The production and consumption of energy is a fundamental human practice. Energy is the cornerstone of industrialized civilization. Energy powers everything—machinery in factories, transportation, communications, utilities systems, as well as things that provide the comforts of daily living from television, air conditioning, kitchen appliances, etc. The whole of the economy is contingent on the production of energy; hardly any good or service would be available—at least not as it is now—without the energy put forth toward its production or energy necessary in stores (especially megastores) that enable commerce. It even takes energy to move goods from one place to another.
America has become so accustomed to the conveniences provided by abundant and seemingly unlimited energy that we have taken them for granted. No matter how many air conditions are plugged in on a given day, the local electric company could supply enough energy to run them all. No matter how many cars are on the road, there will be enough gasoline to fuel them all. The American economy in recent decades boomed on energy. From coal to oil, Americans exploited these resources and without really noticing became energy gluttons. Accounting for less than 10% of the global population, the United States consumes about one third of all energy consumed globally.
The Energy Crisis
The industrial revolution ushered in an age of energy. Industrialization, of all human activity, has the greatest effect on the environment. In the United States particularly, debate over long-term energy solutions and environmental policies has turned this critical matter into a politicized issue. American society and industry heavily relies on fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, and coal primarily. The same is true of other industrialized nations. In recent decades, there has been emphasis on the link between energy production and environmental degradation on the part of humans – this is manifest today in the debate over global warming. Therefore, it is an imperative that we find creative ways to meet both human concerns in regard to energy needs as well as address concerns of protection of the environment and ecological structures necessary for the flourishing of all life, including human life.
In the 2008 election cycle, energy independence was a key political issue. In many ways, the issue did not get the emphasis it deserved nor was it presented in its fundamental relation to other issues, particularly the economy. Both sides of the political spectrum talked about “green energy”— ensuring respect for the environment and a vibrant economy. It was a refreshing move away from the traditional conservative warnings of an economic collapse from environmental regulations and liberal admonishments of looming ecological catastrophe. However, what do we mean when we say “green energy?” What sort of energy would we seek and what ethical guidelines would we abide by?
Oil, as is known, is the most intensely used energy resource. The United States, once a major competitor, in the petroleum market, now imports oils at a hefty financial cost; it is clear that it is neither economically efficient nor proper environmental stewardship to continue this trend. Much of the current concern is over peak oil, which refers to the point at which the maximum rate of global extraction of oil is reached, after which the rate of production enter terminal decline. The economic factors of fuel prices and scarcity of resources are contributing to the move away from oil dependency. Even the domestic practice of oil shale extraction (producing crude oil from non-conventional oil found in sedimentary rocks) is not seeing much success for a few reasons. First, to implement this at a large enough scale to be efficient is rather expensive and problematic with many uncertainties surrounding the question of production. Oil shale mining is environmentally hazardous—acid drainage induced by the sudden rapid exposure and subsequent oxidation of formerly buried materials, the introduction of metals into surface water and groundwater, increased erosion, and gas emissions.
Alternative Energy Solutions
The evidence indicates that there is a clear need for alternative energy sources. Any prospective solution will have to consider an array of factors — security of supply, whether it is cost effective (domestically possible versus imported from foreign nations), and its affect on the environment. It seems that any developing technologies will have to find a balance of environmental, political, and economic factors – there will have to be a “giving and taking” in regard to all these matters.
Aside from oil, other fossil fuels are the most common source of energy in the U.S. The second most common is coal. Despite political rhetoric, “clean coal” is an oxymoron. The effect of coal on the environment is hardly clean. Underground coal mines have polluted the water table, harbored fires, caused millions of acres of surface land to subside, which in turn effects roads, sewers, and even collapses houses. Moreover, burning coal accounts for the some 60 percent of the 14 million tons of sulfur dioxide discharged a year by the U.S. as well as it contributes nearly 40 percent of all solid waste produced in the country.
An alternative source closely related to fossil fuels are a growing energy potential, that is, biofuels. Biofuel is energy retrieved from recently deceased biological material. Though, this alternative energy source is not without its problems. The use of biomass—wood, for example—may have large amounts of inorganic nutrients and require prior and post processing to produce needed energy. In other words, it might not be cost-effective. Though, on the other hand, the use of waste biomass to generate energy has its advantages that may outweigh problems of economics: it would decrease waste management problems, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the use of fossil fuels. The United States in particular has the largest potential for turning municipal waste into energy with estimates of over 200 million tons of solid waste and 15 million tons of sewage solids generated each year—this would be enough to produce more than two exajoules of energy.
Ethanol has been stridently advocated in recent years, advertised as a “green” domestic energy source. The latter assertion has come under serious skepticism in the scientific community. Nevertheless, the government went as far as to subsidize the production of ethanol from corn. This proved to be a disaster. The ethanol industry profited, while third world countries that depended on cheap food, which happened to be primarily corn, suffered an even greater food shortage. Ethanol still has yet to live up to the promises made. in America. Ethanol, however, has proved to be a relatively successful local solution in Brazil where ethanol is produced abundantly from sugarcane which appears to be more promising and without the ill effect and ethical dilemma of competing with food supply.
Energy resources that are least effective on the environment are, of course, natural—wind, solar, and geothermal power. Each has its fallback. Wind energy comes from the conversion of wind energy into a useful form, such as electricity, using wind turbines. However, wind energy is immediately contingent on geographical location and the amount of energy is dependent on the speed of the wind. The variability also continues with change in weather as well as time in day. The production of energy efficient machines to address such matters requires energy and is costly.
Solar energy presents a similar challenge; this form of energy comes from the conversion of sunlight to electricity or heat. Solar energy indirectly generates electricity when the heat from solar thermal collectors is used to heat a fluid which produces steam that is used to power generator. The use of solar energy would be more efficient in places like California rather than, say, any province of Canada. A second challenge to this sort of energy solution is that there may be a need for energy when the sun is not available; therefore, there may be a need for heat-storing machinery to provide energy when the sun is not available—variation in weather is entirely the determining factor of costs. Uncertainty is not an incentive in regard to economic matters, thus this form of energy production will be limited and cannot be possibly done on a grand scale given current circumstances and technology.
Geothermal energy presents similar and other unique challenges. Like the others, geothermal energy does not have an immediate detrimental effect on the environment. This form of energy is generated by the heat stored in the earth’s core; this entails that the best geographical location to obtain such energy will be along transform faults. These regions are not the most economically stable places to inhabit given the high probability of natural disasters, particularly volcanic eruption and earthquakes. In many places where geothermal energy plants are located, there have been problems with minerals being extracted from the ground causing pollution at geothermal sites. Hydrogen sulfide, a noxious gas that smells like rotten eggs, is the worst culprit. Found at almost all geothermal sites, occasionally concentrated enough to cause lung paralysis, nausea, and other health problems. It seems then that the challenge facing humanity in terms of natural energy solutions is practicality, economics, and public health rather than concern over environmental harm.
Another source of energy that has no immediate environmental effects is nuclear power. Nuclear energy comes from harnessing nuclear fission, which generates heat, which can be controlled and sustained to generate electricity. Nuclear energy is clean, it is renewable, and it does not require the release of carbon dioxide at mammoth levels that many scientists attribute to global warming. However, nuclear energy does present a number of safety hazards. For example, the possession of tested non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons, can allow a nation or a criminal group to have nuclear weapons within days or even hours with the money and proper technology. This would present an immediate political change and is a matter of fact, a contemporary challenge with countries like Iran and North Korea. The use of nuclear power inevitably brings an unquantifiable but real danger of nuclear blackmail and sabotage from terrorists. Therefore, the widespread, more common use of nuclear power may have environmental benefits while presenting newer, even more profound challenges that have at stake human life itself. Other concerns of public safety lie in reactor meltdowns of nuclear power plants, transportation of waste, as well as the disposal of wastes, which scientists estimate remains dangerously radioactive for approximately up to 100,000 years. In regard to economics, there is the inevitable question of the financial cost of a potential core meltdown not to mention potential public health effects.
The Road To Energy Independence
There are several other forms of alternative energy solutions—each with its “pros” and “cons” and lobby of supporters. However, the most fair and pertinent question in coming up with any meaningful solution is an understanding of how America came to its current situation. One might argue that the history of energy growth in the U.S. is in many ways the history of the growth of the American economy itself. If this is true, then it would follow that if the energy growth stops or slows down, it would be evident in the American economy. There may be something to this hypothesis. Regardless, there is no single villain in this matter. Shortsightedness seems to be as much a reason as greed for our current dilemmas amongst other things.
For decades the U.S. economy boomed forward on increasing amounts of cheap energy. Where once coal was “big” fuel, there was a shift to natural gas and petroleum as primary energy sources. The few voices of warning were drowned out by the chorus of optimism. It has been almost an article of faith that geologists and engineers would pull another rabbit out of the energy hat when needed.
The current energy challenges facing the United States require immediate action. Energy independence and efficiency is a process and will not be an immediate destination. It seems that short term solutions may be the development of a plethora of energy sources based on geographical location, practicality, restrictions and safeguards, and a blue print of a long-term plan. The result will be the consensus of democratic debate. What’s even more important is this: the American people will have to change their way of living. It is arguable that the current energy crisis is due in part to the instant gratification culture of the American people who have predominantly consumed a large quantity of the world’s resources at an alarming rate.
Technology and life styles aggravate our difficulties. Since fuel was cheap and abundant, the private sector saw no incentive to design cars that consume less gas, or make buildings that are better insulated, or to invent machinery that requires the least amount of energy. In regard to city planning, the further distancing of homes and businesses to outlying suburbs increased consumption of fuel for transportation purposes. Even military superiority comes at a cost. Allegedly, the U.S. military uses exactly 1% of all American energy, which is equal to the entire consumption of energy of the nearly 150 million population of Nigeria. It is staggering to imagine that the American armed forces require the same amount of energy as a nation of nearly 150 million people—just about half of the American population—and that only accounts for 1% of American energy usage.
A Catholic Response
Pope John Paul II declared that “ecological irresponsibility is at heart a moral problem—founded upon an anthropological error—which arises when man forgets that his ability to transform the world must always respect God’s design of creation.” He added that there must be “an inner change of heart which leads to the rejection of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production…it is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence.”
Similarly Pope Benedict XVI, who is perhaps the most outspoken pope on the matter of environmental concern, at World Youth Day this summer reminded Catholic youth that “there are…scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption. Some of you come from island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising water levels; others from nations suffering the effects of devastating drought. God’s wondrous creation is sometimes experienced as almost hostile to its stewards, even something dangerous.”
It is certain that rather than being responsible stewards of nature, man has shown callous disregard by placing profit, greed, and indiscriminate use of technology over considerations of life, natural beauty, community, and the common good. Catholic social teaching on environmental stewardship certainly does not receive the attention it deserves. Catholic wisdom on this matter, from the Holy Father, his predecessor, and the teaching of the bishops in documents such as The Ecological Crisis (1990), Renewing the Earth (1992), and Global Climate Change (2001) makes clear that environmental and economic justice go hand in hand. The richest contribution to this troubling and intricate problem of energy efficiency and care for creation is Catholic social teaching, particularly on environmental stewardship and human solidarity, but as well as emphasis on subsidiarity, prudence, and democratic participation. Moreover, a Catholic moral framework has much to offer to a problem requires a re-evaluation of societal ethos and cultural habits that inevitably contributed the current crisis facing the world.