The ability to harness and direct energy has created manifold benefits. It has improved the quality of lives; created vast wealth; provided shelter; increased food production; enhanced the production and delivery of medicines; and rendered the globe traversable by people in days and by satellites in hours. Without this use of energy, human society—not only in its modern variations but in what has transpired for millennia—would be inconceivable.
The use of energy does not come without costs. Some of these costs result from the sheer burden of energy production. Indigenous communities in India, China, Brazil and elsewhere are displaced by immense hydroelectric projects—not just hundreds or thousands but millions of people are forced from their ancestral homes. Respiratory ailments and other illnesses caused by the byproducts of energy production pervade both rural villages and urban centers. An atomic reactor at Chernobyl explodes, and more than a thousand children succumb to thyroid cancers. Carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere to a level unprecedented in geologic history, creating the potential for catastrophic changes in global climate, changes that will affect not merely the sites of energy production and use, but literally every beach, every mountain, every agricultural plot on Earth.
Some of the costs are incurred because energy is not equally available to all. If poverty is the environment’s worst enemy, driving people to make choices about their lives that are unsustainable, lack of access to energy is one of its chief accomplices. People living in poverty cannot afford the energy that would transform their lives and bring them a modicum of prosperity; they also employ some of the least efficient energy sources (yet some of the most costly when measured in terms of impact on the quality of human life). Indigenous villagers in rural settings toil daily to procure firewood, yet the smoke produced by burning erodes their health. The urban poor can ill afford the capital investments in energy efficiency that would lower their cost of living, even though such an investment would protect them from the extremes of winter and summer.
Other considerable costs stem from the immense security issues posed by the unequal distribution of energy among countries around the globe. It is not by chance that U.S. foreign aid, diplomacy and military spending and operations concentrate around the Middle East, even though this tiny portion of the globe is distant from America’s shores, and most of the world’s population lies elsewhere. It is not by chance that some countries lacking access to large petrochemical reserves subsidize nuclear power, creating health risks for their citizenry as well as covert (and sometimes overt) opportunities for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
These are all substantial issues. They will only grow in import as the human population expands and as the energy demands of modern commerce and technology demand more fuel for our vices and virtues. John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich in 1971 1 offered a simple but profound summary describing the impact of human activity on our global ecosystem. Their formulation, the I=PAT equation, identified in broad sweep how population size (P), affluence (A) and technology (T) are crucial: The more there are of us, the more affluent is our lifestyle, and the greater the use of technology to support that lifestyle, the greater is our impact (I) on the planet. The not-so-hidden subtext of I=PAT is energy. Energy needs expand with human numbers and vary with lifestyle. The impacts depend upon the technologies we employ in its generation and use.
Poised on the threshold of a new millennium, a few things are clear. Population will grow, its trajectory influenced by the determination of people and government to provide family planning assistance to those who seek but cannot afford it. Affluence will rise, especially in the developing world, as aspirations are fueled by exposure to the global culture and as national economies in the developing world expand the buying power of their citizens. Technology will advance. All of these events may result in an inexorable increase in environmental degradation, especially driven by rising needs for energy and rising impacts of energy production both on environment and security.
This need not be the case. Our future, and our fate, depend inextricably upon the details of how I=PAT evolves. Wise investments in family planning can slow population growth. People, especially in developed economies, have choices in lifestyle other than the profligate affluence enshrined by Hollywood’s icons. New technologies and techniques can be deployed today and in the near future that make energy use more efficient and energy production vastly more benign.
The W. Alton Jones Foundation is convinced that immensely positive opportunities now exist to alter the future of energy use. New technologies, new policies, and new economic incentives can all move us away from a path of development that has no sustainable future, decreases global security and increases international tensions, and instead toward a more sustainable and secure world. This report, while covering the full breadth of issues receiving support in the foundation’s grantmaking, gives special attention to these opportunities.