Thursday, May 24, 2007

Energy, Development, and Independence

Energy has been an important topic of anthropological discussion and debate at least since the publication of Leslie White’s The Science of Culture (1949). I don’t want (at least in this specific context) to re-open old debates about teleology, cultural evolution, or White’s pseudo-algebraic formulation of the relationship between cultural development, energy and technology (C = E x T).

I do think, though, that White pointed out something essential about energy and culture. Obviously the meeting of basic needs is directly related to harnessing energy. Eating is the most fundamental way in which we harness energy that can then be used for other purposes. Individuals and societies that can’t harness the energy they need to provision all their essential needs must perish. What White was pointing out was that economic and other cultural development (that is, beyond provisioning basic needs) is an outcome of successfully harnessing larger amounts of energy. The more energy you can harness, the higher the level of technological and economic development possible, and the greater the range of possible action available to you. That is, sustained economic development, development of other areas of culture, and greater individual and collective free action are mutually related and dependent on harnessing larger amounts of energy.

The converse of this is that threats or barriers to the collection of energy resources are also direct threats to livelihood, development, and/or freedom of action. For many poor families in much of the developing world, a key energy resource is firewood, and lack of access to it for any number of reasons can be a distinct threat to the economic viability of a household. Within the current global economy, there is much concern over “energy independence.” This is especially the case in the U.S., with energy independence looking to be a major campaign issue for the 2008 presidential election.

Doug Wilson has written an interesting column on the issue recently in The Wall Street Journal, one of the few times, in my opinion, that something insightful and reasonable has appeared in the opinion section of that newspaper. (The column can be found at this link:
Unfortunately, the full text is only available to subscribers to WSJ. A hard copy summary of the column can be found in the May 11, 2007 issue of The Week [p. 42]. Wilson also addresses the issue briefly in his account of his recent meeting with Rudy Guiliani at

Wilson writes that while energy independence might sound good, it is an illusion. In a context of global economic interdependency, no one and no nation-state can be energy independent. He argues that instead, we should focus on energy diversity. Greater diversity of energy resources and supply would enhance energy security, minimizing the risk of economic crisis as the result of a serious threat to oil (and with the current situations in Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, even Venezuela, oil as an energy resource is threatened – reflected in the high price for gasoline paid by consumers in the U.S. and most other countries of the world).

I agree with Wilson that a focus on energy diversity makes more sense as a primary goal than a focus on energy independence. At the same time, I think he has a too absolutist notion of “independence.” If by “independence” or “freedom” is meant total freedom of action, then energy independence is not possible. Independence and freedom are always relative – all of us have some ability to shape and determine our own actions, but always within limits (See my earlier posts Freedom and Restraint, Parts I, II, and III). Wilson’s right, though, that a focus on energy independence is distracting. I’d add that energy diversity would bring about relative energy independence.

The language of “Energy Diversity” also has the advantage of creating an expectation of many sources of energy, some of which are environmentally destructive (alternative sources of oil, coal, maize-based ethanol), and some of which are environmentally friendly or at least less destructive (efforts to increase fuel economy of vehicles, sugar-based ethanol if it were allowed to compete head to head with the maize-based stuff, solar and wind power, hydro-power [with fish gates], nuclear, tidal, and geothermal power). Of course, environmentalists and others have been fighting this battle for over thirty years (originally over pollution concerns, now more and more over global warming concerns), but it’s encouraging that even opinion columns in The Wall Street Journal and Republican presidential candidates are showing interest in the issue. Their concern may be mainly about energy as a political and economic security issue (which is not inaccurate so much as it is limited), but so be it.

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