Can Human Ingenuity Save Us
From Perils Of Our Successes?
It’s a widespread article of faith that “economic growth” is essential to future prosperity. That’s hardly surprising, since the modern world has been brought into being in less than 200 years by an unprecedented wave of economic growth.
If we go back 200 years – to 1818 – we see there were no automobiles, no airplanes, no railroads, no antibiotics, no anesthesia, no electricity, no central heating, no telecommunications, no refrigerators or appliances, no computers, no internet, no a lot of things.
Life was, comparatively speaking, nasty, brutal, and short.
In 1818 there were about a billion people on the planet. The overwhelming majority were farmers, peasants and artisans, with a thin veneer of landlords, officials, merchants, professionals and entrepreneurs.
Energy came through physical effort, or from water and wind power. Most consumer goods were made on the homestead or in the nearest town. People lived sustainably, whether they liked it or not, dependent as they were on renewable resources and the rhythm of the seasons.
Fossil fuels changed all that. They made explosive economic growth possible. Coal and oil and gas turned out to be much more potent sources of energy than muscle, water or wind.
The energy density of fossil fuels is orders of magnitude greater than muscle power. Try pushing your car when the engine doesn’t work! Further, fossil-fuel-based fertilizers dramatically expanded agriculture and helped support much larger populations.
Fossil fuels also made possible the chief instruments of the industrial revolution – large-scale machines, beginning with railway locomotives and steamships and the steel mills to build them, and on to tractors, bulldozers, motor vehicles, paved roads, power plants, the electric grid, airplanes, appliances and the whole range of modern products and infrastructure.
A famous study, called “Limits to Growth,” published in the 1972 by a team of MIT researchers led by Dennis Meadows, focused on the global resource consumption required for the production of goods and services.
It projected that the depletion of natural resources and the finite capacity of the planet to absorb emissions and other pollutants would force society by the 21st century to divert more and more capital to make up the difference, eventually bringing economic growth as we’ve known it to a halt.
A 30th anniversary edition of the work, in 2002, found its projections confirmed. Since then, the challenges of resource depletion and environmental degradation have only intensified. Economic growth has become increasingly expensive and uncertain.
The steep decline in energy return on energy invested is a good example of the limits to growth, and that’s true of many other resources as well, from fisheries to arable land to clean water.
Around World War II, the return of investment in an oil well was on the order of about 100 to one. It cost about a dollar’s worth of energy to extract $100 worth of energy. That’s $99 of more or less free energy. Today that ratio is down to about 15 to 1, and declining.
Another measure of economic limitation is what economists call the externalities of production, where the costs are born not by the producing enterprise, but by the public or the environment. Industrial pollution – such as General Electric’s release of PCBs polluting the Hudson river – is a classic economic externality. The widespread use of pesticides, which has seriously reduced amphibian, insect, and bird populations, is another of many examples.
Similarly, the climate costs of greenhouse gas emissions – storm damage, wildfires, flooding, loss of property values, stress on agriculture, and the rest – are not priced into the energy economy, but are disproportionately borne by the individuals who suffer them.
The only growth that seems to escape these limits is mental rather than physical – growth of the imagination, of the digital technology of cyberspace, of the production and exchange of ideas, images, and stories and the values they represent.
Many believe that this human ingenuity will also find a way to deal with the undesirable consequences of traditional economic growth. Maybe. So far that remains a hope, not a fact. In the meantime, the obstacles to conventional economic growth continue to increase.
Many ecologists say that we need a sustainable, steady-state economy, not an economy predicated on a belief in endless economic growth. A steady-state economy presumably would wax and wane with the cycles of renewable resources upon which we ultimately have to depend. How that might work, we have yet to figure out.
In that event, we would not have to go back to 1818. Since we have the advantage of all the knowledge and technology accumulated since then, we can hope for efficiencies that would give us more energy than we could find back then.
If the limits to growth are as real as they seem to be, we may have little choice but to relearn how to live within the ecological budget of our physical home, of our planet.
Adrian Kuzminski, a retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and moderator of Sustainable Otsego, lives in Fly Creek.
It’s a great idea.
In a column at the end of August, Adrian Kuzminski – citing the Tompkins County Energy Roadmap, completed in March – wrote,
“Let me suggest … that the Otsego County Board of Representatives, in a bi-partisan spirit, is the logical authority to establish an Otsego Energy Task Force. A large, diverse umbrella group is far more likely to develop a comprehensive, viable energy strategy that gets it right, and to do justice to the needs of the community as a whole.”
He concluded, “Get key people in the room and tackle the problem.”
County Rep. Meg Kennedy, R-C, Hartwick/Milford, invited Irene Weiser, a member of the Tompkins County Energy & Economic Development Task Force, to attended the Sept. 18 meeting of the county board’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. That task force’s mission is to encourage economic growth while working to reduce gas usage.
NYSEG, which also serves southern Otsego County, had proposed an $18 million gas pipeline into the Town of Lansing, an Ithaca suburb. The task force has been working with NYSEG, trying to find an alternative to the pipeline; it issued an RFP (request for proposals), but received no proposals. It is not revising the RFP and plans to try again.
That may mean, as Irene Weiser reported, that the RFP was poorly drawn. Or it may mean there’s no ready alternative to natural gas right now, at least a full alternative.
One IGA member, county Rep. Andrew Marietta, D-Cooperstown/Town of Otsego, drew the latter lesson. “I struggle with the short term and the long term of it,” he said. “… We need to figure out some short-term solutions while we’re building for an energy-smart future.”
On these editorial pages over the past two months, a number of knowledgeable writers have submitted well-argued letters and op-eds on the gas vs. renewables debate, spurred by Otsego Now’s CGA application to install a natural-gas decompression station in the former Pony Farm Commerce Park at Route 205 and I-88. Kuzminski is in the no-gas camp, joined by Otsego 2000 President Nicole Dillingham. When it appeared to some that the OCCA seemed to be open to hearing more about the decompression station, Executive Director Leslie Orzetti responded emphatically: The Otsego County Conservation Association does not support gas expansion.
On the other side, Kuzminski’s fellow columnist, Mike Zagata, argued fossil fuels are necessary right now. Otsego Now President Jody Zakrevsky said, without natural gas, the Oneonta area has actually missed going after 500 jobs this year alone. Dick Downey of Otego, who led the Unatego Landowners Association in support of the Constitution Pipeline, likewise falls into this camp.
Dave Rowley of West Oneonta, the sensible retired Edmeston Central superintendent, who served as interim superintendent in Oneonta before Joe Yelich’s hiring, probably caught it best in last week’s op-ed: Everyone wants renewable energy, but it’s simply not sufficiently available. For now, natural gas is necessary.
This is a long way of saying, everybody’s right. In the face of global warming – yes, not everybody “believes” it’s happening; but why reject the preponderant scientific consensus? – clean energy is a necessity.
California is on the forefront, with its Senate Bill 100 aiming at 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. (New York State is aiming for 50 percent by 2030.) Greenhouse-gas emission is a separate category.)
Further, Otsego County’s population (60,000) is 0.02 percent of the nation’s (320 million), one 200th of 1 percent. Even if local energy needs were fully served, it is a negligible piece of a huge national – even international – challenge.
We all want to be part of the solution, but the solution is not going to be reached between Roseboom and Unadilla. It will be developed at the state and national levels, and when there’s an answer, we can support it and embrace it.
Meanwhile, the county’s population is dropping. Some 16.3 percent of our remaining neighbors (slightly more than 9,000) live below the property line ($24,600 for a family of four). That poverty rate is 14 percent higher than the national (14 points).
Plus, there are millions of state dollars – some $15 million so far – targeted for the City of Oneonta’s revitalization.
Now’s not the time to ensure our unmet energy needs – for homes, institutions, businesses and industry – remain unmet for a generation and a half.
Yes, the county Board of Representatives should name an energy task force; Adrian Kuzminski is right. But it should have two goals.
• First, to come up with ways to meet today’s energy needs now; perhaps CNG – compressed natural gas – is part of it (though not XNG trucks on roads that can’t handle them). But so are renewables, like the second solar farm being built in Laurens.
• Second, to fast-track renewables – solar, winds, heats pumps, the whole gamut – to put ourselves on the cutting edge of the future.
For her part, Kennedy is commited to pursue the task-force idea. In an interview, she said it must be made up of “people who want to reduce demand; and people who know the demands.
At base, though, true believers need not apply, only open minds, or the cause is lost.
To end where we began, with Kuzminski: “We may not have Cornell University, but we have SUNY Oneonta and Hartwick College. We have Otsego 2000, OCCA, Citizen Voices, chambers of commerce, the Land Trust, Farm Bureau and Sustainable Otsego, and others. We have individual engineers and scientists and retired executives who’ve worked for multi-national corporations. We have the talent.”
So let’s do the job.