Monday, June 9, 2008

Beings of pure energy

I distinctly remember having a conversation with a friend of mine, this a good few years ago, wherein he predicted that "People won't really start complaining or clamoring for alternate options until gas hits $10 a gallon. I almost wish it would, so we'd be forced to make serious changes."

Well, with the national average for fuel at $4 a gallon, that clamor has certainly already begun in earnest. Still, my friend's prophecy may have been more accurate in that the main chorus of complaints so far isn't "Higher efficiency standards! Better funding for public transit and alternate fuels!" but rather "More drilling! More of the same!"

Maybe it will take $10/gallon to change that.

I had hoped not. I had hoped that people would recognize the scale and complexity of the problem before we were so deeply mired in high costs, environmental destruction, and political uncertainty. I had hoped that the myth of drilling in ANWR being at all beneficial would have long been debunked with our policymakers. But no, misguided voices are still calling for short-term fixes that would bring more harm than good (when they're any kind of fix at all).

I read a fascinating article in Mother Jones magazine by Paul Roberts that not only does a great job of explaining why the notion of "energy independence" is a political myth, but also suggests better, more effective solutions to our current and future energy problems. I highly recommend giving it a read. An excerpt:
Put another way, the "debate" over energy independence is not only disingenuous, it's also a major distraction from the much more crucial question—namely, how we're going to build a secure and sustainable energy system. Because what America should be striving for isn't energy independence, but energy security—that is, access to energy sources that are reliable and reasonably affordable, that can be deployed quickly and easily, yet are also safe and politically and environmentally sustainable. And let's not sugarcoat it. Achieving real, lasting energy security is going to be extraordinarily hard, not only because of the scale of the endeavor, but because many of our assumptions about energy—about the speed with which new technologies can be rolled out, for example, or the role of markets—are woefully exaggerated. High oil prices alone won't cure this ill: We're burning more oil now than we were when crude sold for $25 a barrel. Nor will Silicon Valley utopian­ism: Thus far, most of the venture capital and innovation is flowing into status quo technologies such as biofuels. And while Americans have a proud history of inventing ourselves out of trouble, today's energy challenge is fundamentally different. Nearly every major energy innovation of the last century—from our cars to transmission lines—was itself built with cheap energy. By contrast, the next energy system will have to contend with larger populations and be constructed using far fewer resources and more expensive energy.
The article goes on to debunk the following "myths": that Ethanol will set us free, conservation is only a "personal virtue," that the United States can go it alone, that a Silicon Valley innovation will fix the problem, simply cutting demand will lead to an ultimate solution, and that once Bush is gone from office, things will automatically get better (well, certain things will, but I get what he's arguing here).

I'm convinced by this argument for diversification, efficiency and long-term planning. But I also strongly believe that anything we can do right now to help, even in small ways, is worth doing. Major increases in funding and good planning for public transportation like light rail, buses and bike paths should be another top priority. The people whose wallets are being hit the hardest by higher gas prices already know this--they're flocking to public transit in droves these days. What's mind boggling is that, in some cities, officials react by seeing fit to cut those services. This simply doesn't make any kind of sense.

Good, efficient public transit doesn't have to be a too-expensive pipe dream. There's clearly already money available for such projects--all that appears to be lacking is the political will to see that said money goes to projects that will benefit citizens and not just contractors.

I'm not the only one who's noticed the strangely higher funding of highway projects and the like while public transit gets mostly shafted.

Provided with affordable, comprehensive options for public transportation, I would be willing to bet that the public would use it. Better buses, trains, and bike paths are good for the whole community, too, not just for the people who use them. More workers can get to more jobs more reliably. Less air pollution. Less traffic congestion. Less green space torn out for new road construction. More money for food, housing, heating bills, etc.

It seems like a no-brainer, but the sad fact is that we need to continue to pitch the good ideas, and then follow-through by 1) holding our elected officials accountable for enacting the appropriate changes and 2) kicking 'em out when they don't.

h/t Dar.

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The Lost Albatross