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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Delicate Balance

In the struggle to make inroads against Big Oil and Coal the renewable energy industry on occasion meets with obstacles from the unlikeliest sources. For example, an attempt to build an off-shore wind farm in the North Atlantic has met with considerable opposition from a group of wealthy individuals who have formed the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The grounds of their opposition are, surprisingly enough, a presumed concern for the environment and the wildlife that will be impacted by the wind generators. Now, we can debate the question of whether this group is really concerned about the environment and/or the wildlife — the wealthy seldom seem to be. It’s quite possible that they simply don’t want to look out of their picture windows from their ocean-side estates and see a plethora of whirling propellers. But that point is moot.

The fact remains there are serious and sober concerns on the part of a great many people about the consequences of placing wind generators or solar collectors in certain parts of the world. A thoughtful article by Tom Zeller in “The Blog” published by HuffPost recently attempted to spell out the problems. In the midst of a very thorough and balanced analysis, Zeller made the following remarks that seem to present the strongest case for continuing to develop alternative energy at the risk of endangering wildlife and even the environment:

“Compared to the thousands of birds and fish and other critters that have been offered up as collateral damage in the nation’s thirst for oil, or the saturation of local wildlife and habitats with mercury and other poisons that arise from coal-fired power — not to mention the widely documented impacts of fossil fuels on human health and the global climate — some might argue that a fair bit more local fauna could be sacrificed before the tradeoffs of renewable energy proved worrisome.”

And that’s the issue: it is a question of trade-offs. The possible harm to the environment and to wildlife in the area of Nantucket must be balanced against the benefits, especially in light of the alternatives to renewable energy which have a terrible history of destruction to both wildlife and the environment, not to mention human health. It would appear to be the lesser of evils. But the issue will be settled in the courts and it will be most interesting to see how the judgment comes down, given the considerable weight the opponents to the wind farm in that region of the world can bring to bear.

Not so in the Mojave desert, however, where Bright Source has already begun to develop the country’s largest solar facility. The issue here is the danger to the desert tortoise and it has already cost Bright Source $56 million to try (not altogether successfully)  to protect the animal through relocation. This has not satisfied many critics who want clean energy but are unwilling to put any creature at risk in the process. Again, it is a delicate balance and one that humans have not shown themselves adept at managing in the past. As a species we seem to prefer intellectual extremes to the middle and would rather lean left or right rather than to balance upright.

But it is encouraging that steps to produce clean energy are being taken slowly and with every possible attempt to do as little damage as possible to the environment and to wildlife. Clearly, some damage is inevitable — though they seem to rotate at a snail’s speed, the tips of the giant wind generators, for example, travel at 100 MPH and there aren’t many birds that can avoid being clipped by one of those blades from time to time. But, given our increasing demand for energy, how much damage is acceptable — especially in light of the certainty of damage to both wildlife and the environment from such things as oil spills and the discharge from burning coal? That is the question.