Less Energy, More Life

Like a lot of people I know, I am concerned about mountaintop removal and climate change. But when we delay our concern until dangers have become sensational, we are late. Whether or not we are too late is a question that should not interest us. Even if we are too late, we still must accept responsibility and try to make things better.

In fact, mountaintop removal and climate change are not the sort of simple problems that can be solved by what we call problem-solving. They are summary evils gathered up from innumerable causes in the bad economy that we all depend upon and serve.

It is not as though we have not been warned. The advice against waste, extravagance, selfishness, hubris, falsehood, and willful ignorance is old. But people of religion have generally entrusted questions about economy, about how we live, to economists and industrialists. Environmentalists seem to think that problems caused by technology can be solved, or “controlled,” by more technology or “alternative” technology. People of both kinds seem to think that big problems have big solutions. Both are mistaken.

Fifty years ago, Harry Caudill published Night Comes to the Cumberlands, causing a flurry of public attention and a spate of federal interest in solving “the problem of poverty” in the Appalachian coalfields. But that book describes the fundamental problem—which was, and is, the industrial plunder of the land and the people—and that problem, already long ignored by 1963, has continued to be ignored officially and conventionally, for fifty more years. As Harry knew, and the politicians have not known, improving the health and economy of a region is not a one-issue project. It is not a one-solution problem.

The long-term or permanent damage inflicted upon all life by the extraction, transportation, and use of fossil fuels is certainly one of the most urgent public issues of our time, and, of course, it must be addressed politically. But responsibility for the better economy, the better life, belongs to us individually and to our communities. The necessary changes cannot be made on the terms prescribed to us by the industrial economy and its so-called free market. They can be made only on the terms imposed upon us by the nature and the limits of local ecosystems.

If we are serious about these big problems, we have got to see that the solutions begin and end with ourselves. Thus we put an end to our habit of oversimplification. If we want to stop the impoverishment of land and people, we ourselves must be prepared to become poorer.

If we are to continue to respect ourselves as human beings, we have got to do all we can to slow and then stop the fossil fuel economy. But we must do this fully realizing that our success, if it happens, will change our world and our lives more radically than we can now imagine. Without that realization we cannot hope to succeed. To succeed we will have to give up the mechanical ways of thought that have dominated the world increasingly for the last 200 years, and we must begin now to make that change in ourselves. For the necessary political changes will be made only in response to changed people.

We must understand that fossil fuel energy must be replaced, not just by “clean” energy, but also by less energy. The unlimited use of any energy would be as destructive as unlimited economic growth or any other unlimited force.

If we had a limitless supply of free, nonpolluting energy, we would use the world up even faster than we are using it up now.

If we are not in favor of limiting the use of energy, starting with our own use of it, we are not serious.

If we are not in favor of rationing energy, starting with the fossil fuels, we are not serious.

If we have the money and we are not willing to pay two dollars to keep the polluting industries from getting one, we are not serious.

If, on the contrary, we become determined to keep the industries of poison, explosion, and fire from determining our lives and the world’s fate, then we will steadfastly reduce our dependence on them and our payments of money to them. We will cease to invest our health, our lives, and our money in them.

Then finally we will be serious enough, our effort complex and practical enough. By so improving our lives, we will improve the possibility of life.

Wendell Berry is a writer, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s annual meeting in Louisville