From Atlantic Unbound:
"Can Selfishness Save the Environment?" (September 13, 2000)
Atlantic articles from the past decade suggest that it could.
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....
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.
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.
What has the United States been doing about the oil addiction that traps us [in
the Gulf region]? Letting it get worse....
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."
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.
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."
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