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"Can Selfishness Save the Environment?" (September 13, 2000)
Atlantic articles from the past decade suggest that it could.



Flashbacks
 
Power Without Plunder

June 1, 2001
 
n May 17, President Bush unveiled a national energy plan calling for the opening of public lands to oil and gas drilling and the easing of environmental restrictions on the construction of power plants, pipelines, refineries, and dams. While some applaud the plan because it would increase America's power-generating capacities in the face of what the Administration says is a looming energy crisis, others are concerned that the environment is being sacrificed for the sake of the energy industry and that efforts to develop renewable-energy sources will fall by the wayside. In recent years, a number of Atlantic contributors have argued that America should pursue environmentally sensitive energy policies not only for the obvious environmental reasons, but for political, economic, and pragmatic ones as well.

In "The New Old Economy: Oil, Computers, and the Reinvention of the Earth" (January 2001), Jonathan Rauch reported that new technologies now enable the extraction of previously inaccessible oil from existing oil fields, and suggested that expanding drilling into untouched public lands might therefore be both unnecessary and inappropriate.
The reason the average new oil find grows larger even as the average new oil field grows smaller is that the industry is drilling fewer dry holes and extracting more oil from the new wells it drills....

It is certainly true that elephant fields are growing scarce. But that is increasingly beside the point. In the Old Economy model of resource extraction, if you needed more of some resource, you invaded and pillaged new reaches of the planet to get it. Every day, however, virgin resources grow scarcer and thus more expensive, while human ingenuity grows more plentiful.... The cost advantage increasingly tips away from rapine and toward cleverer and more efficient exploitation of existing resources—which, after all, are already discovered, leased, and equipped with infrastructure.
Others have emphasized the dangers of continuing to rely heavily on oil as our primary fuel. In June, 1993, in "The Persian Gulf: Still Mired," the political scientist Alan Tonelson argued that America's failure to invest sufficiently in renewable-energy sources harms us not only environmentally but also politically. The United States should extricate itself from the unstable world of Gulf politics, he asserted, to avoid being drawn into further conflicts like the Gulf War. But misguided policies have consistently stymied the kinds of alternative-energy programs that could wean us from our dependence on Gulf oil and our entanglement in the region that goes along with it.
What has the United States been doing about the oil addiction that traps us [in the Gulf region]? Letting it get worse....

We have starved the alternative fuels of development funding and then lamented how utopian they are. In fact, Ronald Reagan was so sure that oil was our best energy bet—and perhaps so beholden to domestic oil interests—that he virtually dismantled the federal alternative-energy research programs almost as soon as he became President. Thus, the conventional wisdom concludes, we are simply stuck playing warden in the Gulf insane asylum. Small wonder that we've lost twenty years in the fight for greater energy independence.
Three years later, in "Mideast Oil Forever?" (April 1996), Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis of the Department of Energy also argued in favor of alternative-energy research and development. Thanks to technological advances, they wrote, "a fundamental transition in power generation from fossil fuels to renewable energy" could realistically happen within the next twenty years, enabling the realization of the once impossible-seeming dream of "nearly pollution-free energy." The authors emphasized, however, that such a revolution would only come to pass with sufficient federal support for continued research and development. Failure to develop alternatives would leave us at the mercy of the Mideast oil market—and would cause America to miss out on a potentially major new economic growth area in renewables technologies. "If we don't focus on energy today," they wrote, "our quality of life tomorrow will be permanently diminished.... Only a misbegotten ideology could conceive a blunder of such potentially historic proportions."

Finally, in "A Good Climate for Investment" (June 1998), Ross Gelbspan made the point that pursuing alternative-energy sources would be worth the United States's while, not only for the sake of averting global warming, but also because the renewable-fuels business could, in the long run, prove economically more profitable than a continued reliance on fossil fuels. "While the climate crisis contains staggering destructive potential," he wrote, "it also contains an extraordinary opportunity to expand the wealth and stability of the global economy." The work of building and implementing new energy systems would require significant manpower and would therefore create new jobs. If the United States were to take the resources it currently channels into subsidies for the coal and fossil-fuel industries and use them instead to spur the burgeoning renewable-energy industry, a worldwide economic boom could result. "In a very few years," Gelbspan wrote, "the renewables industry could eclipse high technology as potentially the most powerful engine of growth in the global economy."

—Sage Stossel


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Sage Stossel is an editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."
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