Cheap and Dirty

By David Miron-Wapner

Our sense of the future is that it will be a continuation of the past. Perhaps better yet we may make predictions borne of an educated analysis of current trends. In an era of intensely rapid change using either as a guide may only give us a sense of false comfort. Just when we thought that US hegemony would allow it to retain pre-eminence as a global economic power, conventional wisdom holds that the future belongs to China and then perhaps India. Clearly the old age is rapidly fading, the new age not yet born and pregnant with uncertainty.

coalLast week I read about a “cleaner coal” being blended for use in Chinese power plants. It turns out that although China invests more in alternative energy than any other nation, it still has abundant coal resources and is rapidly building coal-fired power plants. But Chinese coal is dirtier than most, and not well suited to new more efficient technologies, so it is now importing lower sulfur content coal to blend with its own. So now we have “cleaner” coal – certainly a comforting oxymoron.

Coal is dirty, no matter how hard one might scrub; the filth just can’t be washed away. The continued use of coal and other fossil fuels allows perpetuation of an unsustainable energy/economic system. The world’s and China’s addiction to cheap energy from sources that slowly destroy the Earths capacity to sustain life reminds me of another addiction that propped up an earlier unsustainable economy – slavery in the American South. Slavery was a nefarious source of power and “prosperity”; yet a stain on the human soul. Coal offers a “cheap” source of power (when will prices be corrected to fully reflect externalities, particularly the costs we impose on future generations) polluting the air we breathe; contributing significantly to the warming of our planet and its ability to sustain hospitable conditions for human civilization.

As we marvel at the Chinese model of rapid development, we tend to see their current extraordinary growth as proceeding perpetually toward inevitable world economic leadership. If China were to cease its use of coal and focus on sustainable alternatives the pace of growth might just continue. However, if the dirty and cheap path is pursued equally aggressively then the environment may become a significant obstacle to further prosperity; leading to a serious slowdown or maybe even a systemic crash. Along with China, the rest of the nations of the world face similar choices.

Challenging choices confront us at all levels in the headlong rush of rapid technological, social and economic change; all against the backdrop of intensifying global, regional and local impacts of climate change. Courage, resilience and adaptability are demanded. As the great American psychologist Dr. Rollo May wrote, “We are called upon to do something new, to confront a no man’s land, to push into a forest where there are no well-worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us.”

I hope we find our way together; learning new ways to truly clean, sustainable prosperity and well being.