Sun Jun 12th, 2005 at 01:58:32 PM EST
I have a personal interest in energy literacy and the ways in which its opposite, energy illiteracy, is encouraged by our current economic and social order. What is energy literacy? One answer (mine, at the moment) is: an understanding that the fundamental economics of life are calculated in units of energy, not units of money.
If we don't understand energy units and costs, then we can't sensibly discuss issues close to my heart like sustainable technology, how to adapt to the end of the cheap fossil fuel era, how to live within our planetary means, etc. We can't talk about which "alternative energy sources" are cost effective, or assess the impact of our daily choices and decisions, without understanding energy units and concepts.
We are all brought up to understand money units from an early age. We know how to compare prices, and how to tell if something is expensive or cheap, a bargain or a rip-off. We are brought up, by contrast, in fairly complete ignorance of energy units and equivalences. Because of our inability to think quantitatively about energy with the same fluency and ease with which we compare prices at a supermarket, we are prevented from making rational choices or understanding major issues facing us (as individuals, nations, a species).
For example, I have met people who seriously believed that Americans can go on running their private vehicle fleet as is, even if we run out of fossil fuel, by using peanut butter as fuel. To believe this requires ignorance of the concept of energy density, the difference in potential energy between a gallon of gasoline and a gallon of peanut butter. Similar illiteracy and innumeracy underlies much of the Pollyanna-ism of popular American culture with regard to energy futures, "the American Way of Life" and so forth. The various Cornucopian cult variations (hydrogen will save us, nuclear power will save us, cold fusion will save us) are all based, in my humble opinion, on fundamental energy illiteracy.
Many people believe that they are doing "all they can" by recycling packaging; most people place a disproportionate emphasis or value on the "energy savings" they achieve by this fairly painless, socially acceptable activity. They do not generally pause to consider the total energy cost of the packaged foods and other goods whose packaging they are virtuously recycling, or how much greater a savings would have been realised by buying locally or in bulk.
The focus of my diaries will be on energy and sustainability issues; the motto will be Show Me The Numbers. We can only make sense of the urgent energy issues facing us -- and the era of cheap fossil fuel and its side effects have piled up issues that will take us a generation to solve -- if we understand the numbers.
We need to learn to think in calories, watts, joules, BTUs, barrel-of-crude equivalents, as well as in dollars and euros. We need to think in terms of EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) in every area of human effort, from transport to electricity generation to nutrition. Particularly in our current parlous and unstable times, with entrenched commercial interests (oil lobby, coal lobby, nuke lobby, military/industrial barons) trying to spin our energy fears into lucrative deals for themselves, we need to be literate enough to see through both soothing happytalk and chicken-little panic-mongering, in order to assess soberly what our best chances are of piloting human civilisation through a difficult transition.
I hope to encourage others to join me in the challenging task of becoming energy literate, learning to read the energy price tags on the artifacts and services all around me.