There’s an old saying in biology that poison is dose-dependent, recognizing that everything is poisonous at the right dosage. Drinking a glass of crude oil will make you sick … but so will drinking 50 gallons of water. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 600 ppm would radically change life as we know it on the earth … but so would atmospheric oxygen concentrations of 500,000 ppm O2.

This isn’t meant to suggest that all poisons are equal, but simply to recognize that there is nothing so good that it won’t kill you at a high enough concentration. And what is true for chemicals we may ingest is no less true for public policies we may embrace. From police budgets to formal education, what’s good in moderation is problematic in abundance.

And yet when it comes to energy and environmental policy, we continue to presume that our generation is smart enough to know the silver bullets, even while we lambaste our predecessors for failing to comprehend the full scope of the silver bullets of their day.

U.S. energy policy: A history of poisonous silver bullets

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A bit of perspective is in order:

  1. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, New York City labored under a pollution problem with flies, dust-borne diseases, and, what can only be described as massive, anti-lock stink from the abundance of horses, pigs, and sheep roaming the city, coating the streets in manure and urine. The emergence of the automobile was heralded as a wondrous solution to the pollution problem of the day — which it was, and if adopted in smaller numbers, it might not have spawned a pollution problem of its own.
  2. In the wake of World War II, Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, famously predicted that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” Coupled with the Atoms For Peace program, it suggested a world of cheap, abundant nuclear-fuel-making-lemonade out of Hiroshima’s lemons. Today’s waste disposal challenges are yet another symptom of dose-dependent poison.
  3. As Daniel Yergin outlined in The Prize, our modern oil industry owes much to Winston Churchill and his decision to convert the British Navy from coal to oil to enhance maneuverability — the only problem being that Great Britain didn’t have oil reserves. So he leveraged the U.K.’s colonial power to extract oil concessions from Mideast emirs and sultans, laying the ground work for what ultimately became BP, Shell, and Royal Dutch … and Ayatollahs and al Qaedas, once we got the dosage up.

One could go on and on. But it’s worth noting that neither Churchill nor Lewis Strauss nor even the 1880s incarnation of the NYC Sanitation Department were dummies. They simply failed to comprehend that the solutions they sought to the challenges of their day would ever be scaled up to the level where the law of large numbers would magnify their (comparatively) small flaws to create massive social challenges for the next generation.

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Who are we to think we know better?

We delude ourselves into thinking that Nifty New Technology will save the day from our own dilemmas, filled with the hubris that we are too clever to repeat past mistakes. Are we really that smart, or are we simply embracing technologies that haven’t gotten big enough to show us their warts?

  1. The solar industry depends on massive volumes of silicon, which must be mined from quartz and purified of its oxygen with a healthy dose of coal and/or charcoal. Do we comprehend the increased size of quartz mines and (char)coal use to meet a solar-dependent grid?
  2. Any central power generation technology requires prodigious amounts of copper in the wires, which must be mined and purified, often with significant acid leaching.
  3. Any battery-intensive future — whether for automotive or electricity storage — is implicitly a world that puts us homo sapiens in much closer contact with large concentrations of heavy metals, from lead to cadmium or lighter metals like lithium.
  4. Fuel cells require large volumes of rare earth metals (platinum, rhodium, etc.) that tend to be concentrated in parts of the globe not always known for political pleasantry.

This is in no way meant to knock these paths, simply to acknowledge that any technology has nasty side effects in sufficient dosage. To ignore those side effects is to ignore history’s lessons.

What are we to do?

Acknowledging the problem doesn’t necessarily mean that we know the answer, but it is the first step. At a bare minimum, it suggests that we ought to always guide our judgments not by the sex appeal of any given technology, but by its minimization of total demand on finite natural resources. We have to stop framing renewable energy as if it is somehow in competition with efficiency. (And we also ought not to limit our definition of efficiency only to fuel efficiency. Fossil fuels are far from the only finite natural resource we have.)

Conversely, we ought to look very closely at inefficient uses of renewable energy. All resources are ultimately finite, and even if solar energy is effectively infinite, the copper and silicon upon which that resource depends are not. Centrally-located renewables that throw away electricity in line losses and overbuild transmission aren’t responsible energy generators. Neither is it responsible to burn any fuel — renewable or otherwise — without extracting every recoverable Btu out of the stack.

Any environmental policy that doesn’t place resource efficiency at its core promotes environmental tyranny, and it is no more respectful of our grandchildren than our forebear’s embrace of our modern poisons. But we — to a degree our forebears never had — have the lessons of history to guide us. We have that wisdom, and the obligation to use it.

As we go into a massive flurry of environmental and energy legislation come Jan. 20, it bears keeping this wisdom in mind. Chase efficiency. Reward goals, and stop rewarding paths. Be holistic, and rise above the narrow, silo-driven processes that have historically constrained our energy and environmental policies. Our future depends on it.