Well, blow me down. Stephane Dion, my very favorite Canadian candidate, just won the leadership race for the Liberal Party. This guy is a smart, sweet man with all the right values. I once participated in a conference at a big table with him at the other end, and I was truly impressed – almost smitten. He was a fervent environment minister. I heard that he even bought a dog and named him Kyoto. So I am going to vote Liberal next time just to help him.
I was already helping, I think, yesterday when my forum, “Climate Change and the Coming Energy Crisis” came together. There was a good turnout – especially in the afternoon. Unfortunately, there was a fire alarm while we were showing Al Gore’s film, but everyone came back in and packed the room fully. The panelists were fascinating, though I wish they had debated a little more. Probably I should have made time for them to address each other before opening the floor up for the audience to ask questions.
There were three perspectives represented there – all addressing some of the same problems but seeing them in different lights. First, and most importantly, there’s the climate change perspective, which simply points out that if we don’t cut the emissions of greenhouse gases by about 80 percent, the planet will cook and most species — possibly including our own — will perish. To reduce greenhouse gases, we must stop using fossil fuels and switch to some renewable alternatives.
Second, there’s the “peak oil” perspective, which points out that we’re depleting the world’s reserves of oil and other fossil fuels, which will create grave economic problems, since all practicable alternative fuels yield far less net energy and therefore will not enable us to do as much work as at present or to keep ourselves warm and well-fed. This energy shortage may endanger humankind as much as the climate changes that are determined by the use or non-use of fossil fuel. In a sense, it’s a question which will do us in first, the energy shortage or the climate change. The peak oil people worry more about energy, though they recognize the dilemma.
Though their analyses differ, both the climate change and peak oil perspectives should be able to agree on a single policy. Both sides require the urgent development of alternative renewable fuels, greater efficiency in the use of energy, and conservation to make our existing fossil fuel resources tide us over until we have perfected and institutionalized these new practices.
However, there is yet a third perspective that is not satisfied with these solutions either. It is a pessimistic perspective that combines the preceding two concerns with an additional worry: the sustainability of ecological systems. This view is perfectly aware of the climate change threats and of the looming energy shortage, but it does not even accept the solution that would satisfy the other two perspectives: renewable energy. These ultimate pessimists believe that the use of energy is inherently damaging to the planet, even if it comes from, say, solar or wind power. The use of energy always has an impact on the environment. Whatever work we do and even our own biological functioning, affects the world physically, often to the detriment of other species. We cannot avoid having such impacts, and the more of us there are, the worse are our effects on the planet. My friend Jack Santa Barbara, who holds this ultimate pessimism, expresses the problem with this formula: I=PAT, where I means Impact on the planet, P means population size, A means affluence of society, and T means technology. The more people there are, the more affluent they are (with access to more energy), the more technology they use, the more impact they will inevitably have on the planet, making our world less sustainable. There is no answer to this.
On the panel, Jack didn't spell all of this out. He confined himself to expressing a pessimistic opinion about the possibility of getting the renewable fuels that we will need without ruining ecological systems.
Personally, I don't believe things are that serious. I think that the effect of energy on the planet is not necessarily deleterious; it depends on what you do with the energy. Nor is technology usually harmful. And, yes, there are more problems with larger populations, but by exerting smart social influences (e.g. through the use of persuasive storytelling) we can help curtail the expansion of population even more than is happening already. And I do think we can bring our greenhouse gas emissions down by 80 percent or more, if we get cracking. That's called political will. Stephane and I are going to create it. You're allowed to join us in the project.