will not diminish until its cost to the individual consumer increases drastically, period. The overriding convenience of cheap and abundant energy is like cocaine. Of course, one point of government is to enable us, collectively, to compensate for individual short-sightedness by enacting laws that reflect our wisdom and our better nature. We need innovative energy policy, not holding out hope for individual abstinence from fossil fuels. The argument from individual virtue is the argument for inaction.


Retriever said...

I love the new look of the blog, and am really enjoying your latest posts.

Agree with your comments on what motivates us to save energy, etc. Also, I deeply resent the hypocritical posturing about energy and green living by our current political leaders.

My policy is that I try NOT to do anything that drastically poisons the earth (ie: batteries, lead paint, pesticides, etc.) and that on "green" stuff, I do any of it that costs me less money than the "conventional" alternative. Thus, I compost, garden organically, line dry clothes, buy clothes and other crud from the thrift shop, share stuff with friends and neighbors, etc. But I am deeply suspicious of most of Obama's cronies plots and schemes for "green" energy. Also, having grown up in Latin America and studied the THird World, and had a father who built farms all over the world, to feed hungry people, I know that organic methods will not be enough to feed a starving world. This is not to acquiesce in the devastation of the land that some forms of industrial agriculture have wrought. The answer wiill involve compromise, and adjustment both of our individual habits, and legislation about the most harmful methods.

My spouse is an MBA and historian, who has done in depth financial analysis of most green energy generating technologies and none of them make sense economically as yet. They do, however, like Gore's infamous carbon credits, potentially enrich a bunch of people. Also, with green technology, the law of unintended consequences is always important. Think of a Prius, for example. Which I would like (last time I bought a car, two years ago, one couldn't get hold of one because of the gas prices, so I got a turbodiesel Jetta which gets 40 mpg) because I would save money on gas that would more than make up for the higher purchase price, and they are cute. BUT: the manufacture of the highly toxic battery and how to dispose of it eventually? Not very green.

I am basically a stingy sceptical New Englander. While I like buying stuff as much as the next person (and "green" stuff has this alluring aura!), the key thing is to moderate one's natural greed and lust for more, more more. Now, do as I say, not as I do vis a vis camera equipment.... :)

Anonymous said...

The diffusion of moral responsibility means inaction on a catastrophic level.

Individual contribution is so quantifiably insignificant when regarded as an isolated action that humans too easily give up say 'why bother?'

Yes, when it hurts: first I'll take a pill to numb the pain, if it still hurts I'll cut off the offending site of pain, and then as a last resort, if the pain still haunts, I'll address the cause of the pain.....or just take another pill to delude myself into thinking it doesn't exist.

Dr X said...

You're absolutely right.

Europeans pay more than twice as much as Americans for fuel at the pump and it shows in their rates of consumption. There are other factors that contribute to the difference between European and American per capita consumption of oil, but price is a major factor. When gasoline costs $8-$9 per gallon, do you purchase an SUV that get 17 mpg when a 30 mpg vehicle would suffice?

Our other problem is reliance on coal. Abandoning nuclear energy was a huge mistake.

All of the other schemes for government investment in new technologies amount to tinkering around the edges of the problem. Consumption will continue to be a function of price.