Tag Archives: equity

In Defense of Equitable Limits

Abby by the fire

You don’t have to travel far to come across manipulation of nature. It’s a quick trip from most places to see a dam. It’s not uncommon to encounter a channelized river or an obvious cell tower “hidden” in a stand of trees. Personally, I can look out my west-facing window and see that my front yard is really a neighborhood storm drain. Industrial. Beautiful.

When you venture out and do all this observing, you might note that nature must represent a provocation.  “Just try to get me to do what you want”, it seems to say. How else to explain the persistent urge to control it?

Is it the vast, capitalist system-created distances that separate us from loved ones that compel us to subjugate space? “Space ain’t nothing that can’t be stomped over by the muscled machinery of my automobile”, we seem to say. Certainly, we can rack up our frequent flier miles by zipping through the substance-less void way up there in an airplane, right? I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable wasting energy with my idevice, should I? You don’t expect me to ever have to dip a toe in the stream of boredom, do you?

And why are you asking me to tolerate the daily inconvenience of darkness? Don’t my nocturnal whims for late-night reading or cavorting warrant my idle consumption of the currents that course through those wires? Doesn’t my desire to enjoy a libation at any time of day in any old place call for high-energy refrigeration?

Advanced degrees are not required to recognize that all of these impressive manipulations of our landbase have ushered in a modern world that defies sustainability. In 2013, the average American consumed 313 million British thermal units (BTUs) of energy; the amount used to power 10 U.S. households for a year. How do we reasonably sustain such consumption?

Even staunch promoters of “renewable” energy are beginning to ask themselves such questions as:

“how many solar farms and wind farms must blanket our landscapes in order to sustain modern lifestyles?; or

“how much feverish planting of switchgrass must supplant forest, and how many tree trimmings from suburban lawns must be picked up by diesel-bellowing trucks to be hauled off to massive biomass gasification plants to power our computers?; and

“What must be sacrificed to satisfy our evidently insatiable appetite for energy?”

Even in the face of physical reality, our culture still demands greater thermodynamic efficiency rather than a commonly applied limitation on energy use.

I.e., a wind farm in every prairie, photovoltaics on every roof, geothermal in all open spaces VS. passive solar for every dwelling, greater face-to-face interaction, and more home- and community-scale permaculture.

This demand for “efficiency” is largely due to our framing of consumption of unnatural energy as a “need.”

One of the many responses to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown was to draft a Basic Energy Plan, which states that “a mix of nuclear, renewables and fossil fuels will be the most reliable and stable sources of electricity to meet Japan’s energy needs.”

Closer to home, our National Academies of Science assures us that “an increasing share of future energy needs will be met by technologies now in the research or development phase.”

So according to the prevailing narrative, more recently, humans have developed needs for artificial energy. Following this line of logic means that our anatomically modern human ancestors, having evolved roughly 200,000 years ago  and having lived in this biosphere for approximately 199,900 without electrical convenience, were subsisting without a fundamental need! That is, when considering those elements of life that kept them vital, like clean water, food, philia, agency, and shelter, they must have totally forgotten about their need for artificial energy. Must have sucked to be them!

Amidst the imposing chorus yammering about achieving ever greater thermodynamic efficiency, the option to introduce equitable limits on human energy consumption is all but drowned out. Yet any sane person knows that equitable limits is the only reasonable way to adequately address our complex energy and social crises, not to mention climate change.

Charles C. Mann, writing in Orion Magazine a year ago reminds us that:

“The Japanese have an expression, hara hachi bu, which means, roughly speaking, ‘belly 80 percent full.’ Hara hachi bu is shorthand for an ancient injunction to stop eating before feeling full. Nutritionally, the command makes a great deal of sense. When people eat, their stomachs produce peptides that signal fullness to the nervous system…the Japanese island of Okinawa is the only place on earth where large numbers of people are known to restrict their own calorie intake systematically and routinely. Some researchers claim that hara hachi bu is responsible for Okinawans’ notoriously long life spans. But I think of it as a metaphor for stopping before the second inflection point, voluntarily forswearing short-term consumption to obtain a long-term benefit.

Those who share the minority view that equitable limits should be pursued will no doubt be vilified, for the cynics will say, “humans will never reduce their energy consumption voluntarily”. Depressingly, this may be accurate, but it if we are to get serious about the challenges that face us, equitable limits should be a central part of any “All-of-the-Above Energy Strategy.” 

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