In the face of global environmental challenge in the form of climate change, energy generation has become a target for governments and environmentalists alike. If we are not trying to use less of it, we are trying to generate it from other sources. But I often wonder why energy is treated any differently from any other resource. I also worry that a solution to climate change involves other environmental costs that will offset any improvements made. In fact, what scares me most is that we will find a clean and very cheap energy source – what the environmentalist may prize, I view as catastrophe wating to happen. Let me explain.
Quite simply, I see energy as a resource just like any other physical resource such as iron or timber. The reason is simple, use of these resources reduces labour effort required to produce goods. Also, they need to be combined with other resources to have any practical use. For example, a shovel reduces the labour time required to dig a hole. It could be made from timber, iron, steel, or any material. In the same way, a bobcat reduces the time to dig a hole by combining steel, plastic, rubber, and numerous other materials with oil and labour to produce holes. The energy from oil is just another physical requirement.
This leads to my climate change concern. To use less energy for a given purpose, we need to substitute energy for other resources. For example, a more energy efficient light bulb uses much more material and energy in its manufacture to use less during its useful lifetime. My concern then is that is a quest to be energy efficient, our requirements of other materials, and especially highly processed and polluting materials such as aluminium and mercury will drastically rise. The worry is that some materials we develop on our quest for energy efficiency will cause their own environmental disasters.
So what about the cheap and clean energy of the utopian dream? When we picture energy as just another physical resource we can see the problem clearly – this virtually ‘free’ energy is useless alone. It will require combining with other materials to make the machines and gadgets we desire. Furthermore, what is it we actually do with energy? We don’t build friendships and satisfy our spiritual desires. No, we use it for mining, transport, fishing, farming, and all the industrial processes of the economy.
If we are concerned about the environment, one might wish to become less energy efficient, or to have more expensive energy – both have the same effect. But the problem of technological developments is that they are irreversible. Once we know how to do something, we cannot unknow it. However we are finally learning the way our economy and environment interact. If only this knowledge can be put to good use, rather than as an excuse for further economic development.