A few short years ago I used to string up Christmas lights in the front yard, running a strand from the house to a small tree. They were the old style incandescent bulbs that became hot to the touch. So hot in fact that by the time Christmas was over there would be melon-sized melted cavities around each bulb where they hit the snow, and a hollow channel in the snow along the electrical cord’s path. The amount of electricity wasted as heat in this frankly lame display was incredible. I also had the electric bill to prove it, with a gluttonous spike of inefficiency right around the holiday season (because of course that wasn’t the only string…).
Now in the modern age, that antiquated tangle of squandered energy has been ditched for shiny new LED strings that would not heat a germ. They remain cool and unflappable, and the electrical bill does not even flutter.
It was fairly easy to save a lot of energy by simply upgrading a few strings of lights. While this is an easily visible example, there are countless similar ways to bring down energy consumption through efficiency gains, which means bringing down energy usage period regardless of its source. Upgrading street lights and basic infrastructure, buying higher mileage vehicles, replacing crappy old windows, adding insulation, etc. – there are endless quick, easy, highly effective means of reducing energy consumption.
On the other hand, the desire to reduce energy consumption can lead to a different train of thought for a certain slice of society – that impeding development of easy targets such as Canada’s oil sands can meaningfully reduce global pollution. This tactic requires considerable time, effort and travel, not to mention consumption of significant amounts of fossil fuels to move around the globe to poke the enemy in the eye. The end result also means that protestors are spectacularly missing the right targets (i.e., Chinese coal fired power plants), but that is another story.
There is a huge philosophical gap between reducing fossil fuel consumption through making things better – that is, more efficient – and reducing it by trying to destroy things that have no impact whatsoever on consumption. There is a huge difference between expending energy to actively achieve a goal, and expending similar amounts complaining or protesting about something that changes nothing. Both require energy. At the end of the day one path accomplishes something tangible, the other does not.
Blocking construction of the Keystone pipeline did not kill the oil sands; at best it diverted a bit of unfocused international capital from the region that will happily return when the economics warrant. All that is accomplished by these protests, even if successful, is that the cost structure to produce these petroleum deposits changes slightly, leading to a re-ranking of them in the world order. As long as the world keeps consuming 95 million b/d, the oil will find its way to market just as surely as alcohol found its way to consumers during prohibition, just as surely as drugs find their way to American consumers despite a very loud war on drugs, just as surely as weapons find their way into criminal hands…and on and on. Attacking supply simply does not work.
Anti-fossil fuel activists waste countless hours in skirmishes and spend tens of millions on campaigns, publicity, and stunts in a futile attempt to stem the flow of petroleum. The protest movement has become an industry where people make their livings and reputations, being more concerned with the fight than the result.
How do we know this is the case? Look at it this way. If you want to save the environment – then save the environment. That sounds flippant, but it’s not, and for proof just look to The Nature Conservancy. This organization is provides a crystal clear example of how the environmental movement has become a monster more concerned with its survival than that of the environment.
For those unfamiliar, The Nature Conservancy raises money (as do all environmental organizations) and with the money acquires properties that are set aside in perpetuity as nature reserves. It is a strategy that properly reflects the reality life in an economy based on private property and the rule of law, which we still do live in despite much whining to the contrary. It is a foolproof and effective way of saving critical parts of the environment.
Fighting pipelines does not save the environment. It simply doesn’t. It is an act of defiance and trench warfare and retribution against business.
If one truly believes that the world’s temperature must be kept in check by limiting fossil fuel usage, then…limit fossil fuel usage. Don’t try to strangle supply when the only effect is changing which oil fields are profitable. Protest against high fuel consumption vehicles. Protest against air travel. Protest against inefficient buildings, whose footprints are ever more visible (for example, a website called MyHEAT uses thermal remote sensing to show heat loss from buildings. For cities lucky enough to be on their radar, a few clicks shows precise regions of a house that are losing the most heat.)
There are boundless opportunities to do this stuff on the industrial side. Organizations like Energy Efficiency in Industrial Processes collate brilliant ideas about how to make industrial activity more energy efficient. Read and propose some to your employer. Make sure your building and workspace is as energy efficient as possible.
Build something that is more efficient than what is used now. Save something. Stop whining and wasting time and energy through politicized strategies that will never have winners. You will always be speaking to the converted (to be fair, so will those whose blood boils at the phrase climate change), because vitriolic attacks get you high fives from your friends but harden your enemies. It’s a dead end.
Make an industry out of providing solutions, just like The Nature Conservancy does, and countless other small organizations do by promoting efficiency gains. Spend your volunteer hours solving green-energy engineering problems, or building your own green projects. Don’t fly anywhere. Grow your own herbs on your deck. Teach your kids what their environmental footprint is, and show them yours. It’s not good enough to be righteous about driving a Prius if you fly whenever you feel like it. Well, it is good enough, but be honest about it, and if you mean it then work to reduce your footprint everywhere.
That’s what saving the environment is all about, not wandering around with signs and enjoying the comfort of the mob.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here