Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis - Part 9

by Prof. Al Bartlett

IX. What do we do now?

The problems are such that we have rather few options. All of the following points are vital:

(i) We must educate all of our people to an understanding of the arithmetic and consequences of growth, especially in terms of the earth's finite resources. David Brower has observed that, "The promotion of growth is simply a sophisticated way to steal from our children."

(ii) We must educate people to the critical urgency of abandoning our religious belief in the disastrous dogma that "growth is good," that "bigger is better," that "we must grow or we will stagnate," etc., etc. We must realize that growth is but an adolescent phase of life which stops when physical maturity is reached. If growth continues in the period of maturity it is called obesity or cancer. Prescribing growth as the cure for the energy crisis28, 29 has all the logic of prescribing increasing quantities of food as a remedy for obesity. The recent occasion of our nation's 200th anniversary would be an appropriate time to make the transition from national adolescence to national maturity.

(iii) We must conserve in the use and consumption of everything. We must outlaw planned obsolescence. We must recognize that, as important as it is to conserve, the arithmetic shows clearly that large savings from conservation will be wiped out in short times by even modest rates of growth. For example, in one or two dozen years a massive federal program might result in one-half of the heat for the buildings where we live and work being supplied by solar energy instead of by fossil fuels. This would save 10% of our national use of fossil fuels, but this enormous saving could be completely wiped out by two years of 5% growth. Conservation alone cannot do the job! The most effective way to conserve is to stop the growth in consumption.

As we consider the absolute urgency of conservation we must recognize that some powerful people are hostile to the concept of conservation. One of our great multinational oil companies has advertised that conservation is: "Good for you - but not if there's too much." And in the same ad they noted that: "Conservation does no harm."35

In his message to the American people President Carter proposed a tax on large "gas guzzling" cars. General Motors Chairman Thomas Murphy had the following reaction to this proposal to conserve energy: Murphy calls the excise tax on big cars, coupled with rebates on small cars "one of the most simplistic irresponsible and short-sighted ideas ever conceived by the hip-shooting marketeers of the Potomac."36

Big labor is hostile to this same conservation measure. Leonard Woodcock, President of the United Auto Workers said of the tax: "I respectfully suggest that the proposal is wrong.

It is not properly thought through and should be withdrawn."37

Congress is not enthusiastic about conservation: "Look for Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle - including Chairman Russell Long of the Finance Committee and Minority Leader Howard Baker - to gang up on Carter's energy package. The two influential lawmakers want more stress on the production of oil, not so much on conservation."38

Closer to home we can note that our governors don't show much enthusiasm for conservation: "The nation's governors told President Carter that the federal government is placing too much emphasis on conservation and not enough on developing new resources."39

With all this influential opposition one can see how difficult it will be to launch major national programs of energy conservation.

(iv) We must recycle almost everything. Except for the continuous input of sunlight the human race must finish the trip with the supplies that were aboard when the "spaceship earth" was launched.

(v) We must invest great sums in research (a) to develop the use of solar, geothermal, wind, tidal, biomass, and alternative energy sources; (b) to reduce the problems of nuclear fission power plants; (c) to explore the possibility that we may be able to harness nuclear fusion. These investments must not be made with the idea that if these research programs are successful the new energy sources could sustain growth for a few more doubling times. The investments must be made with the goal that the new energy sources could take over the energy load in a mature and stable society in which fossil fuels are used on a declining exponential curve as chemical raw materials and are not used as fuel for combustion. One great area of responsibility of our community of scientists and engineers is vigorous pursuit of research and development in all these areas. These areas offer great opportunity to creative young people.

Perhaps the most critical things that we must do is to decentralize, and consequently humanize, the scale and scope of our national industrial and utility enterprises.40

(iv) We must recognize that it is exceedingly unscientific to promote ever-increasing rates of consumption of our fuel resources based on complete confidence that science, technology, and the economics of the marketplace will combine to produce vast new energy resources as they are needed. Note the certainty that characterizes this confidence.

Coal could help fight a rear-guard action to provide time for scientific breakthroughs which will move the world from the fossil fuel era of wood, gas, oil, and coal to the perpetual energy era of infinitely renewable energy resources.41 The supply (of coal) is adequate to carry the U.S. well past the transition from the end of the oil and gas era to new, possibly not discovered sources of energy in the 2000s.42

There seems to be an almost complete absence of the caution that would counsel us to stop the growth of our national energy appetite until these "unlimited energy resources" are proven to be capable of carrying the national energy load. We must recognize that it is not acceptable to base our national future on the motto "When in doubt, gamble."

Fusion is most commonly mentioned as being an unlimited energy source. The optimism that leads some people to believe that fusion power will be ready whenever it is needed should be balanced against this opening statement in a report on fusion from MIT. "Designing a fusion reactor in 1977 is a little like planning to reach heaven: theories abound on how to do it, and many people are trying, but no one alive has ever succeeded."43

If the generation of electric power from fusion was achieved today, we could ask how long would it then be before fusion could play a significant role in our national energy picture. The time-constant for the replacement of one major energy source by another can be estimated from the fact that the first nuclear fission reactor was operated in December 1942. Even though the recent growth of nuclear energy in the U.S. has been spectacular, it was not until around 1972 that annual energy consumption equaled our annual energy consumption from firewood! By 1973 nuclear energy had climbed to the point where it supplied 1.3% of our U.S. total annual energy consumption and 4.6% of our electrical power.44 Thus in 31 years nuclear energy has grown to provide only a small fraction of our energy needs. Had there been no growth of our national electrical needs since 1942, today's nuclear plants would be supplying 41% of our national electrical power.

(vii) We can no longer sit back and deplore the lack of "leadership" and the lack of response of our political system. In the immortal words of Pogo "We have met the enemy, and they's us." We are the leaders, we are vital parts of the political system and we have an enormous responsibility.

The arithmetic makes clear what will happen if we hope that we can continue to increase our rate of consumption of fossil fuels. Some experts suggest that the system will take care of itself and that growth will stop naturally, even though they know that cancer, if left to run its natural course, always stops when the host is consumed. My seven suggestions are offered in the spirit of preventive medicine.

Reprinted with permission from Bartlett, A., American Journal of Physics, 46(9), 876, 1978. This article may be downloaded for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author and the American Association of Physics Teachers. Copyright 1978, the American Association of Physics Teachers.
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