In Defense Of The Carbon Economy

In Defense Of The Carbon Economy
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In Defense Of The Carbon Economy by Doug Sheridan, EnergyPoint Research

An Oscar Wilde literary character famously defines a cynic as someone “who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”  Well, when it comes to shaping Americans’ views on the carbon-based economy, it’s fair to say the cynics have been hard at work.

All of us are now keenly aware of the price we pay as a society for our “addiction to fossil fuels”.  Coal-fired electric plants spew unhealthy particulate matter into the environment.  Coal is also responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions, which purportedly alter the Earth’s climate. Natural gas, though far less an offender, is nonetheless deemed guilty as well.

Rarely, however, do we hear the cynics acknowledge the immense value of the innovation and prosperity the carbon-based economy has unleashed. It’s easy to kick Big Oil and Dirty Coal around while financial prospects are at a lull.  But why leave intrinsic parts of our society afforded by fossil fuel availability out of the conversation?

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For example, there’s nary a mention of the fact that a little over a hundred years ago only two percent of homes in America were equipped with electricity. Today, virtually all residences have access to this life-changing form of energy.  Fossil fuels help provide two-thirds of that power.


Affordable and accessible energy has helped all but eliminate the squalid living conditions that contributed to incidences of tuberculosis, pneumonia and dysentery — diseases that once were responsible for almost half of all deaths in America.

At the turn of the 20th century, fewer than 20 percent of homes had running water, toilets that flushed, or gas or electric heat. Now, an abundant supply of hydrocarbons provides not only the fuel but the materials for the stuff of modern life.

The large majority of Americans living beneath the poverty line today posses and benefit from such energy-driven amenities as cell phones (80%), televisions (96%), refrigerators (97%), electric or gas stoves (97%) and microwaves (93%). We could go on.

Despite this remarkable track record, cynics tell us we must replace our carbon-based system with alternative sources of “clean energy” — or else.  The good news, we’re told, is that these new energy sources are ample in supply and friendly to the planet and its inhabitants. The time therefore to move is now; no dithering allowed.

Unfortunately, fixing complex problems by simply substituting one resource for another is never as straight-forward it seems. Inevitably, new “solutions” carry their own unforeseen consequences. Some of these pose as much risk as the status quo.

Take for example the full-circle evolution of the American shopping bag.  For decades, virtually all such bags were made of paper.  While not perfect, they did the job.  In the late 1970s, however, environmentalists began pointing out that the use of paper bags contributed to the killing of large numbers of trees. The public agreed it was time for a change.

So, to reduce our dependence on paper and save our forests, we turned to what was then seen as the product of the future — plastic. A thousand times stronger than paper and only a fraction of the cost, plastic bags were considered a smart way to help solve the problem of deforestation. That is, until some ugly realities began to surface.

Plastic bags, it turns out, are so cheap and easily disposable that hundreds of billions of them now fill our landfills, litter our landscapes and float in our oceans. The cure, it turns out, was worse than the illness.

Now, a movement is afoot to replace plastic bags with reusable bags. These multi-use totes, the theory goes, can be utilized repeatedly and with little impact on the environment.

Unfortunately, alternative-bagging proponents overlooked certain health risks. Studies have found the bags become veritable Petri dishes for all kinds of harmful bacteria, including E. coli and other coliform.  And washing after use is no safeguard since others’ bags can contaminate shopping carts, checkout counters and food items.

Frustrated, many retailers have given up chasing the ghost. Some that were once against the unconscionable use of paper bags now utilize them exclusively.  In other words, we’re right back where we started 35 years ago.

As with the rally to save the planet from shoppers, unintended consequences crop up with other well-intended efforts. Fuel additives used to decrease carbon monoxide in the air have leaked cancer-causing agents into drinking-water supplies, as have measures designed to actually disinfect water supplies.

The lesson here is that the law of unintended consequences is not repealed by simple good intentions. Clearly, the carbon economy has not escaped its effects.  What follows behind the learning curve that reveals such consequences, however, is another equally relevant curve expressing the ability to mitigate negative impacts as they become apparent. On this curve, the carbon economy is far along.

As unpopular as it might be to note, it is a virtual certainty that many of the energy sources touted today as “green” will result in their own unique set of environmental, economic and social problems (more on this in future posts).  What’s not known is the length of time it will take for policy makers and the public to come to this realization.

When they do, let’s hope they give the carbon economy, with its continuously improving efficiency and conservation gains, the fair shake it deserves.  Life as we know it just might hang in the balance.

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