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Rosie the Riveter and the Rest of Us Can Do It

Rosie the Riveter and the Rest of Us Can Do It

I found what I’ve been looking for; a credible environmentalist who believes the big problems can be solved and tells us plausibly how to. He’s Amory B. Lovins, Chair and Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute and author. He’s written in the journal Foreign Affairs for March/April 2012 an article titled “A Farewell to Fossil Fuels.” Appropriately for his foreign affairs audience, Lovins states the problem in geopolitical terms:

Nearly 90 percent of the world’s economy is fueled every year by digging up and burning about four cubic miles of the rotted remains of primeval swamp goo. With extraordinary skill, the world’s most powerful industries have turned that oil, gas, and coal into affordable and convenient fuels and electricity that have created wealth, helped build modern civilization, and enriched the lives of billions.

Yet today, the rising costs and risks of these fossil fuels are undercutting the security and prosperity they have enabled. Each day, the United States spends about $2 billion buying oil and loses another $4 billion indirectly to the macroeconomic costs of oil dependence, the microeconomic costs of oil price volatility, and the cost of keeping military forces ready for intervention in the Persian Gulf.

Four cubic miles a year is a lot of burned hydrocarbons, a rate of consumption that some assume will continue and increase into the indefinite future. Linear projections of current trends are usually inaccurate and often silly. Let’s say that the worldwide rabbit population is increasing at a rate of seven percent a year. If you project that rate out a few hundred years, the Earth would be covered five feet deep in rabbits. We’re not going to have that many Bugs Bunnies, and we won’t continue to burn oil, gas and coal at our present rates.

Lovins has argued for more than 35 years that the world will enjoy a shrinkage in the energy needed to create a dollar of goods or services. In 1976 he suggested that the “energy intensity” of production would fall by two-thirds by 2025. He updates that vision in his present article: “By 2010, it had fallen by half, driven by no central plan or visionary intent but only by the perennial quest for profit, security and health.” Just as happened with whale oil in the 19th century, innovators have innovated, capitalists have invested, markets have created, and we have started moving away from dependence on petroleum. In Lovins’s words: “After just a few centuries, the anomalous era of oil and coal is gradually coming to an end. In its place, the era of everlasting energy is dawning.”

His Rocky Mountain Institute sees an American economy that has more than doubled in size by 2050 and yet uses no oil, no coal and much less natural gas as a function of doing three things well: (1) transforming the transportation industry and making electric propulsion standard; (2) making buildings and factories several times more efficient; and (3) redoing the electric system to make it clean, reliable and secure. Lovins asserts that the transition “will require no technological miracles or social engineering – only the systematic application of many available, straightforward techniques.” Our march will be led by business and encouraged by revenue-neutral government policies.

Lovins has a magnificent sketch of a world with the United States off fossil fuels and its foreign policy transformed, of energy inefficiency and poverty both greatly diminished, and of an efficient clean-energy economy providing the good jobs we need. His prescription for success calls for the same characteristics our parents and grandparents demonstrated in World War II: “Moving the United States off oil and coal will require Americans to trust in their own resourcefulness, ingenuity and courage.” I’m ready to sign up.


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