Sustainable Standard of Living?

wind-turbines17On October 9th, during the second U.S. Presidential Debate, the environmental community found an unlikely hero. Kenneth Bone rose in the final minutes of audience questions and asked both candidates, “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?” This pointed inquiry brought the environmental crisis back to the forefront of the debate, nudging both candidates to lay out their plans for combating the imminent energy crisis caused from finite fossil fuels. After that moment passed, there was something inherent in Mr. Bone’s question that stuck. His question implied a noteworthy limitation. US energy needs must be met. What is so astounding is that despite Mr. Bone’s well intentioned question, he assumes that the United States will be able to simultaneously achieve energy resilience and go about business as usual. This spurred an investigation into the compatibility of clean energy with US standards of living.

The current US standard of living is the highest yet in history with people living longer than any generation before. The US fuels this standard with an intense use of available resources. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the US consumes a third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, and 23 % of its coal. The US uses over 19 tons of carbon per capita compared to the global average of only five tons. US standards are dependent on a crucial factor: resource availability. In an age where scarcity is increasingly worrisome, a crossroads appears. Researchers have developed many solutions to address this issue. Some are incredibly provocative as they require radical change on an individual level. Others utilize technology either conservatively, or radically to impact global warming.

In one of the more radical behavioral positions, Chris Clugston lays out his perspective. He argues that the mismanagement of America’s resources combined with increasing financial insecurity from the global market has culminated in an irrefutable observation: habits have to change. It can no longer popular to remain complacent in the relative opulence American citizens enjoy. The means to achieve a sustainable and resilient energy sector have evolved from merely weaning the masses from fossil fuels to solar panels and windmills, to necessitating behavioral adaptation. The grim picture he portrays in that article sets the stage for a dismal future, plagued by the unpreparedness of the populous to acknowledge the true implications of scarcity if people are hesitant to act.

However, there are other perspectives. Some believe that with the dual advances in conservation and efficiency, scientists will not only be able to match the current standard of living Americans have grown accustomed to, but they will actual produce more energy than we use. The Energy Justice Center finds that solar alone, when implemented efficiently, can provide 55 times US current energy use, and wind can provide 6 times US current usage. Effective use of these existing technologies can maintain the US standard of living while transitioning the energy sector to more resilient sources.

Others believe that the threat posed by climate change is not insurmountable. Harvard physicist David Keith believes that science can, while not completely curing, mitigate the symptoms of global warming. If technological advancements can relieve the symptoms of global warming, then the inspiration to act to discover new fuels and generally reform energy use would disappear.

Ultimately, maintaining the current standard of living in a renewable world remains a debatable possibility. However, there is no harm that can come from introducing frugality from the individual level into American energy consumption. If everyone works to reduce their needs, then sustainable energy goals become that much more tangible.