June 5, 2012
By Matt Palmer
Back at the end of April I wrote a five-part series called “The New Environmentalism“. The goal was to express some of my views of why we are locked in a battle over the fuel sources we use to harness energy, and to begin the process of introducing the need to take a “systems thinking” approach, as a way to bridge the widening gap between energy producers and environmentalists.
You might note that I wrote energy producers, as opposed to fossil fuel producers, because energy projects around the world now face greater scrutiny from environmental groups, from oil sands in Alberta, to wind in Ontario, solar in the California desert, nuclear everywhere, and on. Some might chalk up protests against alternative energy sources as being NIMBYISM, however, it is more likely a wake up call for all of us to realize that harnessing any form of fuel source (oil, coal, wind, nuclear, solar, hydro) for human consumption creates costs.
Using a systems approach allows us to weigh costs and benefits, to determine what impacts are acceptable, what is not acceptable, and what impacts we may be forced to agree to. A systems approach helps create a broader understanding of the difference between using fossil fuels for energy, as well as essential feedstocks like petrochemicals, and using fuel sources like wind, and solar to harness electricity.
The current level of debate around energy tends to defines fuel sources as good or bad, when in fact, they are both. Yesterday, one of my sisters pointed me to a great website and group “The Natural Step“. Go to their site and read “About Us” because it is a fascinating story of how a project about sustainability began with an oncologist studying childhood cancers.
Yesterday, the Executive Director of The Natural Step, Chad Park, posted an article “Good Guys and Bad Guys: They’re all part of the same unsustainable system” Mr Park is direct in calling out both sides for poor behaviour in the energy debate.
The public framing of the issues, especially recently, would seem to suggest that we must either be on the side of the environment or on the side of jobs and the economy. This is nonsense.
As I have written before, my view is that there are very few people who wake up every day with the intention to do harm to natural or social systems, and very few people who would disagree with the need for stable jobs and prosperity.
As Mr Park points out we all “exist within a system“. If we listen to the conversation today, the choice presented is between oil and other fossil fuels vs alternatives. Each of these fuels sources are a system, and they exist within a larger system.
What the “good guys vs. bad guys” approach fails to acknowledge (from either side) is that the activity and players in question exist within a system—a complex system with almost infinitely interconnected parts. Within this system, the causes and effects between economic activity and environmental and social impacts are almost impossible to pinpoint directly.
Using a good guys/bad guys approach decision makers might decide to shut down oil and coal production in favour of mass production of alternative energy sources, only to discover without oil and coal, needed materials like petrochemicals and steel are no longer available. Conversely, decisions to relax environmental regulations, and slow “costly” alternative energy, in favour of industrial development to spur continued economic growth based on fossil fuels, will prove to be shortsighted when environmental degradation overwhelms the system.
The current discourse tends to frame the issue in terms of one energy source vs another. Would reframing the conversation around “why” we use energy, and how using energy adds value to our lives, change the dynamic of the debate? The environmental, social, political, and economic impacts of our energy choices are intrinsically tied together. If we do not address how and why we use energy, can we really hope to deal with rising consumption?
If people think wind and solar are free, will they care how much they consume? Will they still leave the lights on when they are not there?
It is the systems themselves that are unsustainable. And it is at the systems level that we must act. The only way that we are going to have any hope of leaving a better future for our children is if we can respectfully engage with one another as co-participants within our unsustainable systems, seeking deeper levels of understanding, and applying our extraordinary creativity and innovation to the challenge of transitioning to a sustainable future.
Are we brave enough to leave behind the good vs bad approach to energy, environment, economy, etc?