Will Energy Policy Ever Grow Up?


by Benjamin DeMott

I spent a week in the Rockies last summer listening to energy wallahs discuss our troubles—an Aspen Institute parley—and heard much that was instructive if unastonishing. Three oilmen in the group, independent drillers, harped as though genuinely injured on unfair and erratic government price fixing. The government, in the person of the chairman of the House Energy Committee and a few committee minions, advised the drillers to think continually on depletion allowances and (sorry) pipe down. Academic economists dueled with utility executives about whether big energy producers are adequately responsive to consumers’ real desires, and conservationists dueled with defenders of the American Dream over whether less is ever more. In a Progress parable, a man from Israel reported that when TV hit his country a while back (Ben-Gurion had proscribed the Box) it ruined a fine local institution called the sitzcum: regular neighbor-to-neighbor visits of an evening. (Things promise to get worse, said the Israeli; lately Begin has been promoting color.) Three soi-disant humanists—a politics professor, a divinity school dean, and myself—struggling on request to locate ethical handles for the issues, ended up rifling the traditional repositories of wisdom concerning distributive justice, i.e. the Book of Genesis and John Rawls.
No surprises, as I say. But when the session was over I did seem to see something I’d missed before. In the Great U.S. Energy Debate, most participants speak a special jargon—solar vs. nuclear, decentralization vs. centralization, soft paths vs. hard, and so on. But beneath these terminological screens, a deeper conflict rages—one having to do with the limits of human flexibility. Faction A argues that, crisis or no crisis, people can be pushed only so far; we need continuity, can’t unmake habits, expectations, dreams, overnight, and deserve protection from abrupt veerings from social norms. Faction B insists we haven’t a prayer of surviving the cutoffs ahead unless we learn how to shake ourselves up—how to weather interruptions of standard operating procedures and values that are joltingly absolute. In the Aspen conference rooms this difference about feasible rates of behavioral and social change often glimmered into view. And back east, turning the pages of some recent energy books (together with a few “position papers” hauled home from the mountains), I came on it all over again.
ATOM’S EVE (McGraw-Hill, $5.95), edited by Mark Reader with Ronald Hardert and Gerald L. Moulton, is a paperback original intended to be of service to “the worldwide campaign to halt humanity’s imminent nuclear bondage by closing the fuel cycle at its source.” As the pointlessly punning title suggests, the book rides on the notion that atomic energy is a fading force, edged to the sidelines by, presumably, a citizenry infuriated and terrified by Three Mile Island. The editor-in-chief, an Arizona State political scientist, assembles writings by more than thirty commentators, including the major figures of the antinuclear movement —Barry Commoner, E. F. Schumacher, Edward Abbey, Amory Lovins, and Howard Morland (Morland is the man who wrote the once-banned Progressive article about the “secret” H-bomb). And, in addition to calendars of the “rise and spread of the nuclear age,” “nonnuclear bibliographies,” and checklists of alternative energy sources, he provides a series of “action guides” to “affinity groups” (these range from SANE to Solar Lobby to Supporters of Silkwood). It’s the well-educated who tend to join such groups—people eager for pertinent arguments and statistics. This, taken together with the “up” mood of nuclear protest at the present hour, means that Atom’s Eve may emerge as one of the more closely studied political handbooks of the time.
It opens with accounts of nuclear accidents—several dealing with Three Mile Island, one with the history of U.S. nuclear waste management, one with the Kyshtym disaster of 1957, an explosion of a radioactive waste dump in Central Russia which by report wiped out a town of thousands. Next come medical inquiries into health hazards traceable to nuclear emissions—pieces about nuclear workers in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, shipyard who had nearly double the average number of cancer deaths and roughly five times the leukemia deaths . . . about radiation exposure in the Hanford, Washington, atom plant . . . about plutonium contamination and cancer incidence roundabout Rocky Flats, the nuclear weapons factory outside Denver. There’s a brisk survey of nuclear economics-hidden costs, federal subsidies, interlocking directorates among banks, utilities, and uranium corporations. And later chapters focus on “The Weapons Connection,” Civil Liberties and Nuclear Power, and, inevitably, alternatives to the nuclear route. The case for “soft energy” options is presented in an interview with Amory Lovins, who lays it down that “the soft path is cheaper, quicker, environmentally and socially more benign, less risky, geopolitically preferable —in short, that it has such great social and economic advantages that, it would virtually implement itself. ...” (A reminder: Lovins is the Harvard-trained physicist whose 1976 paper on “Energy Strategy” in Foreign Affairs triggered a nationwide debate about U.S. energy policy; the paper’s thesis, subsequently presented by the author to congressional committees and to President Carter, stresses solar, wind, bioconversion, conservation, and dispersed technologies, and it angered a flock of scientific notables in and out of governments here and abroad.) Atom’s Eve is dense with facts, and a bit of spot checking persuaded me that its standards of accuracy are high.
But to me the book’s interest lies elsewhere—in its profile of moral and cultural assumptions that are by turns admirable, puzzling, troubling. What’s admirable, obviously, is the belief in the possibility of change—the conviction, as Mark Reader puts it, that “we don’t have to do what we’re doing,” and that an informed, caring, activist citizenry could set the nation in a new direction. What’s puzzling or worse is the seamless agreement throughout that the texture of existence in the West is absurd—reflective in no way of comprehensible hopes or decent principles of life.
The agreement comes through most vividly in rhetorical gestures—the relish of “silly” as a descriptive label for whatever aspect of social reality is under observation, and the enthusiasm for apocalyptic predictions: “. . . we can expect the destruction of democratic culture before the year 2000.” But there are other telling signs, including selfcongratulation. Nuclear protesters are repeatedly made out to be the only nonzombies in the West. After interviewing some anti-nuke demonstrators, Edward Abbey contrasts them with the Dreadful Others, ourselves: “They are happy people, these crusaders, at ease with themselves . . . radiant with the confidence of conviction, liberated by their own volition from the tedious, heavy, wearisome slavery of routine and passive acquiescence in which most of us endure our brief, half-lived halflives.” Still more revelatory is the determination to portray what happened in history as solely a function of rich men’s greed. Nowhere is this plainer than in those sections of the book lamenting the foolish human interest in labor-saving devices. Implying that it’s profit lust, not distaste for physical exhaustion, that has given heavy lifting a bad name, Barry Commoner offers extended interpretations of such “silly decisions” as that of building a plastics industry to replace leather:
. . . what has happened as we have shifted . . . from leather to plastics is that we have inefficiently used energy, inefficiently used capital, and efficiently used labor.
And the explanation is very simple. What is the capital used for? It’s used to buy machines that burn energy, so naturally the more capital you use, the more energy you use. Now, what are the machines for? To replace labor; so, therefore, less labor.
And what has happened in the United States is industry after industry in recent years has systematically used energy and capital to displace labor, and this has reduced the efficiency of the whole system. . . . The bottom line is the expected rate of profit.
The mix of doomsday utterance, selflove, and simplistic economic history tends to persuade one of the weightlessness of civilization—nothing out there but junk, fluff, fools, universal vacuity. Empty hands and unloaded backs desperate to resume toting. And this vision strengthens faith in the feasibility of instant reversal and overnight transformation. Once in Atom’s Eve—a compelling excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine—a writer speaks as though aware of the vastness of the psychological and educational labor involved in reorienting “human habits, efforts, and goals,” but once only. The ground theme of the book is the ease with which, as the editor puts it, “conserving, sustainable societies will . . . usher in a new beginning for a tired world.” And the effect of the theme, I’m afraid, is to reduce Atom’s Eve—whether it wins a thousand readers or a million —to fantasy.
Critics of this fantasy abound in print as in seminar rooms. In ATOMIC ENERGY: A NEW START (Harper & Row, $8.95), David E. Lilienthal, also writing in the wake of Three Mile Island, scolds hard-liners in the nation’s atomic establishment. Convinced of “the necessity of finding a safer method of producing nuclear power” than that used in conventional light water reactors, the first head of the Atomic Energy Commission believes that the hazards dramatized by nuclear accidents could have been sharply reduced if, at the beginning, the establishment had placed “safety and good management ahead of a narrow concept of ‘cost effectiveness’. . . .” But his strongly reasoned book is a call for a new start in this field, not for the abandonment of nuclear power. And the heart of his case is the assumption—to me sensible—that changing attitudes toward energy use entails nothing less than changing human aspirations generally, a project not to be initiated under deadline. (“Energy is more than an impersonal statistic to be bandied about by computers and theoreticians. Energy is part of a historic process, a substitute for the labor of human beings. As human aspirations develop, so does [energy] demand. . . .”)
Helpful and authoritative as Lilienthal is, however, he’s not the best critic of the no-nukes, soft-energy school. That title belongs, I think, to Ian A. Forbes, once chairman of nuclear engineering at Lowell University in England, now technical director of the Energy Research Group. I came across Forbes’s work last year in THE ENERGY CONTROVERSY-SOFT PATH QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS (Friends of the Earth, $12.50), a collection of analyses of the ideas of Amory Lovins that is printed with rebuttals by Lovins himself and edited by Hugh Nash. The book sets Ian Forbes’s and Lovins’s commentary on each other in parallel columns rather than in a dialogue format, which heightens the youth & age, Silvius & Corin aspect of the proceedings. Lovins, the brash kid, sounds abstract, impatient, cocksure—often more like an ace debater with a romantic streak than a thinker; Forbes is cautious, richly conscious of complexity and contradiction, unfailingly patient and kind. The force of his objections derives first from his effective challenges of Lovins’s cost estimates, second from his persistent focus on Lovins’s vagueness about “implementation.” But Forbes’s preoccupation throughout—here once more the issue of pace arises—is the danger to the social fabric of precipitate change: the “high risk of having to disrupt or coerce society to maintain the soft path.” Beware of Utopians, is this writer’s counsel; trust gradualism and compromise (“our energy future is not two paths but a plain”). Aim at “energy strategies [that] flow from the past to the future along orderly lines of transition”; accept that “present relationships of economy and growth do exist and that they have a momentum of public acceptance and advocacy. . . .” Ian Forbes is, in a word, a strict continuity man.
He’s also a person who, by his own statement, likes to avoid separating “the philosophical and conceptual aspect of future energy strategies [from] the technical and numerical details.” As I’ve indicated, people who share this preference resemble, at their best, father figures—characters indulgent of frivolity and theorizing among juniors as long as there’s no whiff of irrational interest in shedding real world responsibility for good.
But at less than their best such people can seem complacent. I mention this because—returning to Aspen—complacency did surface more than once among the Washington wallahs at our meeting. Nothing mysterious about it. You —as they say in beer ads—you are a staff director of an important congressional committee engaged in revising a subsection of an energy bill about which Exxon, Nader, a ski resort conglomerate, the National Council of Churches of Christ, three geologists, and a dependent mother have expressed divergent opinions at hearings. Now comes Aspen time. A room offering narrow, tantalizing views of a snowtipped peak. An octagon-shaped table with pads, pencils, and books of readings (the readings start with Aristotle and mush on through Wordsworth to Freud). Celebrated academicians, acting undersecretaries, former heads of state, are scattered about amidst a few of your own kind. One former head of state, dropping by for a cameo appearance, announces that existing Western institutions have had it—we can’t deal with this “energy thing” unless we create a new instrument (nature unspecified). A foreigner runs on about the coming of TV to his land. The theologian at the head of the table launches an exegesis of the Second Creation story in Genesis, coming on holy about the common ownership of the earth, it’s the Lord’s, not ours, not Exxon’s . . . Is this the real world?
You yawn a staff-director-styleyawn, and resume doodling your miniMondrian with the pretty set of colored pens you’ve learned to carry along to meetings and hearings. Your hour will come, surely—your chance to hint, slyly, gently, that to practical minds this chatter does seem a children’s game. Meanwhile . . .
At our session the practical-minded House Energy Committee staffers sat through two days of visionary palaver before deciding their hour had come. They unveiled, abruptly, a Congressional Research Service paper that had captivated them—and that seemed to be the perfect squelch for visionaries.
The title was “Energy—Is There a Policy to Fit the Crisis?” The writer proposed that “the energy crisis can be likened to a five-part multilateral equation which cannot be solved for any part without increasing the difficulty of solving the other parts.” (The five perspectives cited included national security, the state of the economy, resource depletion, environmental impact, and democratic values.) A model of superior bureaucratic analysis, balanced, inclusive, shrewdly and unremittingly alert to how each part relates to every other part, the essay made Atom’s Eve and the collected writings of Amory Lovins (those I’ve seen, at least) read like the work of very cheeky adolescents.
But the conclusion —namely that it’s time to grow up and stop dreaming about an intelligent energy futurealtogether failed to lift the heart. (“. . . the search for a comprehensive, coherent and permanent energy policy is futile. More than that, such a policy would be antithetical to our form of government and way of life. ... We may not be comfortable with a reactive, muddle-through, undirected energy policy, but no other would be compatible with our governmental system.”) People caught in the political web, haunted in power by nightmares of powerlessness, haven’t much choice, perhaps, except to admire such formulations. But for an outsider—myself— the sophisticated, shrugging, trade-off mentality dominating the committee’s favorite paper seemed almost as depressing as no-nuke innocence. What’s wanted, clearly, is an address to the energy crisis in which care for the social fabric is conjoined with the sense of possibility, and the great task of teaching global interdependence is seriously begun. The voice that earns respect won’t be scornful of technical, numerical, or bureaucratic details. Neither, though, will it find it easy to speak soundly about levels of energy use without bringing powerfully alive to those listening the intensity of Third World fury at Western exploiters, the vulnerability of the West to acts of revenge even more devastating than oil supply cutoffs, and the consequent fatuity of continuing to sell ourselves muddlingthrough as an affordable luxury. Like everybody else, I’m waiting for this voice, but I haven’t heard it yet—not in the mountains, not in the presidential debates, and, so far, not on any printed page.