Energy Challenge

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 5. June 2011 - 18:49
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Ethics    Topic: Energy Challenge


Energy is essential for life, for the functioning of the biosphere, and for human civilization. With anything so fundamental as energy, there are inevitably moral and ethical issues surrounding its distribution and use.

There are four main sources of energy on this planet: solar energy radiated to us from the sun; the energy of radioactive decay, including all the heat escaping from the earth's interior; tidal energy from the gravitational interaction of the earth and the moon; and the solar energy captured by life in the past and stored as fossil fuels.

Our present material, industrial and technological civilization discovered, exploited and is driven by the energy from fossil fuels, a limited capital stock inherited from the past. This short-term source of cheap and concentrated energy has distorted the material development of our economy, agriculture, technologies, trade, habitat and consumer lifestyle, creating a dependence on high energy consumption that cannot be maintained with long-term sustainable alternatives. The human population itself has been able to undergo a remarkable expansion because historically cheap energy allowed us to overcome many of the barriers to planetary carrying capacity in the short term.

Today, while energy consumption is still accelerating, we are approaching the limits of exploitable fossil fuels, producing an inevitable rise in the costs of extraction. At the same time, the release of greenhouse gases linked to fossil fuel use is triggering climate change, imposing massive costs on the economy and putting millions of vulnerable people at risk. We are addicted to cheap energy, but the end of cheap fossil based energy is in sight. Like the thoughtless heir to a fortune, we are spending recklessly until there will be nothing left.

The ethical dimensions of this dilemma are frightening. The wealthy fraction of the world's population has been and is benefiting most from access to this cheap energy source, while the poor are most vulnerable to the consequences of both climate change and the growing instabilities of an economy and society under stress. As we reach both planetary and energy limits, the risks of major disruptions to societies are increasing .

It is urgent to begin phasing out the use of fossil fuels and to moderate our dependence on energy by becoming more efficient in its use. There are many potential technologies and alternative systems that can tap into the flows of renewable energy, which alone can assure long-term sustainability. Future civilization will need to develop all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet, but these diffuse sources will support very different technologies and lifestyles from those encouraged by the concentrated energy supplies of today.

The transition will be difficult and challenging. It threatens fundamental national interests, political and economic structures, agricultural and industrial systems, and the infrastructure reflected in our present use of space and resources. More fundamentally, it removes our ability to use cheap energy to compensate for our excessive use of other resources like water and soil fertility, and to redistribute goods and services around the planet. With so many powerful and vested interests involved, the potential for conflict is considerable.

The only solution is to unite in the search for just and equitable solutions to the energy challenge, ensuring that the costs and benefits are fairly distributed at the planetary level and across all segments of the world population, with special attention to the most vulnerable. New global institutions and systems of governance will be necessary to prevent conflict in the sharing of increasingly scarce energy resources. New technologies, transport systems and patterns of human settlements will be required to adapt to alternative sustainable sources of energy.

More generally, sustainability requires that we redefine the goals of development away from an excessive energy-subsidized material civilization towards a more knowledge-based social, cultural, scientific and spiritual civilization where the energy that counts the most is that of human creativity, exchange and innovation. The challenges of such a rapid and fundamental transformation of our society can only be met with unity of thought and action.

Related topic: Energy


Based on a statement of the International Environment Forum for the 14th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development, May 2006 -

Article last updated 5 May 2006

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