The Unacceptably High Cost of Energy

Following is a description of a planned oil pipeline in Africa. This description is a grim reminder of the unacceptably high cost of meeting modern industrial society’s vast energy demands.

This is from Bill McKibben, writing for “The Climate Crisis” (an email newsletter of The New Yorker magazine):

“By April of next year, construction could conceivably begin on the pipeline, which will need to be heated at all times to keep the oil flowing, and which will stretch nine hundred miles, from the shores of Lake Albert, on the Uganda-Congo border, to the Tanzanian port of Tanga, where the crude will be loaded into tankers.

“The proposed route looks almost as if it were drawn to endanger as many animals as possible: the drilling pads are in the Murchison Falls National Park, in Uganda, and the pipeline runs through the Taala Forest Reserve and encroaches on the Bugoma Forest (home to large groups of chimpanzees) before crossing into Tanzania and the Biharamulo Game Reserve, home to lions, buffalo, elands, lesser kudu, impalas, hippos, giraffes, zebras, roan antelopes, sitatungas, sables, aardvarks, and the red colobus monkey. The pipeline also manages to traverse the Wembere steppe, a seasonal paradise for birds, and hundreds of square kilometres of elephant habitat. (Indeed, a charismatic elephant is featured in the online petition that an international nonprofit organization launched last week opposing the plan.) And, once the pipeline gets to Tanzania, tankers the length of three football fields will try to transport the oil out through mangrove swamps and over coral reefs, in waters teeming with dugongs and sea turtles. If all this makes you feel a little sad, that’s the correct emotion: at this point in the planet’s building extinction crisis, it’s sickening to endanger wildlife. (Those ashy red colobus monkeys in the Tanzanian reserve, for instance, are one of just five colonies left in the world.)

“But if this project—the longest heated pipeline ever planned—gets built, it will also take out wide swaths of farmland, almost all of it tilled by peasant farmers. Some have already been evicted, and are living in concrete houses in a “resettlement village.” But many are still on the land, and still fighting, in much the same way, and for many of the same reasons, that indigenous people in the American West have been steadfast in their battle against the Dakota Access pipeline. The Africa team at, the global climate campaign that I helped found, has been helping to coördinate the opposition, which is not an easy task. Tanzania’s government is increasingly authoritarian, and, in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, has seen the Parliament remove the country’s age limit for its rulers, allowing him to maintain control for the foreseeable future. These governments want the pipeline, arguing that it will bring economic benefit, but, if history is any indication, that benefit won’t be widely shared. By now, the evidence of a “resource curse,” which leaves oil-exporting countries with lower G.D.P.-growth rates, is overwhelming. But the unwavering support of ruling governments for the project is why much of the opposition has been aimed instead at the banks that would finance the plan (South Africa’s Standard Bank and Japan’s Sumitomo chief among them) and at Total.

“The French oil giant, if it proceeds with the pipeline, would make a total mockery of its pretensions to climate leadership. Already, fourteen French cities have filed a complaint against the company for its failure to live up to the Paris climate accords. (Paris, as it happens, is in France.) Total’s oil imperialism is also giving the lie to President Emmanuel Macron’s soaring climate rhetoric. As he told the United Nations last year, climate politics is too often a cynical morality play. “In essence, we have offered an outlet for our young people’s impatience,” Macron said. “We have given them the opportunity to express themselves. We tell them, ‘We hear you, you’re amazing.’ And then, all too often, we continue on with whatever we were already doing. That will not work.” True enough, and the eacop is perhaps the best example of that precise failing. What France has started in Africa needs to stop, and it is not too late to do that. Almost too late, but not quite.”

The above description refers to a pipeline in East Africa. But any other pipeline, anywhere — and any coal mine, refinery, or other large-scale energy production operation — comes with its own tale of unacceptable losses to people, other living creatures, and whole ecosystems. It’s the sheer scale and volume of our energy operations that’s problematic.

And the problem can’t be solved simply by “switching to renewables.” First of all, renewables alone can’t meet our current huge demand for energy. And second, solar farms and other renewable-energy infrastructure, like fossil-energy infrastructure, chew up land and threaten biodiversity, not to mention the fact that they still require fossil fuels to produce and transport. (For more about this, check out Michael Moore’s film Planet of the Humans, which I wrote about awhile back.) Moore’s film offers strong testimonial that the sheer scale and volume of our energy consumption is excessively burdensome on the environment — even if our modern industrialized lifestyle could be 100% powered by renewables.

For me, it all leads back to the same conclusion: Cut back! Conservation and voluntary self-restraint may not seem exciting, but they actually can be quite liberating and exhilarating! And they are key to reining in human destruction of our biosphere and possibly saving human life on this planet.

Everything we manufacture or buy takes energy to produce and transport. This is called the “embodied energy” of an item. McKibben’s description of the cost of our huge demand for energy illustrates why reducing consumption is an urgent task.

Of course, beyond just the ecological aspect, we must dismantle social and economic inequity as well. Curbing excess consumption, increasing our capacity to be satisfied with “enough,” will help with that too.

As McKibben wrote in an earlier article in the New Yorker magazine: “If we’re just going to use solar power instead of coal to run the same sad mess of unfair and ugly oppression, is it really worth it?” (“Making a Planet Worth Saving,” New Yorker, June 9, 2020.)

Whether you minimize driving, give up flying, reduce meat/dairy intake, refuse single-use plastic, buy only used clothes, strive to eat local, cook with a solar oven, heat your house with deadwood, minimize your electricity use, or whatever other conservation action you take, it all counts. Thanks for every bit you’re doing. I’m here to help you. If there’s a topic you don’t see covered in this blog or in my book, feel free to suggest it. I will do my best to accommodate.