I used to think (as many still do) that it is singularly politics, the economy or the environment that matters most. Although each is a vital issue, our focus must be on energy. Without tackling our energy issues, both nationally and internationally, no real economic, environmental or geopolitical solutions will be found for the complex problems facing our daily lives and our world.
Like air and water, we are too close to energy to appreciate its importance, but it has always been the basis of life, especially in modern societies that are highly technical, interrelated and dependent on petroleum. A Buddhist proverb says, “to every human is given a key to the gates of heaven; the same key also opens the gates of hell.” Energy is such a key. The way we produce, distribute, market, convert and consume this planet’s energy resources determines our environmental quality, economic prosperity and international peace — or lack thereof.
Earlier this year I was surprised to hear renowned environmental writer Bill McKibben say during a lecture in Salt Lake City that the traditional environmental movement, which has focused its activities on “the marginalities” (such as national parks, organic food, etc.), is simply incapable of addressing current global issues. Such issues include everything from air and water quality to ocean biodiversity to toxic health threats. We cannot deny the importance of these (and other) issues, but energy should top the list because it is the foundation of our interactions with the environment. Given the prospects of global warming and its associated environmental disruptions, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to fix our energy technologies now.
The relationship between economy and energy is obvious, but several misconceptions exist. One is that addressing energy issues, such as by raising fuel efficiency standards, would jeopardize our economic progress or prosperity. In reality, not addressing the energy issues is far more dangerous. Moreover, efforts to diversify our energy resources, to increase the efficiency of our technologies and buildings and to expand public transportation systems will create millions of jobs. Energy should be viewed as an opportunity for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic progress.
Another misconception is that the more energy we use the greater our economic growth. But there is a huge difference between “using” and “wasting.” We seem to forget that the management of resources should be both effective and efficient. A car that runs for 20 miles per gallon and another that runs for 40 miles per gallon are both effective in that they take us to our destination, but the second one is more efficient and sensible. As energy becomes more costly, energy efficiency will have to be incorporated in our technologies, and “thou shall not waste” will be increasingly viewed as an economic principle rather than a moral virtue.
In the face of rising oil prices, another misconception is that as the U.S. or the world economy slips into a short-term recession and the demand for oil decreases, oil and gasoline prices will come down. And they might, temporarily. But this is not a real solution to our energy problems. We have to think about how the world is going to meet its energy needs in the long term. Investments of funding, talent and policies in new energy technology by both public and private sectors will provide solutions, both domestically and internationally.
The world uses 85 million barrels of oil each day. And growing populations and economies will only demand more energy worldwide. This year’s U.S. presidential elections should bring the energy issue to the forefront of public policy debate. Considering that the U.S. alone uses one-quarter of the world’s energy, greater awareness at the federal level is crucial. No viable solution for the world’s energy — and environmental, economic and political — challenges can be found without U.S. participation and leadership.
First and foremost, we must diversify our energy resources and develop energy-efficient lifestyles and means of transportation. Energy is on many people’s minds, but mostly as a problem created by others (such as oil companies, OPEC and booming Asian economies) so people often feel helpless. However, the public has a strong role in shaping the energy market and policies by changing the ways we consume energy and by electing political leaders who are concerned with energy choices. It is high time we create realistic and long-term solutions to our energy needs and develop energy systems and policies that incorporate economic incentives, environmental protection and national security.
Sorkhabi is a research professor at the University of Utah’s Energy & Geoscience Institute in Salt Lake City. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.