Solving Energy Crisis with Renewables Could Lead to Ecological Collapse

07/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lost amongst all the "solutions" to the energy crisis lies the fact that the energy crisis is simply one component of a much broader ecological crisis. Addressing the energy issue in isolation and attempting to solve only this one aspect could easily exacerbate many of the other ecological problems we now face.

Our true crisis is one of over-consumption. This is not limited to supplies of fossil energy, but affects every component of the earth's biosphere. We are cutting down too many forests, sprawling out on too much arable land, dumping too many poisons into our waterways, pumping out too much dirty air (especially CO2), sucking up too much water; the list could go on for a very long time, but I'll stop there.

Energy is, of course, the means by which we consume all these other resources. The fact that we now use dirty energy rather than clean energy to consume these resources is, ultimately, not that important. Turning our dirty energy sources into clean ones is important for mitigating global climate disruption, but if this allows us to continue down the path of over-consumption of everything else that sustains life on this planet, then renewable energy will simply be the enabler that allowed our misguided species to continue its ultimate destruction of the most amazing thing in the universe: Planet Earth.

We have, unfortunately, set up a system of values, reflected in our economic system, that prizes material goods above everything else. Not just prized above every other species we share the globe with but prized even above our own happiness. We have reached the limits of our ability to consume and have still not obtained happiness. Rather than see these limits as barriers to be removed so we can consume yet more, we should reconsider the assumptions and foundations that have led us to this crisis point. Renewable energy, yes, of course, but only in moderation.

Our notions of egalitarianism, based on the fundamental principle that we are all equal, insists that our own way of life does not infringe on other people's ability to provide for themselves. A world of seemingly limitless resources has allowed us to pretend that our own consumption does not affect anyone else's. But we have now grown numerous and powerful enough to see that limitless consumption on a finite planet is an impossibility. Everything we consume in an unsustainable way means there's that much less available for everyone else. Only five percent of the world has ever flown in an airplane. Only 15% has access to a private car. Imagine the implications if everyone on the globe had access to these things.

In times of crisis, we must demand more not just from ourselves, but also from our leaders. The earth has not seen such a crisis since the dinosaurs went extinct, so our expectations must be very high. After having spent the last eight years or so suffering under the worst president in our history, it's easy to get excited about almost anyone who might replace him. Can Mr. Obama, if elected, dislodge our system of government from the notions of endless consumption to which it now seems hopelessly conjoined? Or will he simply apply a few band-aids to the hemorrhage? Mr. Obama seems like an extraordinary man, perhaps the best our political system is capable of producing. If he cannot begin to steer our country in a sustainable direction, not just in terms of energy but also in everything else we consume, then I suggest the time will have come to reconsider the foundations upon which our society is governed.

As a society, we must not become fixated on one aspect of the over-consumption problem (dirty energy) to the detriment of all the rest (water, topsoil, species extinction, logging, etc). We must, of course, embrace renewable energy and rid ourselves of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. I believe Mr. Gore's goal of a carbon-free nation can be reached by 2020, but not if we're consuming other nonrenewable resources at the same level as we do now. Individually we need to reexamine our own lives not just in terms of our excessive energy use, but our over-consumption generally. There are few people in our country, ourselves included, that could not dramatically reduce their ecological footprint, not just their carbon footprint.

Stephen and Rebekah Hren are the authors of The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit from Chelsea Green. For more information about green living, the Hrens, or their book, visit