Fear, public policies and energy efficiency

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Fear is a human emotion, easily aroused. It can provide us with an extra jolt of energy to escape a risky situation or be used by others to manipulate us into following their expectations for us.

In the early 1970s, Stanley Cain was one of our professors who had returned to teach from his post as the head of the U.S. Department of Interior. While in Washington, he noticed that every time there was a congressional budget hearing regarding military appropriations, leading newspapers reported that a Russian submarine was spotted off the U.S. coast. What went unreported was that it was common for Russian submarines to be in the area. Reporting on their presence during a military budget hearing served to arouse public fear to garner support for increasing the military budget.

Now, we have the never-ending threat of terrorism and the rising threat of China to keep fear alive in the public’s mind. Few political leaders publicly link the size of the military budget to the adverse impacts it has on funds available for other societal needs. Nor do they discuss the energy consumption involved in waging war and its adverse environmental impacts.

Professor Cain also raised the issue of the unsustainable rate of global resource consumption, whether military or social, as society was using resources at a rate that exceeded nature’s ability to resupply them. The issue is well illustrated by the decline of ocean fish populations. A second consideration was that our industrial processes were overwhelming nature’s ability to process the waste involved in producing them. This problem is well illustrated by the toxic wastes that were sent to landfills or left behind at industrial sites where goods were produced.

The first Earth Day events initiated in 1970 featured teach-ins that served to create understanding of the need for society to address our environmental problems. Some of the teachings relied on fear, such as presentations by Paul Erlich focusing on human population growth and the threat it posed to human well-being and the health of the planet. Since the future he envisioned did not materialize as he predicted, some people dismissed the threat of excessive population growth, and the topic is seldom publicly discussed.

The challenge for individuals and society is how to assess whether the fear being aroused is based on a realistic threat and whether the proposed solution is an appropriate response. Such considerations were central to our experiences in graduate school and our subsequent professional careers. We hope they continue to exist in college classes, but lament their disappearance in political discourse.

As graduates of the School of Natural Resources, our views continue to be influenced by a concern for society’s unsustainable rates of resource consumption and the inability of natural processes to decompose wastes at the rate at which society is generating them. While we support energy efficiency and renewable energy, we doubt they will lead to a sustainable economy if they merely serve as another energy source to expand the existing model of economic development.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt

From the Jan. 1-6, 2014, issue