Energy Conversion and Its Discontents

EDITORIAL, 18 August 2008

#20 | Johan Galtung

There is much talk about energy and it conversion these days. Actually, as the sum of energy is constant, it is about conversion from one form to the other, like thermal energy stored in oil-gas-coal, or kinetic energy from moving water and wind to electric energy, bio-mass energy to thermal energy, etc.

There are problems, serious ones, and most serious are, as usual, the problems not attended to do, even below awareness.

For centuries, millennia, scarcity certainly made sense, but the concepts of depletion, running out, closing down, and pollution, irreversible damage, are new. Today we talk of peak-oil on the way to depletion and of thermic pollution, global warming, on the way to catastrophe. Of course, with room for some dialogue. Is there really a peak-oil/gas/coal? Or are there still enormous reservoirs, including non-fossil? How much global warming is human-made and how much a cosmic process that started when the ice age peaked, now heading for the end of all glaciers and polar caps? Where are good laboratory simulations, like Birkeland for the aura borealis, the Northern Light?

However, he who waits for the final proof that Titanic is on a wrong course may wait too long. The search for non-depletable and non-polluting energy conversion has been on since The Limits to Growth and the UN Stockholm conference in 1972, giving rise to eco-aware, diverse profiles of energy conversion.

The Kyoto quota system, however, is wrong-headed; like slaving countries buying quotas from the non-slavers. The point is more freedom, less depletion, less pollution; not capitalism in the extreme, with markets for the wrongs. How about quota markets for lying and stealing? You lie and steal below average, can I get some badly needed quotas from you? How much?

However again: there is more to energy conversion than depletion and pollution. There is also the flagrant structural violence of unequal energy distribution, and the enormous direct violence used to secure energy deposits, pipe-lines, sea-lanes.

Energy as such is a human meta-need underlying the needs for food-water, housing, clothes, health and education. Energy is needed for the production and distribution of foodstuffs and water, including anyone working the land. The same goes for all the other needs. Unequal distribution of clean water and health facilities is a major source of illness and also a major form of structural violence, according to Paul Farmer in his Pathologies of Power, “On Suffering and Structural Violence”.

So is, indeed, unequal distribution of energy conversion, underlying many of the other inequities. It is an unheard of scandal that where solar energy is most available, so are also misery, ill health, starvation. Where is the freely available ingenuity converting that incessant, generous, non-depletable solar input, say, via parabolic mirrors for the distillation of ocean water? With solar or wind-driven pumping-distribution? Where is the massive use of bio-mass converters, at their best around the 30oC in the tropics? The solar rice cooker? Or, are We still hooked on the rich man’s energy addiction to carbon?

If we rightly demand access to sufficient affordable food to feed the body and access to affordable health resources to maintain it, then the same goes for access to sufficient energy to provide for all the other needs, all over the world. The forms of energy differ so we are talking about as many and as equal energy conversion profiles as possible, with an affordable minimum guaranteed, not like today flagrant inequalities within a narrow spectrum of fossil fuel based energy resources.

The United States of America, the most belligerent country in the world, consumes 25% of the world’s oil output, but only 3% from domestic production. Being hooked on oil, like and addict on drugs, all is done to secure the “normal flow” (see Article 24 in the new NATO of 1999), meaning a global reach of bases and interventions, energy being one of the reasons.

A little anecdote: I was in 1983–at a SIPRI conference in Stockholm on common security–a debate between Richard Perle, a key neocon, then high up in Washington, and a Politburo member in Moscow, Zagladin, and asked them, “Isn’t it problematic if the interests of a country is located outside that country”?

The Soviet answer: “A very important question that requires deep reflection”. The US answer: “The United States decides herself where her interests are located”. And my answer: “The Soviet response was not very clear and not very helpful, the US response was very clear, and also not very helpful.”

Conclusion: there are four good reasons for high, equal, eco-aware and local self-sufficiency in energy production (“local” being a community of local authorities, a district, a country, or a region in affinity and vicinity; but not global):

  1. to use rationally, and fully, local resources with energy profiles adapted to the local endowments, to reduce depletion;
  2. to have a short distance between producer and consumer to reduce pollution from transportation, and for direct feedback from victim to perpetrator, also to reduce pollution;
  3. to equalize the conditions for a life in dignity, to reduce global, regional and national structural violence; and
  4. to avoid military interventions, to reduce direct violence.

Four good reasons. But the trends are in the opposite direction, less local, more global. And with ever more discontents.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 18 August 2008.

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