I’m about to say something that which may label me as a pariah amongst the green community: I do not highly prioritize energy conservation.
There, I said it, it’s on the internet now and there’s no taking it back. But let me backtrack a bit and say that of course I don’t advocate wasting energy. I’m not saying we should all be leaving heat lamps on in uninhabited rooms, or firing up Christmas displays at high noon in August, or throwing “Let’s see how much we can rev our engines” parties on my street at two in the morning while I’m trying to sleep. (Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, you punks!) All I’m saying is that I think that there are more important energy goals: specifically, the development of renewable energy sources.
Of course, not everyone agrees with me. For example, Dawn Stover at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists cites ample evidence that it would be utterly unfeasible to continue our current rate of energy growth indefinitely, even given fantastic amounts of resources. As a result, conservation, rather than alternative energy development, should be a greater priority. The problem with these calculations is that they are limited entirely to the constraints of current technology, with speculations only that current technology will increase in efficiency. Given that the photovoltaic cell itself was, as a practical technology rather than just a novelty, developed within the last sixty years, and electromagnetism itself only functionally discovered within the last two hundred, I see no reason to suspect that another equally important paradigm shift in energy technology will not occur within the next few centuries of human evolution. For all we know, the very concept of electrical power will be as hilariously obsolete by 2100 as the concept of gaslight is today.
But all of this puts the cart before the horse. The present reality is that we are running out of oil. We’ll eventually be forced to switch to another primary power source once we run out of fossil fuels, so while conservation may prolong the time we have to make that switch, it will only postpone the inevitable. It may bring some short-term peace, but it will only be Peace For Our Time.
Unfortunately, the cruel reality is that Peace For Our Time is the only peace there can ever be. There’s no Happily Ever After for the human race, only the endless march– or at least a steady power-walk– into the future. So long as physical existence is a reality, the human species, and all species, will continue to face environmental pressures, and they will continue to react to those pressures. There has not been a day in the history of life that this has not been true, and there will not be a day in its future when it will cease to be true. We do not have to invent the technology that will serve us forever; we only need to invent the technology to serve us until the next paradigm shift. Let’s all do what we can, then, to make this coming shift into an age of ecological cooperation and sustainable adaptation, rather than one of fear and technological regression. Let’s not forget the last time that happened.