A Third Alternative

In a recent blog I spoke of the delicate balance we must strike between the possible harm to wildlife and the environment and our development of alternative forms of energy. I suggested that despite the possible harm that might result from the development of solar and wind power, it is preferable to the continued reliance on oil and coal. I also suggested that the development of clean energy seems to be the “lesser of evils.” But, as Hannah Arendt reminds me, the lesser of evils is still evil. The problem with this type of reasoning is that it gives the appearance of providing moral support for a position that may not in fact be morally justifiable. It goes like this: A is preferable to B since A has the more acceptable consequences. But if A is still a bad thing, then we may say A is preferable only if there is not a third option, C which might be better than either A or B. In this case we simply assume that humans will continue to demand more and more energy and thus we will require more energy sources. But let’s check out that assumption.

Some years ago I led a conference at my university on the ethics of nuclear power usage, examining the pros and cons of the continued development of a “clean” source of energy that has built-in dangers — as we recently found out in Japan. A spokesman for the Texas Power and Light Company spoke while a nuclear chemist (who was also a medical doctor) spoke against nuclear power. At one point in the discussion the spokesman from Texas said that Americans shouldn’t have to alter their life style. And that’s the key. It’s not only a key to the nuclear power debate, but it is also the key to the delicate balance I am speaking about in this blog. The question is: why shouldn’t Americans alter their life-style?  We waste nearly 40% of the energy we burn, according to recent studies. Power plants waste an estimated 75% of the energy they use and all of us waste as much as 12% of the energy we use as “stand-by” energy because we don’t turn off appliances. And we keep our houses much warmer than we need to. With climate change continuing to raise the temperatures in this part of the world, we will use more and more energy to keep our houses cool in the Summer months as well.

But let’s just take the matter of the hot houses in the Winter. I recall a television commercial in which the actor left his home and with his telephone he reduced his thermostat in his empty home from 72 degrees to 68 degrees. And this was supposed to be exemplary behavior! But think about that: he is heating his house to 68 degrees while there is no one inside that house! It’s bad enough that he keeps the house at 72 degrees while he is inside, but leaving it at that setting while it is empty is irresponsible if not downright stupid. I live in Minnesota where it does get cold in the Winter and we set our thermostat at 62 degrees in the daytime and at 59 degrees at night. That’s why God invented sweaters (and blankets), my wife tells me. It took a bit of getting used to, but I wouldn’t want it any other way now. And I have seen films of Inuit people inside their igloos with naked babies where we are told the temperatures are in the low 50’s. It is really a question of getting used to a new “life-style.” And if our current life-style is wasteful, why shouldn’t we alter it?

We can do so if we choose to do so. With a serious attempt at conservation we could use less energy and we could also do a better job of protecting wildlife and the environment. I wonder how many of those folks in Martha’s Vineyard who want to protect Nantucket Sound set their thermostats down at night and when they are not at home? (I’m just sayin’). As long as there is a viable alternative, the lesser of evils is still evil, as Arendt says, and we could be doing better.

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10 thoughts on “A Third Alternative

  1. Sorry .. that reminded me of something.
    I had a large weevil in my garden and it’s baby. I had to get rid of the big one so that I was left with the lesser of two weevils.

  2. Hugh, you said it exactly right when you recounted the Texas power guy’s statement: We do have to change our lifestyles, especially Americans. The Chinese are growing quickly as another big consumer of energy (and producer of pollution) so there’s soon going to be two huge countries gobbling up and wasting energy. If we don’t change our lifestyles, at the rate things are going, the earth will change them for us! I do think, however, that we should not dismiss nuclear energy completely out of hand. If it is actually properly managed — and it takes some money and the kicking down of the arrogance of some of these power-company people — it can be an efficient long-term energy source. The places where there have been problems have been at plants were maintenance and operational investments have fallen behind, or where human error (or in Japan and Chernobyl, arrogance: “it’s not that bad, really”) have let bad situations become catastrophes. The other serious problem with nuclear energy is the storage of spent waste, which is becoming a problem now in Washington state. I am not saying it is a better option than wind or solar, but in the right hands — maybe with smaller plants to reduce the risk of bigger crisis — it could still be in the energy discussion mix.

    But that’s a side note. Your bigger point is one that needs to be continually driven home. I’ve got an uncle who carries that attitude: “I can drive a big Ford Explorer if I want, even if gas gets over $5 a gallon. It’s my choice. I can afford it.” Yes and no. He may be able to pay for the gas now, but can he afford what his attitude may do to his grandchildren’s planet? And it’s not really just his choice — by buying gas even at a ridiculous price like that, he simply gives Big Oil more incentive to keep fracking, to one day tear into ANWR, etc., and less incentive to develop alternative sources. And, unfortunately, my uncle is not an isolated case. America is full of people with that attitude: thus the crisis. And thus the fallibility of the argument that we don’t have to change our lifestyles. We do.

    • No man is an island: what we do “on our own” has consequences. There are too many people like your uncle, sad to say. I do think the problem of nuclear waste is very serious. Uranium 235 has a half-life of thousands of years. If we had been developing nuclear energy when the dinosaurs lived the waste would still be toxic today.

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  3. Thanks Hugh. Conservation is one of the greatest energy sources and, in some cases, the easiest thing we can do. Yet, it does require an altering of habits. But, back to the lesser of two evils, there is a matter of degree – nuclear energy has a huge downside, while some of the alternative forms of energy downsides may not be very consequential and, as we discussed, overstated by people in the fossil fuel industry. So, the lesser of two evils, may be comparing losing one’s wallet to losing a loved one. There is a huge difference.

    • The lesser of evils should be combined with serious conservation measures to minimize harm to wildlife and the environment.

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  4. Any of ‘us’ who have migrated away and live without air conditioning in the tropics will probably agree: I have to take sweaters and jackets when traveling to the USA in the summertime! The a/c freezes me everywhere I go, and I often go outside in the blazing sun and just sit in order to get warm! Acclimating to the surrounding environment is not that difficult of a task, and one is usually healthier. Decidious trees provide temperature-dropping coolness in the summer time and then allow passive solar warmth to reach us in the winter months. You and your family are probably healthier than most since you’re not forcing your bodies to adapt from the extreme temperature differences between inside and out.
    And those gas-guzzling monster vehicles —-whew!

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