What Alternatives Beyond Alternatives?

[Morning pages inspired by  this article, which I highly recommend. Abundant Clean Renewables? Think Again!]

I confess I was not paying sufficient attention in the one snooze-worthy economics class I took as an undergrad elective. Spreadsheets are so cold and lifeless to a young tree-hugger.

Now, after a half century of hugging, I realize the absolute importance of economics to those trees. Nature: it’s the economy, stupid! There is complete overlap–not complete separation–between the circle of our life-needs and the circle of the physical, natural world out of which those needs are met. We ARE the environment.

My boomer-cohorts and I should be able to see with greater clarity over the edge of the precipice, past the rim of the horizon, from so much closer to the edge of it in our sixties than from where we stood in THE sixties. With age should come vision.

And yet, even today’s white-haired “wise ones” I fear too often have a vision for the future in which we’ll have fixed things–living then with a little less carbon, a little more recycling, some wind and solar and electric cars. But in that future we imagine that our stumbling economy can pick up where it left off at the end of the Carbon Era–whose precipice we quickly approach.

We know there must be alternatives to natural gas, to fracking, to tar sands and pipelines, to deep sea drilling, to coal. We applaud the inroads being made (not with the most success in this country) towards national replacement of carbon with non-carbon stocks for energy. Well and good.

But if all we do is swap twenty trillion mega-joules of carbon energy with as many mega-joules of wind and sun and soil-and-water-based biofuel energy on the other side of the current “gap”, we do very little to the rate of disorder created in the “environment” of the future. We trade a shovel for a pickaxe. The planet will not notice the difference.

So what are the alternatives to and beyond alternatives? Who is looking that far ahead and asking this hard question today–and who is willing to change their lives now to line up with that future?

To those who can clearly articulate and act on that vision is where I’ll send my grown children to know how to guide their young children, our grandchildren. Those visionaries are the people I’d recommend following. Voting for? Probably not. They are more likely to be farmers and social workers than corporate executives and congressmen.

And so I am encouraged by the wisdom of triple-bottom-line eco-economists. I take hope in those who understand the urgency of using the full power of our collective understanding to take action now to avoid altering living biomes past tipping points, even if it means doing without or with much less stuff today.

I’m encouraged to know that there are steady-state economists who believe we can truly progress without cancerous growth that takes more than it gives back. I’m hopeful in that there are entire nations recognizing that General Happiness Index is a better measure of our well-being together than Gross Domestic Product.

The Greek word for household is “oikos.” We have borrowed it to create both the word economy and the term ecology. We have become confused about the relationship between them. We have allowed ourselves, willingly and for more than a century, to think that the household of our families, of our state or our nation can stand if the household of nature is regarded as an inorganic warehouse of parts of which we are not a part.

We ARE the environment. The environment is the air we breathe. It is the water of the sea within us that comes from the rock below us and the air above. We are the minerals from the vanishing soil that makes wood and leaf of forests and fish as surely as it makes bones and brains of poets.

On the far side of alternative fuels of today must be a species (my great-great-greats) that can live contentedly within the limits of this only home planet nurtured to provide an acceptably healthy and just and ongoing level of well-being.

Some non-carbon fuel then will give light and heat for far fewer of us. Each of us will know from grade school the limits beyond which we cannot spend, cannot despoil, cannot take, cannot succumb to self–because we clearly see that the “personal ecology” of each of us leaves tracks that will reach the future.

Share this with your friends!

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

Articles: 3013


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Hi Fred,

    Your blog on renewable energy issues stirs me to offer my two cents.

    I used to bicycle to college often 40 years ago on Long Island. I remember to this day an image: I had just crossed the Long Island Expressway on 110. I looked back and watched for awhile as the big, noisy gas consuming cars came over the little hill endlessly in waves as the traffic light turned green and red. I thought to myself, “This can’t last”. Of course, nothing has changed.

    I’ve read the newspaper reports about ongoing conversion to renewable energy in northern Europe. Like you say in your blog, I felt encouraged humanity was working toward a “future in which we’ll have fixed things — living then with a little less carbon, a little more recycling, some wind and solar and electric cars”.

    So it is disappointing to learn from the Ernsting article that even though energy from renewable energy sources has been going up, that there are still issues – overall energy use is still climbing, coal burning is still climbing and renewable energy is not as pure and harm-free as we thought.

    Her conclusion is “we certainly need to swiftly end fossil fuel burning and the destruction of ecosystems and that will require us to rely on the least harmful energy sources such as wind and solar power. But the myth of plentiful “clean” energy stops us from focusing on the far deeper changes needed — a transformation toward a low-energy society”.

    Your blog entry picks up on Almuth’s conclusion, “I take hope in those who understand the urgency of using the full power of our collective understanding to take action now to avoid altering living biomes past tipping points, even if it means doing without or with much less stuff today”.

    Fred, I just don’t know about that. Are you not throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Are you not going too far in the other direction?

    I showed this to Barbara and she said she doesn’t expect things to be normal on earth past another three generations or so. Thoughts and beliefs of people close to us can be surprising.

    If I were to take your call to action at your word I would disagree. Right now there is a spacecraft, Rosetta, sending pictures back from a comet 300 million miles away. The internet was invented in our lifetime. Electricity was brought to the hill country in Texas only about 80 or 90 years ago. According to what I read, the women there could get stooped backs as early as their 30s because it was typically their job to haul water from the creeks every day to wash the family’s laundry and do the dishes.

    I think the wisdom of the crowd on this issue will prevail, over time.