April 21, 2008

The Cheap Energy Mind

Our neighbors! There are always 4 spotless Euro sedans outside their house (2 Mercs, 2 Audis), and now they have bought a big old American conversion van. The van has a powerful engine. I know this because they spent quite some time Sunday afternoon revving the engine-- that tin box is ready for the drag strip. In one day these guys throw out more CO2 than I can save in a month. What does it matter the small things I do? Sure I know that riding my bike is fun and good exercise, and when I insulated the house it was just as much about saving money as conserving energy, but the enormous size of the problem of doing something about climate change is a challenge.

And so I thank the NYT article for this article, 'Why Bother'.

Back in the 70s (Think of the scale of the environmental problems back then, and the attention they received. Those were the days!) Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and writer, was impatient with people who gave money to environmental causes but wasted energy in their everyday lives. He said that nothing would change until we heal the split between what we think and what we do. 'Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.'

Here’s the point: Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult. Specialists ourselves, we can no longer imagine anyone but an expert, or anything but a new technology or law, solving our problems. Al Gore asks us to change the light bulbs because he probably can’t imagine us doing anything much more challenging, like, say, growing some portion of our own food. We can’t imagine it, either, which is probably why we prefer to cross our fingers and talk about the promise of ethanol and nuclear power — new liquids and electrons to power the same old cars and houses and lives.

The “cheap-energy mind,” as Wendell Berry called it, is the mind that asks, “Why bother?” because it is helpless to imagine — much less attempt — a different sort of life, one less divided, less reliant. Since the cheap-energy mind translates everything into money, its proxy, it prefers to put its faith in market-based solutions — carbon taxes and pollution-trading schemes. If we could just get the incentives right, it believes, the economy will properly value everything that matters and nudge our self-interest down the proper channels. The best we can hope for is a greener version of the old invisible hand. Visible hands it has no use for.


At April 21, 2008 11:41 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never seen it put better than that. Thanks for the article.


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