Renewable Energy is Not an Ideological Issue

There is nothing ideological about the issue of renewable energy resources. Proponents tend to care about the health of the natural environment, which motivates their wish to see renewables replace high-polluting fuel sources like oil and coal, but the technologies, the fact of their economic viability and their usefulness for society at large, are not in any way a matter of ideology.

Neither is there anything ideological about the allegiance of some to carbon-based fuels. The considerations are entirely practical on all sides, and we need to remember this as we try to find consensus on how to move forward, responsibly, as a civilization, in terms of our relationship to energy and the environment.

For some people in the political arena, it would appear to make more sense to continue to support carbon-based fuels as the primary resource for energy production, for a number of practical reasons, each of which can be refuted on practical grounds:

  1. because those entities that profit from carbon-based fuels donate to one’s campaign;
  2. because those entities that profit from carbon-based fuels “create jobs”;
  3. because burning things to release energy is easier to understand than more advanced technologies.

There are real ideologically-rooted reasons why the passions can run so deep on either side: for environmentalists, it is morally unconscionable that we continue burning dirty fuels and eroding the natural systems on which all life depends, no matter the reasons; for the pro-petroleum segment of the political spectrum, there are patriotic roots, hearkening back to two world wars and the Cold War, with oil seen as a guarantor of security.

Oil is no longer that, and passions aside, thinking people have to acknowledge that the root of those passions is really practical and not ideological anyway. It makes practical sense to be good stewards of the environment on which we depend for everything that we have, and it was a practical consideration that linked industrial production and national security to the availability of carbon-based fuels. But now, national security has become so closely linked to energy supply issues that we can no longer rely—again, in strictly practical terms—on a commodity as volatile, finite and problematic as petroleum.

The costs to society are too great, whether we are talking about war-fighting—and war-funding, for that matter—, the loss of freedom in terms of shaping our foreign policy, or our economic choices, costs in terms of human health or the destabilization of major climate systems. And coal, while abundant in North America, is so dirty a resource that the environmental fallout alone makes it less than reasonable as a foundational resource for long-term future planning.

There may come a time when carbon itself is a resource, required for its chemical properties, but not necessarily as useful as we now pretend, as a combustible fuel. Places where the coal industry has its roots may have to change focus or find technologically cutting-edge ways to justify the exploration for coal.

The reasons for this are hard to understand, if one starts from the assumption that there is something traditional or sacredly local or productive about coal. But if we step back and consider the real adaptability of human populations, we find that no community really needs the coal industry, having no chance of survival or prosperity in its absence, in the way the coal industry lobby pretends.

Communities are made up of human beings and are as adaptable as those human beings’ minds, hearts and relationships. The relationship to powerful coal interests is not always a happy one, and this alone can open doors for the development of resources that are more sustainable, more local-friendly, and respectful of future human need in ways that older technologies simply cannot be. Even the coal industry itself could innovate, diversify, and find ways to turn its operations into major sources of clean renewable energy.

At least three renewable resources come to mind: geothermal energy production, wind and solar. Mining companies in many cases own or lease land for which they have not yet devised a marketable use or long ago abandoned, and these can be converted to solar farms, wind farms or geothermal fields. While international mining companies are outsourcing administrative jobs and moving to more “cost effective” mining sites overseas, some are beginning to use disused mining sites in the US to build part of the new clean-energy infrastructure.

Across the southwest, such projects are already in development or being implemented. According to the Arizona Republic:

Both the Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency are studying the potential to put renewable-energy projects on mines, landfills and other disturbed lands. Mines can help avoid many of the expenses solar plants face on pristine desert, experts said, such as environmental rules that require relocating saguaros and other protected plants.

There is no reason why environmentalists seeking to promote clean energy and communities steeped in a long tradition of coal mining or oil drilling cannot come together, free of ideological constraints, to craft the solutions that will make the US a global leader in efficient, profitable, mass-produced clean energy. The ideology that claims this issue is one of ideology is simply a rhetorical framework that serves the interests of the most stagnant and unimaginative coal and oil interests.

Major oil producers could easily invest billions in renewable R&D and become global pioneers in the rush to achieve a fully self-sustaining clean-energy economy. Their resistance is perhaps more linked to a short-sighted ideological prejudice than to a lack of will to be part of the future, but they do not have any real ideological framework to back up their position, and the logic that favors a transition to renewables does not require one.

From a strictly economic standpoint, it does not make sense to continue being near totally reliant upon a way of doing business that carries the wildly exorbitant potential costs of an Ixtoc, anExxon ValdezTexaco in Ecuador, or a Deepwater Horizon disaster. If we want to be intelligent about how we achieve “energy independence”, we have to first assess and confront the real costs of doing business the way big oil does business.

It’s not a matter of “a tax on energy” or “a tax on carbon”, it’s a matter of making sure the responsible parties pay their share. Subsidies on an unprecedented scale, have made the oil business look and feel profitable in ways that it actually is not, when the health of the wider economy is considered. Were those wider costs built into the business itself, big oil would not be nearly as attractive an investment as it seemed to be until the Deepwater Horizon well blew out in April [2010].

While an “ideology” that values the natural environment over the right of the oil industry to make profits may rejoice at the opportunity to use such a failure as BP has experienced in the Gulf of Mexico to make the case against oil, that political motive does not make it any less true that BP had no responsible or credible action plan for dealing with an environmental catastrophe of this magnitude, despite deliberately doing everything necessary—reportedly cutting corners and ordering the suppression of good information—to bring about the catastrophe.

That such risks can be avoided with a transition to clean, renewable energy resources that do not require combustion and do not require oil or coal to achieve the efficiency gains they aim to achieve, is just as honestly not a matter of ideology. It’s the way it is. And science is now demonstrating that we can produce more than enough electricity, nationally, to power our entire domestic energy consumption through wind and solar alone, if we build the infrastructure.

At the point where the renewable energy infrastructure is pervasive and functional enough to outpace carbon-based fuels in total power generation capacity, there will be no question, practically speaking, whether or not renewables are a more effective method of promoting long-term economic health and prosperity. Where is the ideology inherent in planning for such a virtuous moment of future achievement?

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Originally published June 16, 2010, at

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