Entropy goes global 

Calculating the real cost of energy

A concurrence of recent events suggests the concept of globalization may well be toast in its contest with entropy, that old, immutable law of the universe. Entropy describes how systems, like the universe itself, always move away from order and toward chaos. Why? For the simple reason that maintaining complex systems requires massive amounts of energy—and the more complex the system, the more energy and effort it takes to keep it running, and the more prone it is to breaking down. If all this is starting to sound familiar these days, that’s no surprise—and it’s exactly why a return to local self-reliance is looking better and better.

Globalization was always a pipe dream of the mega-exploiters, the people who see the world as their oyster and have no qualms about swallowing it down whole. While the idea has probably been around as long as mankind, modern “globalization” has, in reality, been little more than imperialism, colonialism and capitalism combined in pursuit of the financial gain to be realized from extraction of human or natural resources—and most often both. England, Spain and France have all had their turns at bat—and all have eventually failed in horrific series of bloody revolts by their resource extraction colonies.

Only recently has the evidence become overwhelming that energy—the factor globalization promoters love to ignore—has taken center stage. Suddenly, when the price of a barrel of oil doubles, the whole concept of shipping goods and materials long distances becomes economically unbalanced, if not outright untenable.

One reason for the centrality of energy, of course, is that its real costs, which have been so externalized for so long, are catching up with us. In the past, the cost of a barrel of oil, a ton of coal or a megawatt of electricity has been calculated by simply leaving out the impacts that producing those energy sources have on other systems—the environment, for instance.

But now, like a junkyard bulldog, those externalized costs are coming back to bite us—from killer storms like Katrina, to prolonged drought and forest fires to pollution-caused asthma, the quiet but widespread crippler of urban children.

So what’s the solution for the abject failure of the globalization promoters? A return to local self-sufficiency wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

While political leaders these days seem obsessed with symbolism over substance, there are signs that citizens are beginning to turn away from the politicos on their soap boxes and take the matter of their survival into their own hands.

Witness the current proposal by Washington’s Vashon Island to become energy independent. First they would invest in basic conservation—such as universal installation of compact fluorescent light bulbs, insulation, and new energy-efficient appliances. By doing so, studies show the 11,000 residents of this 37-square-mile island can shave up to 70 percent off their current energy use, to the tune of $5 million in savings annually.

The second phase is installation of wind, solar and renewable energy sources such as biomass to take advantage of the byproducts of the island’s livestock. Not only do island residents expect to become energy self-sufficient in 10 years, they predict a surplus of energy they could sell back to mainland utilities.

This will cost some money. Estimates say a $40 million investment will result in $95 million in energy savings at current prices, which are likely to rise, not fall, in the future. While heavy hitters like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc. investment firm and the Bullitt Foundation are backing that investment, the main source of funds would come from a new public utility district to be voted on next year.

Closer to home, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer appears to be getting the message that Montanans are facing our own energy crisis and could use some help surviving our much-lamented move to deregulated “market prices.” While all the big talk about massive coal liquefaction plants to supply petroleum for the entire nation and producing tens of thousands of new megawatts for export to California might attract the interest of international CEOs, the reality is that investment in conservation, just as the Vashon Island project predicts, is still the best deal going.

To his credit, Schweitzer said this week he wants to increase financial aid to Montana families this winter and “step up energy conservation and weatherization programs…to reduce energy demand and lower consumer bills.”

But talk is cheap. Simply producing more energy only feeds the beast and gets us nowhere in the long run. Conservation takes us in the right direction, toward better appliances, better lights, more insulation and less wasteful energy-usage habits.

Implementing conservation takes investment, and it is a crying shame and a blatant failure of U.S. policy at both state and federal levels that somehow, these geniuses forgot the energy crisis of the ’70s. Back then, when we saw the handwriting on the wall, lots of people actively supported conservation. Cars got smaller and more fuel efficient, homes were insulated and we easily downsized for all the right reasons.

But somewhere along the way, no doubt pushed and pulled by those energy company CEOs who are so hot to chat with Schweitzer, our priorities skewed back in favor of consumption—and conspicuous consumption at that. Hummers, SUVs, massive, mostly empty shells sucking resources and spewing pollution at an alarming rate. Now we’re paying the price for this dereliction of duty by our elected policymakers.

The time has come to get back to those very sensible ideas of 30 years ago. Conservation, decentralization and self-sufficiency are noble and achievable goals. If Vashon Island can do it, Montana can do it. So can the nation—but not without prioritizing our investments in that direction. It’s time to let globalization fall victim to entropy, while we move on with building a better, saner, sustainable future.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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