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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

To Orson Scott Card, regarding Energy

I feel compelled to respond to an article Orson Scott Card wrote today regarding Obama’s energy plan. I freely admit that I idolize Card as a writer and as a thinker, and it’s frankly painful to disagree with him as wholeheartedly as I do today. But nonetheless, I do.

(his article can be read at

Coal presently accounts for 55% of our electricity, which we (all of us) spend brashly and foolishly because it is cheaper (much cheaper) than it should be. I myself leave my computer on at night when I’m not using it at all. I leave my phone charger plugged in when the phone isn’t plugged into it. I sleep with the light on some nights, without ever considering the bill at the end of the month. My family is on the bottom rung of the middle class and a few years ago we nearly lost our house. We often need to borrow from extended family to make ends meet. Electricity should be a more visible concern than it is.

Energy has resisted market pressures because the true costs are hidden. Nuclear power plants produce waste by the barrel and need to store it in hollowed out mountains so it doesn’t kill us all in our sleep. This is a cost people can see and understand, and so the cost of nuclear power includes the cost of shipping and storing and otherwise dealing with the waste-product of nuclear power.

Coal power, at present, is cheaper than it should be, because the waste is simply dumped into the air around us as though by putting it there we magically make it disappear. This is not the case. Eventually, someone is going to have to pay the market value of that waste, and the issue at hand is not paying it or not paying it, but whether we pay it now, or our grandchildren pay it later.

Frankly, I’d rather handle my own debts. Coal and Oil (though natural gas is cleaner - we could do with a little more utilization of that resource) are both limited resources and resources that generate invisible waste byproducts. Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t cut it anymore. It is a direct violation of the market. When we pay cheap prices for our coal and oil energy, we are literally being lied to. The market value of those products has been artificially deflated, which is making it impossible for cleaner, easier alternatives to get a share of that market.

As the price of energy rises (and whoever takes office, the price of energy will rise in the coming decade), it will become cost-effective to turn to alternative sources of energy. Under Obama’s plan, that will happen sooner rather than later, and this is a very, very good thing.

Here’s why.

China is presently chewing up a great percentage of the world’s energy resources. While they are doing their level best to install dams and solar panels, they are handcuffed by a variety of complicated circumstances, one of them being simply their level of industrial development.

We do not share in those handcuffs. If we turn to alternative energy sources, not only do we shed our dependence on foreign oil, we also drive down the cost of those resources for China and for other developing nations. This will make it easier for their markets to grow in the short-run, and might allow them to make the curve in time. If they do not, their markets will crash when oil and coal inevitably run out. Both are limited resources.

If we remain dependent on oil and coal, the day when it runs out will come that much sooner, and it seems very unlikely that anyone, including ourselves, will have made a sufficient transferal to alternative energy sources in time to prevent the resulting crash. Since people will see these resources coming to a close, part of this crash will inevitably be a massive world war resulting in the deaths of millions, as nations fight desperately to the death over the remaining sources of power.

I do not want this future, and neither do you. It is better to bite the bullet now, when we can take it. Later, it will take us.

That’s my ten cents for the day.

1 comment:

Marcus Tullius Tiro said...

As an economist-in-training, my natural reaction is to recoil in horror whenever someone says that "X costs more/less than it should" -- but under the circumstances, you're pretty much correct.

What I find really strange is Card's assertion that cap-and-trade programs don't work because they cost 'too much.' Depending on exactly what he means by this, he's either mixing the costs of the program itself with the costs of running the program, or he's effectively saying that coal itself costs 'too much' to use for electricity.

I can go into this in a separate post, if there's some interest, but if a cap-and-trade system is set up properly, it causes market prices to coincide with the true costs of using the resources in question.

I agree with you completely, in that Card is an incredibly gifted writer and thinker, but, as the saying goes, "many a good argument has been ruined by someone who knows what he's talking about."