Amory Lovins: energy views and values

[Reposted from my old blog, P&P — originally published March 01, 2010.]

Looking back at Amory Lovins’s 1977 Soft Energy Paths, I was struck by his still-relevant list of “basic values”:

Underlying much of the energy debate is a tacit, implicit divergence on what the energy problem ‘really’ is. Public discourse suffers because our society has mechanisms only for resolving conflicting interests, not conflicting views of reality, so we seldom notice that these perceptions differ markedly. …

As a basis for mutual understanding, therefore, instead of leaving my world view to be guessed at (as most energy writers do), I shall make explicit a few of my underlying opinions – not on every aspect of the whole universe of perceptions that must support any coherent view of our energy future, but at least on a few basic values. Attempting this is unusual and difficult but important. Briefly, then, I think that:

  • We are more endangered by too much energy too soon than by too little too late, for we understand too little the wise use of power;
  • We know next to nothing about the carefully designed natural systems and cycles on which we depend; we must therefore take care to preserve resilience and flexibility, and to design for large safety margins (whose importance we do not yet understand), recognizing the existence of human fallibility, malice, and irrationality (including our own) and of present trends that erode the earth’s carrying capacity;
  • People are more important than goods; hence energy, technology, and economic activity are means, not ends, and their quantity is not a measure of welfare; hence economic rationality is a narrow and often defective test of the wisdom of broad social choices, and economic costs and prices, which depend largely on philosophical conventions, are neither revealed truth nor a meaningful test of rational or desirable behavior;
  • Though the potential for growth in the social, cultural, and spiritual spheres is unlimited, resource-crunching material growth is inherently limited (a consequence of the round-earth theory) and, in countries as affluent as the U.S., should be not merely stabilized but returned to sustainable levels at which the net marginal utility of economic activity (to borrow for a moment the economist’s abstractions) is clearly positive;
  • Since sustainability is more important than the momentary advantage of any generation or group, long-term discount rates should be zero or even slightly negative, reinforcing a frugal, though not penurious, ethic of husbanding;
  • The energy problem should be not how to expand supplies to meet the postulated extrapolative needs of a dynamic economy, but rather how to accomplish social goals elegantly with a minimum of energy and effort, meanwhile taking care to preserve a social fabric that not only tolerates but encourages diverse values and lifestyles;
  • The technical, economic, and social problems of fission technology are so intractable, and technical efforts to palliate those problems are politically so dangerous, that we should abandon the technology with due deliberate speed;
  • Many other technologies are exceedingly unattractive and should be developed sparingly or not at all (such as nuclear fusion, large coal-fired power stations and conversion plants, many current coal-mining technologies, urban-sited terminals for liquefied natural gas, much Arctic and offshore petroleum extraction, most “unconventional” hydrocarbons, and many “exotic” large-scale technologies such as solar satellites and monocultural biomass plantations);
  • Ordinary people are qualified and responsible to make these and other energy choices through the democratic political process, and on the social and ethical issues central to such choices the opinion of any technical expert is entitled to no special weight; for although humanity and human institutions are not perfectible, legitimacy and the nearest we can get to wisdom both flow, as Jefferson believed, from the people, whereas pragmatic Hamiltonian concepts of central governance by a cynical elite are unworthy of the people, increase the likelihood and consequences of major errors, and are ultimately tyrannical;
  • Issues of material growth are inseparable from the more important issues of distributional equity, both within and among nations; indeed, high growth in overdeveloped countries is inimical to development in poor countries;
  • For poor countries, the self-reliant ecodevelopment concepts inherent in the New Economic Order approach are commendable and practicable while the patterns of industrial development that served the OECD countries in the different circumstances of the past two centuries are not: indeed, so much have conditions changed that ecodevelopment concepts are now the most appropriate for the rich countries too;
  • National interests lie less in traditional geopolitical balancing acts than in striving to attain a just and equitable, therefore peaceful, world order, even at the expense of temporary commercial advantage.

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