The dilematunity principle tells us that opportunities are usually accompanied by new problems and, conversely, problems are accompanied by new opportunities. The world's most pressing problem right now is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had few upsides. It has killed hundreds of thousands, shut down industry and commerce and destroyed millions of jobs.
But along with all this misery there was at least one upside. On April 3 The New York Times headlined that "Emissions Declines Will Set Records This Year."
The emissions declined because people around the world suddenly were burning a lot less coal, oil and gasoline. Shut factories were not using energy, people who were out of work or quarantined at home were driving much less, and few airliners were spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Oil became a glut in the market and its wholesale price even turned briefly negative.
Measured air quality in major American cities improved greatly, and in many foreign cities that were notorious for poor air quality people could suddenly see the sky. Everybody, except for the unfortunates suffering from COVID-19, could breathe more easily. Based on the recent skies, perhaps a new color expression — COVID blue — could become part of our future vocabulary.
Of course, as the Times headline continued, "But It's Not Good News." And in the short run, this is clearly true. Civilization runs on energy, and the sudden decline in the use of energy reflects the decline in the production of goods and services and in the jobs with which people acquire the means to purchase those goods and services.
But still, the clear skies we are temporarily experiencing give everybody a dramatic demonstration of what our future lives could look like.
Lincoln Steffans, an American muckraker and journalist, visited Russia when the Communists were first taking over. Carried away with enthusiasm for the revolutionaries' proclaimed goals and promises, he famously proclaimed that "I have seen the future, and it works!" (To his credit, he soured on communism by the early 1930s, when he noticed that the revolution had produced a horrible dictatorship.) But in today's clearer skies we have seen the future, as it quite possibly could be. And we have seen that it will work just fine.
Energy is so important that if we were to permanently stop using the current technologies without finding replacements billions of people around the world would starve. The agriculture that feeds us uses vast amounts of energy for its machines and for producing the petrochemicals that sustain it. Additional energy is used to process, transport and store food until it reaches us, the ultimate consumers. So as economies re-open, polluted skies will return.
The good news is that currently existing technologies — hydroelectric, wind, solar and perhaps atomic — can substitute for carbon-emitting coal, oil and gas. The task now facing human civilization is phasing in these alternative sources of energy as fast as possible to avoid wrecking the world's climate by continued use of the old technologies.
Current trends are moving us in the right direction. Major automobile companies are planning to phase out fume spewing internal combustion engines and to replace them with highly efficient electric vehicles. Burning coal to produce electricity is declining quite rapidly, as renewable sources of energy continually become cheaper.
People who work with the older technologies will naturally resist attempts to speed up the transition to renewable energy. Their lobbyists will try to head off legislation aimed at encouraging this. But it should be harder for these lobbyists to prevail now that so many people have experienced the benefits of replacing carbon fuels with green energy.
Unlike Lincoln Steffans, we will not need to repent later when we say "We have seen the future, and it works."
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan oregon, and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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