From oil to coal to natural gas and now nuclear power: As one by one the use of these energy sources results in catastrophes, we keep searching for a safe alternative, but even if we champion solar, hydro, wind, ocean waves, wood, and other such renewable energy sources, our insatiable appetite for energy simply cannot be sustained. The real energy problem is us!
I was teaching the course “The Politics of Global Survival” several years ago in the Political Science Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, whose first half considered nuclear weapons. The second half, which we were discussing, addressed global environmental issues. I was on the podium, pleading my case for energy restraint, when a student blurted out, “Dr. Kranzdorf, what is there about bigger, better, faster, more you don’t understand?” Indeed, he had hit the core of the issue and the core of the second half of the course. Was—and is—living modestly feasible?
So-called progress and growth are assumptions of modern society. Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher, a book written some 40 years ago (since updated), caused a stir … and then receded. Politics, economics, psychology, and culture interfere when we focus on living modestly. “Forever More” is a mantra in the United States and increasingly globally, which is no more realistic than Forever 21. More SUVs and full-size cars and trucks, more McMansions, more wasteful bottled water and “he who has the most toys wins” are now global notions. Living modestly, on the other hand, seems reserved for Luddites.
The speed limit along most California highways is 65 miles per hour, but you’d never know that if you shuffle along at that speed or slower during off-peak driving hours. We in the United States lament gasoline costs of $4 per gallon, but in European countries, whose standard of living approximates our own, gas costs between $6 and $9 per gallon. Here, massive subsidies to energy companies keep fuel artificially cheap. We groan over our energy bills and making wars on oil-producing countries, yet do not take the simplest steps to curb our energy use. President Carter was mocked more than 30 years ago for suggesting wearing an additional garment in winter, which would cost far less than more house insulation.
For many of us, embracing modest living is a hard sell. We may actually believe it’s un-American. None of us—certainly including me—is pure. I’ve traveled extensively, and by doing so expanded my carbon footprint. What foods, foreign and domestic, should we buy? For instance, my favorite food is watermelon, which now, in April, is shipped from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Should I indulge my love of watermelon or some other food even if it has to be shipped, thanks to petroleum, for my enjoyment? None of us is pure.
Curbing appetites requires elevating consciousness. When I’m asked at the supermarket whether I want “paper or plastic,” I usually respond, “Neither, I have my reusable bag”—but sometimes I forget to bring the bag. If the store manager would direct employees to rephrase the question, “paper, plastic, or neither?” eventually the message would register, even among the memory challenged. Our representatives should take heed. The House dining room in Congress has resumed dumping plates and utensils instead of recycling them, and there are calls to return to incandescent bulbs there rather than continuing the use of compact fluorescent lights. Turning off the heat and lights when leaving home for a week is a no-brainer, but turning off the heat when leaving a room for an hour is not so obvious.
There’s also the issue of jobs. Reducing demand and reusing material shrinks jobs in the short term. And if I go an extra week without a haircut, that’s one less customer a barber will have for that week. Yes, living more simply may lead to such dilemmas, but we must curb our appetites, period.
President Obama dares not call for curbing wants because he seeks re-election; hence, he dwells on “energy independence” instead of energy reduction. But remember: Bigger, better, faster, more is the road to nowhere—and eventual catastrophe.
Call me Cassandra.
Richard Kranzdorf is a professor emeritus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Send comments via the opinion editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.