Even if we exploited all of our renewable energy options completely, they could not entirely support our growth-based and industrialized society, according to a recent book by Australian professor Ted Trainer. Trainer, a part-time professor at the University of New South Wales, argues that between intermittent wind and solar supply, power plant siting issues, and lack of arable land for biofuels, renewables are not up to the task of meeting all of our energy needs.
Since I haven’t read the book, I won’t pass judgement on whether Trainer’s calculations are correct. Certainly, I approach any projections about the future of complex energy systems with a high degree of skepticism, since one faulty assumption can gravely skew the results. For example, a few months ago scientist Jesse Ausubel published a paper claiming that using renewables to meet all of our power demand require so much space that it would “rape” much of our current arable and wild land. As it turned out, he made the colossal error of not considering dual-use wind and solar, the idea (already widely employed) of siting turbines and panels on top of existing buildings.
But Trainer’s argument goes deeper than the simple number-crunching of energy supply. His larger point, which evidently he spends the second half of the book on, is essentially this: so long as our economic system accepts unlimited consumption and growth as natural and desirable, it would be an exercise in futility to try to power it with renewable and sustainable resources. Bringing our energy demand down to meet the supply that renewables can provide will require shifting the orientation of our values toward consuming less.
Having just begun a course in introductory economics, I was drawn to Trainer’s view that we must re-define “acceptable economic behavior” if we are to rely exclusively on renewable power. Like all systems, our economy is based on a certain set of critical assumptions, that is, assumptions that have an important impact on what we consider to be “good,” and thus how we act economically. For example, one assumption built into many economic models is that business firms will always try to earn the highest possible profit for their owners. Clearly, this is overly simplistic and ignores many types of enterprises, like businesses that shut down for part of the year while the owners are on vacation, or that operate for other, social purposes. If you build a school of thought on assumptions like these, you might end up with a structure that looks remakably similar to the one we have now.
Since Adam Smith penned his seminal work “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776, economics has worked its way into every aspect of society. We worship at the altar of efficiency in planning our daily lives, and we conduct cost-benefit analyses of our relationships. In an increasingly diverse nation, it could almost be said that economics has become the true first language of the United States.
On the first day of my economics class, we heard the subject defined as the social science “which examines the part of individual and social action most closely connected to the material requisites for well-being.” I think part of the reason that economics has become our language of choice is because the economists have done their jobs so well. In rich nations, they have provided us with far more than the material requisites for well being. Capitalizing on the limitless nature of human desires, the market now over-produces millions of luxury goods.
The problem, as I see it, is that the economic theories which brought us here are out of date in light of our current situation. Take the term “material requisites,” the things which economists try to make as cheap and plentiful as possible. To address our environmental problems, we need to redefine both of these words, radically de-materializing our goods while thinking hard about which ones are “requisites” and which are luxuries.
I’ll be posting much more on reforming economics in the future, but Trainer’s book on renewable energy provides an interesting jumping-off point. Unlimited consumption is not “renewable,” so why would we want to fuel it with power that is?
Photo credit: flickr/harshadsharma