The Good Life

Energy is basic to life — and to climate change

Alvin Urquhart emeritus professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Oregon

by Alvun Urquhart

All life is based on energy. For all but the last 150 years, almost every creature on Earth depended on renewable energy for its needs and wants. But since the mid 19th century, humans have increasingly used fossil fuel energy to supply not only their needs but also their wants. This has resulted in longer lives, better health, a panoply of goods and services that mark modern life as well as the increase in population from less than 2 billion people to nearly 8 billion today. 

Desire for growth and progress drives our society. However, in addition to the benefits of the goods and services of contemporary life, we have recently become aware of pollution of lands, seas and air as by products of creating “the good life.” 

The pollution that is climate change has received most attention because its physical effects have been widely experienced directly. And scientists tell us that if action is not taken very soon, global warming may reach a tipping point, at which time unpredictable and irreversible changes in the natural systems of the Earth will occur. Therefore we have come to see that the good life has great consequences in the real world of matter and energy in which we are embedded. 

We have temporarily maintained the good life based on economics created by human ingenuity that largely ignores natural ecology. It sees natural resources as unlimited or substitutable by technologic advances in science and technology. Because science and technology have been so successful in making fossil fuels useful, we have also looked to them to find technical ways to break free from pollution caused by burning coal, oil and gas. 

Technology may be developed to eliminate or greatly reduce the use of fossil fuels. But technology does not address the economic, political and social ways of implementing its solutions. Economists, politicians and others in society have been unable to approach the problem of climate change. That’s either because they are truly unaware of the ways in which energy is embedded in the physical world ecology, or because they do not want to admit the consequences of including natural ecology in their thinking — because to do so would require radical and very unpopular changes in policy. 

What does this mean for the immediate crisis, which is climate change? Unless the subsidies and cheap credit extended to fossil fuel extractors are seen as a way of shoring up the economy of consumption at the expense of polluting nature, and unless we now drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels, the possibility of containing climate change in the immediate future is extraordinarily limited. Only through immediate and drastic action can the tipping points in the natural system be avoided.

The only possible way to rapidly slow climate change and to ease into a civilization that is no longer based on cheap or subsidized energy is to tax heavily all fossil fuels at the point of their extraction or importation. That will require political and economic leadership to see that all people do not suffer from the inevitable consequences of impacts of the new indirect tax. 

But what to do from the bottom up? We must all understand that energy is basic to all life. Technologies and societies based on perpetual growth ignore this. We must recognize that our political, social, economic and cultural systems are part of a natural ecology that is fundamental to all organic existence. If we do so, we will need to find ways to live joyous lives in greater simplicity. 

The Climate Change 2020 special section was funded by Alvin Urquhart and Art and Anita Johnson