Diamond-Cut Life

More Joy, Less Stuff

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Renewables Are Not Sugar-Daddies, But Equal-Opportunity Lovers

March 5th, 2009 by Alison · 1 Comment · energy, lifestyle, simplicity, sustainability

In his lean, lovely book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben explains that we should see wind and solar energy as our partners in meeting our energy needs. They’re not sugar-daddies, like fossil fuels, giving us wind turbinewhatever we want when we want it. (OK, sugar-daddy is my phrase, not Bill’s. So is equal-opportunity lover). We have to meet our renewable energy partners halfway by — gasp — just using less energy in the first place.

The premise of Diamond-Cut Life is that we can have full, happy lives while using less energy. For instance, my household is full of life and activity and our electricity bill is half the national average; we use much less gasoline than average, and we use biodiesel to stay warm at home while also containing our home heating bill and eating delicious meals that are low-cost and low-carbon.

Still, it’s hard for most people to believe that we can sharply reduce our energy use and still be happy. It doesn’t jibe with our belief that more is always better, or our economic model of limitless growth. And it offends our desire for technology to always save us from ourselves and the natural world (like another sugar-daddy). But it is the only future truly available to humans on this particular planet, given that oil is  being used up fast and in limited supply.

Why should renewables like solar and wind be less potent forms of energy than a fossil fuel like oil? Because they yield real-time energy, being created in the here and now by the sun and wind. These are modest amounts, similar to the way that a friend or lover in real life can grant some of our wishes, not all. Expecting too much tends to hurt or break the relationship.

Oil, though, is not real-time energy. It is the compacted energy of hundreds of thousands of years worth of plants, condensed by time and pressure.   We drive and fly around using oil like it’s normal when it’s not. Oil is a super-concentrated and exceptional source of energy, yielding us a remarkable era in human history that’s also remarkably short when viewed on the bigger-picture screen. (Does any sugar-daddy last forever? They’re not known for sustainability.) Renewables, in contrast, are grounded, down-to-earth lovers. The sun and wind have the capacity to keep being there for us on a daily basis for the next several hundred millenia.

As good and valuable as renewables are, they will never give us one-to-one replacement value for fossil fuels like oil and coal. The sun and wind are life-giving forces, but not sugar-daddies. They’re more like equal-opportunity lovers, asking us to do what any long-term love relationship asks of us, i.e. to not just take, but also give back. That means using much less energy than the national average. The good news is that we also save money when we use less energy — and we can still have joyful lives while using modest amounts of energy. The life of my household is one example.

photo courtesy of Sebastiano Pitruzzello

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Colleen

    I could not agree more that we have to combine our public support of renewable energy with simply taking less from the Earth overall. Another thing I would add: using electricity at off-peak times. We participate in our electric company’s special off-peak usage program and get a “discount price” for confining most of our electric use to off-peak periods. We then pay a “premium price” for using electricity during on-peak times. Even if someone’s electric company doesn’t have such a program, it’s still a helpful thing to do. But simply consuming less is the best option — gas, power and “stuff” in general — and participating in power companies’ green energy programs that provide seed $ for developing more renewables.

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