Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Against my better judgement, I have to say that I do like Al Gore. He's a bit of a stick, sure, but he's consistent. And unlike most of the Trustifarian environmental activists I've known personally, he seems genuinely sincere when he talks about saving the planet. And I do respect that. So when Mister Gore threw down the gauntlet recently to American energy producers to switch to renewable energy sources within ten years, my response was, at first, elation. Like many a pure activist, he said something that NEEDED to be said, consequences be damned, and he challenged us all to do what NEEDED to be done. Al seems to have grown a pair; getting shafted in a Presidential election will do that, I guess.

Of course, as the initial elation wore off, like many a cynic, I grew...well, cynical. And skeptical of whether it could be done. Or, for that matter, if Mister Gore even MEANT for it to be done. He is a politician, after all, and politicians are not above grandstanding to make a point. But whatever the intention, the problem is the same: American energy from totally-renewable sources? I don't think it can be done.

The problem is this: the United States is an energy glutton. And yes, I include myself in this, as I type away on my laptop with my house-lights blazing and my television going. We're responsible for about 20% of world energy usage all by ourselves. Ponder that. Now ponder if we switch to "renewable" sources, and expect to continue to function at the same level. Can't happen. Won't happen. It's simply not possible. 

When we talk about "renewable" energy sources, we need to put the term "renewable" into proper perspective. Most of the time, when environmentalist say "renewable," they mean things like solar power, hydroelectric power, geothermal power - sources that come from nature without having to drill or dig or take anything out of the ground. And sure, these work perfectly fine. But they have their limitations. Solar power never really took off, because nobody has yet really come up with an efficient way to gather and store enough energy to make it feasible on the large scale (and maybe with properly-funded research, they can, but who knows). Geothermal, hydroelectric, wind power, are all limited by their local environment; can't set up a wind farm where there's no wind. Currently, renewable energy sources account for about 14% of the power generated in the United States, for these very reasons. If we're going to ramp that up to 100%, some serious changes are going to be needed.

The simple fact of the matter is that in the United States we don't have an energy crisis. What we have is a LIFESTYLE crisis. We can't go all-renewable and still expect to go on being the energy hogs we are now. It simply CAN'T be done; there's not enough power to do it. The hype about biofuels died down quickly when it became clear that, in order to produce enough ethanol to continue to run all our cars and machines at the same level as on petroleum, we wouldn't have any corn left over to actually FEED PEOPLE. That speaks volumes about the common misconception about "renewable" energy. Hell, when you stop to think about it, oil is "renewable;" it's just that it happens on a geological scale, too slowly for our energy needs.

In order to successfully go all-renewable, we Americans will have to make a complete, top-to-bottom, social overhaul. We will have to curtail our consumption. We will have to drive fewer, smarter cars. We will have to spend less time glued to our computers and televisions, and more time interacting with one another in the flesh.  These are all things Americans have serious problems letting go of, and I CERTAINLY can't see it happening in a decade.

And Al Gore, being a smart guy himself, must know this too. He HAS to know this; idealism doesn't survive Washington without a few scars. So unless Al's popped a gasket and really wants us all to live in his hippie paradise, I can't help but feel that this was all a publicity stunt. Maybe to encourage the government to reduce its dependence on foreign oil (which is a good thing). Maybe to simply rattle the cages, make us think. 

Of course, those of us who have been thinking about this all along - those of us concerned individuals who have been recycling and commuting and turning the lights off when we leave the room for the LAST decade - can't help but feel a bit put out. Like all those little things that are in our power to do haven't even made a dent...and that worse is in store. And that maybe now, when environmentalists are finally getting a fair shake and the tables finally seem to turning, that it's coming too late, and all we can do is batten down the hatches and make ready for rolling blackouts and riots in the street.

Or maybe we'll come to our senses.



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