Energy Crisis: Where’s The Energy Coming From?

World energy consumption is increasing by about 4% a year, or doubling every 15 years. Petroleum consumption is doubling every 10 years or so. Traditional sources of this energy cannot maintain this rate for very much longer. We shall quite simply use up all our available resources.

The argument tends to hinge, therefore, around the acceptability of nuclear power production (with its possible pollution problems), or the reshaping of industry and work-patterns, to reduce the demand for energy. This is an argument that leads to revolution, and the response from the technologists is ‘give us time and we’ll solve this scientifically’. The layman (whose future is at stake) looks on and wonders, again.

The pessimist on this issue for the Observer was Professor Barry Commoner who is so opposed to the extension of nuclear stations that he believes the only possible answer lies in using less energy.

The optimist, Dr Alvin Weinberg, admitted the pollution problem involved in energy-production by nuclear fission. It is ‘most tainted, most risky,’ but in practical terms it is our only real hope.

(Solar power, sometimes mooted for discussion because it would be ‘free’ and non-polluting, is reckoned to raise the cost of power ten times. To sustain this, society would certainly have to face a lowering of standards of living. Although as more technology comes online, it looks as though solar may well outdo oil in terms of energy efficiency one day.

energy crisis

As for geothermal energy, we have not even got to the point where we would know what costs could be involved at all on a global scale as few countries have access.) Professor Commoner’s answer is to cut our power consumption drastically. In the West proper architectural adjustments might reduce domestic demands by 50% for a start.

In industry Commoner’s research team have shown that since World War II electric power in the United States has largely been used to exclude human labour from the industrial process (which is what ‘automation’ means). But such equations are based on given politico-economic presuppositions, viz the competitive profit-conscious marketing of production. If we were prepared to take drastic action on these presuppositions (which is where the word ‘revolution’ came in earlier), we could make more with less energy-demands, by increasing the amount of labour again. Briefly, one answer to energy crises is to de-mechanize, to de-automate.

On other, more personal grounds, we have been looking in this direction in earlier chapters. It could be our energy crisis that will force us most quickly to consider how to reinstate human dignity and job interest in industry.

‘At present,’ says Professor Commoner, ‘we are using energy not only to create undignified, uninteresting jobs but in some sense actually to create unemployment. Technology now has to develop production techniques that give the same output by using less power but more people.

Let me give a simple example. On almost every en- vironmental ground one can think of, it’s obvious that the motor car must become a very carefully built, long-lasting piece of equipment operating at low temperatures and so on, in order to produce less pollution. What we’re really talking about is a Ford Model T, whose construction is so excellent that it has to be built with the labour intensity of a Rolls-Royce. It might even involve labour in such a way that you would know the names of the men who built each vehicle, giving them pride in its quality.

You can see something of what might be involved by way of social revolution in this way by seeing what has been happening in China. Production is labour-intensive, geographically dispersed, and done with an eye to ecological factors. The determining factor in all their technological decision-making is not profits but total social welfare.

This kind of emphasis throughout the Third World, helped in part by Intermediate Technology insights, and in part by definite social revolution, will undoubtedly bring into question much Western ‘economic imperialism’ there. Western patterns of power-production and use will just not be accepted as scientifically ordained and inevitable.

To all this the technologist replies that it is all very well thinking in terms of radical transformations of society in order to reduce our energy needs, but there could also be radical transformations in technology to increase safely our energy production, and this might be far easier and even cheaper.

Dr Weinberg estimates, for instance, that it would be perfectly possible to reduce the radio-active effluents from a properly working nuclear power station to essentially zero. For a long time we did not bother to do so. Now, because we do think it wise, the international standard for radioactive emissions has been cut approximately one hundredfold. A safe, non-polluting nuclear power station, becomes a technical possibility for the first time.

Built into this argument somewhere seems to be an acceptance of the desirability of increasing power according to demand, without consideration of other closely related questions. To this Professor Commoner alludes when he says:

It won’t work unless and until the fundamental economic issues are resolved, by ordinary people expressing their opinion about what constraints technology should work under, and what goals it should strive for.

We are back again, therefore, in one of these frustrating situations where all our human discussions seem to lead together, and need a common answer, but where experts differ in the advice they are offering. Their one common stance seems to be to warn us against believing there can be an easy answer to any of these problems which hold our life at stake.

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