The real costs of energy consumption

To the Editor:

Humans need to know that our lives have meaning. Our searches for meaning are labeled religion and philosophy. Often, unforeseen tragedies such as the recent Japan earthquake and tsunami check our progress in these disciplines. Our emotions rage and reason fails when we consider the instantaneous and overwhelming destruction and loss of life. Even so, the world remains in anticipation, awaiting the final outcome of the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor.  It’s too late for disaster to be avoided, but we wait to find out the final magnitude of the environmental cost of this disaster.

Our worries over the fate of this ongoing nuclear emergency are well-founded. Nuclear power plant emergencies are potentially far more dangerous than any nuclear weapon ever detonated in war. The Chernobyl disaster, for example, produced more widespread and persistent radiation contamination than the bombs released on Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined.

The obvious risks of nuclear power are in contrast to the more subtle costs posed by other means of electrical generation. Coal is our most abundant form of fossil fuels and produces most of our electrical energy needs. However abundant and cheap it may be, coal has costs, and despite modern pollution prevention techniques, still contributes to poor air quality. As a result, rates of adult and childhood asthma are radically increasing. Burning coal liberates sulfides and mercury, which acidify rain and pollute our food supply. Hydropower satisfies a much smaller proportion of our electrical consumption but radically alters natural environments by disrupting thermal, chemical, and physical processes in rivers. As a result native fish communities with specific habitat needs are displaced by other species that can better survive in the new and novel habitats.

I’m extremely thankful that plugging in a lamp in my house produces light and that my freezer allows me to store food easily for long time-periods. However, just because electricity is cheap and easy to use, I must remember that the sum of its costs that accumulate beyond my monthly power bill.

I recognize some of these costs as a necessary evil. It’s impossible to survive in contemporary society without electricity or the internal combustion engine. Even if you absolved yourself of these conveniences, you would still find yourself participating in an economy that depends on modern energy sources.

However, the relevant question is what level of energy consumption is appropriate? If I must contribute to environmental degradation, am I minimizing the problems I cause? Is my environmental footprint as small as possible?

A few minutes of consideration will reveal a substantial collective guilt. With complete callousness, we consume energy without considering inherent environmental costs and risks. Our televisions and stereos are left on continually, even when no one is paying attention. Rather than endure a 60-second boot-up time, we let our computers, printers, and routers run idle, needlessly consuming energy. We leave for vacation without turning off our hot water heaters. We have believed the lie that our house should never be more than 70 degrees and never less than 60 degrees, regardless of occupancy. Further, we have bought into the central-air fallacy that every room in our home should be the same temperature. We consume and consume and pretend the only cost is the (apparently acceptable) damage our power bill does to our wallet. We know better.

We refuse to connect the dots. We burn coal to meet our wasted-energy requirements and never consider the impact of asthma and mercury-contaminated seafood on our children. We over-consume energy and then wonder why someone would consider building a nuclear plant in a vulnerable location.

While our faith and understanding are challenged by the apparent meaninglessness of the recent tragedy, we should note that the ongoing nuclear emergency is far from an un-interpretable occurrence but rather a direct result of mankind’s wanton consumption. Let’s continue hoping for a miracle at Fukushima and a chance to reconsider the way we’ve always done things.

Powers Wheeler


(Powers Wheeler is a fisheries biologist and a teacher and lives in Clyde, NC. He considers himself fortunate to work in nature and teach others about her. )

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