Friday, May 9, 2008

The Story of Abundance

Been a lot of talk lately about the gas tax holiday. A lot of chatter from the candidates. A lot of commentary from economically minded journalists. The occasional outlying opinion (if anyone agrees with this guy or even understands what he's trying to say, please let me know). And there's also what I think is a really nice effort by the folks at Breakthrough Institute to turn the discussion in a more productive direction.

Lindsay Meisel, the most active contributor to the Breakthrough Blog, acknowledges the tragedy of the political pandering, but, instead of making it the focus of her article, she steers us toward a simple but powerful observation: emphasizing the gravity of global warming and asking people to make short term sacrifices for the long term good of the planet isn't working very well.

She drops some numbers. According to a poll (it's a .pdf; I'm sorry) put together by ABC News, Time Magazine, and Stanford University, 68% of people oppose "increasing taxes on gasoline so people either drive less or drive cars that use less gas."

Lindsay thinks we have a storytelling problem.

We need to stop framing public policy as a response to global warming apocalypse. Instead, we should start talking about how to create a new clean energy economy that also addresses voters' concerns about energy prices, jobs, and national security.

And she offers more numbers. Another poll, this one by CBS and the New York Times, asked the same question a little differently and got significantly different results.

Would you be willing to pay higher taxes on gasoline and other fuels if the money was used for research into renewable energy like wind and solar?

64% said yes.

Now, I understand that it's difficult to compare polls from different pollsters, and I acknowledge that it's totally reasonable to be suspicious of people's answers to hypothetical questions, but I think Lindsay is onto something.

A renewable energy economy is a ridiculously exciting prospect.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos a few months ago, Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, said something that hit me pretty hard.

He was answering a question about reconciling the need to fight climate change and the need for food and infrastructure and energy in the developing world, and he illustrated economic development's dependence on electricity and combustion:

If you look at the US, you have the equivalent of 10,000 people helping you every day with energy use. They're pushing your car. They're carrying your water to you. If you work out the number of calories you'd have to use as a person to do all the things that you do, it's something like 10,000 people.

I think that's important to keep in mind, because, in the developing world, things are different. People have Larry's "helpers" in Malawi and India and China and Brazil and Papua New Guinea and Tajikistan, but they have a WHOLE lot less than Americans do.

Energy is wealth. Food and water and the materials out of which we make fun and useful things are wealth too, but energy is a nontrivial component of that wealth mix. Transportation. Heating and cooling. Materials extraction and manipulation. Agriculture. Water distribution. All those things require energy inputs. They need force that our bodies can't exert without help.

If that energy comes from fossil fuels, of which we have a finite supply, then it's difficult to imagine getting thousands of extra helpers worth of energy to billions of people in the developing world without taking thousands of helpers away from people in the developed world. A fossil fuel economy, because of the scarcity of the fuels, is, by nature, a zero sum game.

Even if we discovered a suite of instantly commercially viable carbon sequestration technologies, deployed them worldwide, stepped up extraction, stepped up generation, perfected our energy infrastructure to enable radically efficient energy use, brought helpers upon helpers to the developing world, averted climate crisis, and did it all tomorrow, we would still be dealing with what is ultimately a scarce resource. In time, we'd run low; prices would rise; and lots of people (eventually everyone) would lose their helpers.

A renewable energy economy, however, is different. Scarcity is not an issue when you talk about the sun, the wind, and the heat beneath the surface of the earth. To steal some words from Bill McDonough, an economy powered by renewable energy is one of abundance, not one of limits.

And I think that's a compelling story. Tell people where gas tax revenues will go. Tell them their capital will work to improve existing renewable energy technologies and work to find new ones. Tell them the goal of those tax dollars collected is to provide everyone, evrywhere with of cheap, renewable power. Tell them their sacrifice is an investment, an investment in the creation of an economy in which energy will become increasingly abundant and increasingly inexpensive.

And they might just jump on board.

It's a dream, for sure, but I agree with Lindsay: this is a situation in which big, positive vision and effective communication of that vision are lacking. If the numbers Lindsay showed us are any indication, the political will to transition to renewable energy might be easier to muster than we think.

*Note: The helper discussion kicks off this 45+ minute video, but, if you have time, I recommend watching the whole Q&A video and the whole pre-Q&A panel discussion. It is a time commitment, though, so if you need more convincing before surrendering to well over an hour of YouTube, maybe my blog posts here and here will help you decide.