Sunday, January 27, 2019

Putting down the chalice

Remarks delivered at the community conversation on renewable energy and economic development in the 21st century, held January 17th, 2019, in Oneonta, NY

The video is at the jump, with my face holding a weird grimace in the still.

And here's the text, more or less verbatim what's on the video:

I get it.

I get why people love fossil fuels.

They’re these really powerful, concentrated, flexible sources of energy that allow us to accomplish things our ancestors couldn’t even have dreamed of.

They’re like a surprise inheritance from an eccentric relative you didn’t even know you had.

The executor reads out the will, and it turns out that there’s all this valuable stuff in the ground, and it’s yours to use.

Sure, you have to do the work of digging it out of the ground and figuring out how to use it, but as you start doing that, you realize that this stuff is gold. Actually, it’s so powerful that it makes gold look silly.

You’ve been handed a pile of stuff that will help you achieve quadrillions of dollars worth of wealth, and it’s yours to spend.

About a hundred years after you come into the stuff, the executor pulls out a small, scribbled note that says that there might be unexpected consequences of spending this inheritance.

But you’re busy fighting a world war, dealing with a Great Depression, fighting another world war, and then getting locked into an existential struggle against communism (or, from another perspective, an existential struggle against capitalism).

While you’re engaged in that existential struggle, you start getting more notes from the executor. It turns out that if you spend too much of this inheritance, at some point in the future there may be some warming.

But this is rather vague.

How much is “too much”?

When is “at some point in the future”?

And warming? Why is that a problem?

Besides, that existential struggle against communism is over, and you won—congratulations!—but now you’re dealing with the threat of global terrorism. (Or, from the other side of the fence, Struggle against capitalism is over. Congratulations—you lost. You are now capitalist. Sort of.)

But you keep getting more notes from the executor, and the writing is getting clearer.

“Too much” might be only 50% more than what you’ve already spent. Or 25%. Or 15%.

“Some point in the future” is coming closer, and not just because time has passed since the earlier notes, but because the consequences they’re talking about are happening sooner than they originally thought.

An ice-free Arctic by 2100? Maybe ice-free in the summer by 2030. Troubling events are coming towards us, even as we’re moving towards them.

You start to realize that you could destabilize enough of the world’s living systems to endanger your civilization. You begin to wonder about that eccentric benefactor who left you all this stuff. It’s an odd sort of inheritance, that makes you rich enough to destroy your current home, but not near rich enough to build yourself a new one.

Or maybe fossil fuels are an enchanted chalice, and drinking from it makes you big and strong (and beautiful!). But the funny thing about this chalice is that it never slakes your thirst. The stronger you get, the stronger you want to be, which means you have to keep drinking more.

But you’re starting to notice that you’re getting too big for your living-room furniture. Now you’re big enough that you’re pressing against the walls of your living room, and if you keep drinking from the chalice, you’ll get so big that you’ll burst your whole house asunder and have nowhere to live.

There are people telling you, people writing to the local papers, that if you put down the chalice, you’ll die!

But you’re starting to realize that if you don’t put down the chalice, you’ll die.

I get why people in our area would look longingly at the chalice and hope to drink more from it. Walk down Main St. and look at all the empty storefronts, and you can tell we’re not thriving.

A hundred fifty years ago, the nation was using coal to build and operate a railroad network spanning the continent. This network created a flood of wealth by making it simple to move things from where they were easy to grow and produce, to where people were who wanted them. And the network needed a range of services to keep it working, and—for partially arbitrary reasons—Oneonta was chosen to provide some of those services, with the roundhouse, railyard, and car barns. That meant that a disproportionate share of the wealth produced by the railroad flowed into Oneonta and spilled over into the surrounding communities.

And it wasn’t just the railroad workers. Since we were an important node on the transportation network, this was an advantageous place for small manufacturers, who could get supplies in and send goods out. And farmers had it good, with easy access to feed grain from the Midwest to raise cows on land that was far enough from New York City to be inexpensive, but close enough that the milk could get there fresh.

All because we were special. We played an outsized role in this network that was helping to turn the nation’s fossil inheritance into wealth, and so we prospered.

But the chalice giveth, and the chalice taketh away. The country shifted from railroads to highways, and train technology changed, and people figured out how to move milk from herds of 10,000 cows in California, so there was no longer as much need for herds of 100 or 200 cows in the Catskills.

As fossil fuels continued changing the ways that wealth was created, we no longer had anything particularly important to offer. And so, compared to the country as a whole, we stagnate and look for solutions.

When people talk about “investment,” they usually mean “making money”—buying stocks, bonds, real estate, things you think will pay dividends or go up in price so you can sell them at a profit.

But to an economist, “investment” means “spending money to build stuff.” Some of that is private, like factories, stores, and machinery. Some of it is the government, like roads and schools. And some of it is related to energy, paid for by a mix of private and public sources: oil wells, pipelines, photovoltaic arrays, transmission grids.

Investment is how we shape our future.

The dominant fact about our future is climate change, human-driven climate change. If we’re not taking that into account when we plan our future, we’re not making our decisions intelligently.

And what the science is telling us about the future, is that most of the fossil fuel inheritance that we haven’t spent yet—has to stay in the ground.

That doesn’t mean that we’re going to drop to zero carbon emissions in five years, or in ten, so we still have to maintain the fossil-fuel infrastructure that we have.

But if we do what the science tells us is necessary, we do need to start now shifting to a path of decreasing carbon emissions.

If we stake our region’s future on easier access to fossil fuels, there are only two ways that plays out.

One is that our society gets serious about carbon emissions and in some way or other makes fossil-fuel use more expensive. When that happens, any new infrastructure based on expanded fossil-fuel use becomes a stranded asset, infrastructure that can never pay back the money we spent to create it.

The other possible outcome is that the investment pays off, but that can only happen if the broader society has decided to do nothing substantive about climate change. Our region would then enjoy abundant natural gas, while conditions in the world around us deteriorated.

If you build new fossil-fuel infrastructure, you’re placing a bet. You’re betting that our country will continue to do nothing substantive about the changes bearing down on us.

And you’re not just placing a bet. You’re making yourself an interested party, you’re giving yourself a profit-based reason to keep our country on the sidelines.

From a narrow economic perspective, easier access to fossil fuels is a no-brainer. We have plenty of things working against us in this area, and cheaper fossil fuels would be one less disadvantage. But there are other places with cheap energy, so having that wouldn’t make us stand out in any way.

So what’s the alternative?

If you’re not going to expand your fossil-fuel use, and eventually you’re going to start decreasing it, then you’re unavoidably going to do a combination of two things: using more renewables, and using less energy overall.

We don’t ultimately care about energy itself. We care about what we can do with energy: keep our houses warm, move around, make stuff. If we can get those things done at a reasonable cost, then it doesn’t matter economically whether we do it by using lots of cheap fossil fuel, or smaller amounts of renewables.

“But renewables aren’t any good for manufacturing!”

There’s some truth to that, at least in the short and medium term, but even there, efficiency and renewables can still help with manufacturing. If we insulate our homes, shift them to heat pumps and pellet stoves, and get some of our hot water from the sun, we free up the gas that we had been using for those purposes, and we can use some of that for manufacturing instead.

This is no magic bullet or panacea. It’s not going to give us back the special status we had when the railroad was king and we made it run.

But it is putting us on the right side of the future.

And what is it that we have to offer in that future?

A reasonably well educated population.

A reasonable climate. Plenty of fresh water. Areas of good soil, and plenty of cheap land, at a reasonable distance from the country’s largest city.

Depending on how things play out with society’s response to climate change, and with climate change itself, our region may turn out to be blessed with valuable assets.

I don’t know the details of what our future here looks like.

But the baseline reality is that our society needs to be working on using less fossil fuel. We have to be planning to simply take the vast majority of our remaining inheritance and leave it in the ground.

If we’re planning intelligently for the future, we need to be figuring out how we’re going to put the chalice down, not buying new straws to drink more from it.

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