Page 2 of 2

It's Not Easy Being Green

In an age of environmental problems, author David Owen warns against easy solutions.

| Sat Feb. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EST

MJ: Does that mean we can't travel to space? Guys like Newt Gingrich and Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson all seem to have some pretty serious intergalactic wanderlust—do we have to crush their dreams?

DO: Yeah, if you're going to cross luxuries off your list, you'd think, space travel, maybe? But that sort of is the way we think, and I'm sure we'll have "green rockets"—I mean, Branson talks about how green his rockets will be. It's hard to imagine even Gingrich takes the moon base idea seriously, but who knows.

MJ: The Obama administration's approach to energy seems to be the opposite of what you're arguing for—it's basically just "the more energy, the better," saying that we need to develop every source of energy at the same time. 

DO: I don't think you can be elected to political office running on my book. Steven Chu is the energy secretary of US, not of the world—he has to think about a lot of things that go beyond the ugly side of all these issues. Energy efficiency is very appealing—every country's for it. Americans pay too little for energy—we don't pay enough for these devices that we don't even think about. But there's no great public clamor for making energy more expensive for ourselves. In fact, there's the opposite—when the price of oil rises, all the clamoring is in the other direction, to drill for oil in places that were too environmentally sensitive, to reduce taxes on gasoline, subsidize all these things.

MJ: So how do we muster the political will to do the harder, less appealing things?

DO: We could do a lot of things with renewable energy, but it would necessitate a huge investment, and also a major cutback in consumption, because they just don't work as well as fossil fuels do. You'd be very disappointed if you ran your car off your solar array outside your garage. There's a reason people don't have solar-powered cars—they'd give up on them very quickly. Any switch to renewable forms would require real sacrifice. Increases in energy efficiency would make it possible for us to regain the losses. If we could constrain consumption of fuels, getting more from energy we use would be a very good thing. We could live a good life with a much smaller footprint. But the limits have to come first, before the efficiency gains.

MJ: What do you think of the anti-Keystone and anti-fracking movements—big environmental campaigns that are trying to mobilize people around energy issues?

DO: With Keystone, the ideal thing is to leave all that stuff in the ground—whether it comes to US by pipelines or through other refineries it doesn't really matter either way. The really difficult question is how to leave it in the ground. It's not cheap to turn tar sands into petroleum, but cheap natural gas makes it much cheaper. Something that worries me is the rebranding of natural gas as the "good fossil fuel"—I've even heard it referred to as not a fossil fuel by someone who should know better. It also shows the peril of how efficiency can double back—the sudden abundance of a cheap fossil fuel is not going to make it more attractive to build the huge infrastructure needed for solar and things like that.

There are so many reasons to be concerned about fracking. I think it shows another challenge, which is that problems innovate too. The problems don't just sit there while we try to solve them—they're constantly getting harder to solve. And usually there's more funding behind the problems than behind the solutions. Though it's unfair to say that the interests behind fracking are corporate interests—most people are interested in cheap energy too. It's very hard to think of how we're going to persuade ourselves not to be interested in cheap energy.

MJ: So are we doomed?

DO: I don't think we are doomed, but it will be impossible to look at solutions unless we look at the problem as it actually is. There are so many ways that we avoid looking at it, either because we have so much personally invested in whatever our approach happens to be, or to attract the money that's out there, or because we have a sense of what's politically possible and what's not—but I don't think any kind of solution is possible unless we do.

Page 2 of 2