(Hi, I’m Gar Lipow. I’ve worked extensively on renewable energy issues, and have written an (as-yet-unpublished) book on alternatives to carbon emissions, mentioned by John McGrath here. I’m going to be posting on efficiency and renewable technologies that can replace fossil fuels as well as on the economics and politics of phasing them out.)
“Energy independence” may be the buzzword in the renewable energy field. Even the invaluable Apollo Alliance emphasizes ending “dependence on foreign oil.” The short-term political benefit is indisputable. The term polls in the Nineties, probably ahead of motherhood and apple pie.
But it is a loser in the long run. “Energy independence” reinforces a frame that works against renewables. The connotation: “it is all the fault of those outsiders, those others who addicted us to their seductive foreign oil.”
Nobody hit the U.S. over the head and forced it to buy petroleum. To the extent we are seduced and lied to, it is mostly by U.S.-headquartered oil companies such as Exxon, and U.S. politicians.
It is quite true that we go often go to war over oil. (Even though Iraq is not directly a war over oil, no one seriously thinks we would have invaded if their primary export were kumquats.) But if oil were not an issue, does anyone believe that we would not find something else to fight about? The American war against Vietnam (following the French war against Vietnam, following the Japanese war against Vietnam) did not have much to do with oil. The Congo has been reduced to an abattoir over various minerals, include key components of modern cell phones. As long as our international system has more to do with banditry than law, the powerful will find resources they want to grab from poorer ones, and key locations they want to control for strategic reasons.
If you distract from that, if you contribute with the American tendency to scapegoat foreigners for our problems, you reinforce the militarism and xenophobia that help keep in power people who strongly oppose renewables in practice.
In addition, if you frame the problem as “independence,” then coal (which is cheap and plentiful in the U.S.) becomes an obvious solution — in spite of the fact that it is far worse for global warming than oil, and a major water polluter besides.
Global warming is a political problem more than a technical one. In any fight, whether as formal and rule-bound as chess, the chaos of a barroom brawl, or the deadly lawlessness of war, you have to think more than one move ahead to win. “Energy independence” as a frame is a good way to score a couple of points but lose the game.