Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Guest post: Some Thoughts on Energy in the US

[Comrade Jeremy has got in touch with a guest post on 'Some Thoughts on Energy' which I am belatedly getting around to putting on my blog - profuse apologies for the delay]

Energy is at the heart of all that we do. In developed countries at least, the routine is pretty quotidian: wake up, take a shower, brush your teeth, cook up a few eggs for breakfast, drive to work—you get the idea. Everything from cooking a meal to generating hot water for your shower requires energy, and often people take this fact for granted. The electricity to charge your cell phone or keep your laptop running isn't cheap—it comes from coal and you pay a fee for it that ultimately contributes to your monthly utility bill. Even if you have the luxury of owning a cellphone and a laptop, and of having hot, clean water, then you have a standard of living that is already higher than many places in the world, so congratulations.
It is a pursuit for this type of prototypical living standard that is driving up the global demand for energy. Within industrializing countries people are beginning to see the dream of a constant supply of electricity and hot water; they're beginning to buy SUVs that they can drive to work. They're purchasing cell phones and laptops and enormous flat-screen TVs, and all of these technologies demand energy. Ph.D. programs everywhere are shifting in how they think about the web of anthropology, climate, sustainability and energy policy, especially since the world's population seems to be increasing almost continuously.
The United States is a paragon example of a highly industrialized country with a similarly high standard of living. Notwithstanding portents about climate change and the effect of greenhouse gases, Americans continue to ravenously consume energy because in many ways, this consumptive nature is actually finely embedded into the culture. Who are you in America if you don't own a fancy car or a large home that proudly demonstrates your achievements? While this might be a gross generalization, buildings do consume more energy than any other part of the United States economy. This isn't surprising, there's a lot of energy-intensive processes that go into creating anything from a garage to a giant museum, not to mention the continuous amount of energy needed to keep those buildings running. China has recently taken the world's number one spot as the largest producer of carbon dioxide because they are rapidly industrializing. In China, like in many other places on the globe, people want flashy cars, nice homes and material possessions. So perhaps the pursuit of luxury isn't just an American interest after all—but we already knew that, didn't we?
Energy policy is roughly defined as the sum total of a nation's legislative and international “opinion” when it comes it comes to energy. This includes things like government subsidies, energy taxes, emissions guidelines and the creation of reformative programs to essentially affect energy change on a mass scale. In the United States more than 30 major energy acts have been passed since 1920, spanning the breadth of opinions on everything from the regulation of natural gas, to nuclear waste legislation to tax credits that incentivize the use of alternative fuels. The most recent of these energy acts, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, has essentially restructured the way the United States (from a legislative standpoint, at least) thinks about energy. Analyzing a nation's views on energy, which is so deeply ingrained into everything it does, provides a very strong insight into its general conscience on its own lifestyle.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, in addition to expanding social welfare policy and driving funds towards and education and health care was monumental in its investment in the clean energy economy. While we have yet to see massive, physical implementation of this investment, lots of great things are already happening. On June 8 the Department of Energy announced up to $70 million to further boost geothermal energy development, which according to the U.S. Geological Survey could produce upwards of 30 gigawatts of energy for the U.S. Similarly, at the beginning of June it was also announced that $27 million would be driven to research channels to help reduce the prohibitively high costs of solar energy systems, and millions are being invested in energy-efficient lighting. So while the average layperson might not see the benefits of renewable energy immediately, the industries that are developing this technology are starting to flourish more than ever before.
Obama's plans for a clean energy economy also include infrastructural changes and the development of more efficient transportation, which at the end of the day will ultimately make life easier and more environmentally friendly for Americans. Achieving a nearly-renewable energy economy, however, doesn't just depend on investment in research and development. It depends on an investment in the people. Without a culture that promotes sustainable lifestyles and that recognizes the importance of living green, how do you expect clean energy technology to have maximum impact? It is one thing to have a system of solar panels on your home, and it's another thing to have an entire community promoting the benefits of solar power to the point where everyone in town wants a solar system. If America is going to attempt to push its clean energy ideals on other developing countries, the nation must be practicing what it preaches. It will certainly be interesting to see how the international cards play out in the future.

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