curtailment writ large

Ask a roomful of energy experts about the future and you’ll get a wide range of opinions: Peaking oil production will necessitate a shift to less energy dense fuels, and cause energy costs to spike. Resource scarcity will precipitate additional conflict between nations. Climate change will cause mass dislocations and civilizational collapse. Or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, human creativity and the power of the marketplace will unleash innovations that will provide plentiful, low-cost, low-carbon energy.

The precise future is unknown, but the present is certain: Our current energy economy is destructive to nature and dangerous to democratic institutions, community life, and human health. It is a toxic system that requires fundamental reform. The political, philosophical, economic, and physical barriers to rebuilding the energy economy make the task difficult. But it is achievable.

Barring some breakthrough in energy technology or a global pandemic that decimates human numbers (two scenarios that are possible but unlikely), over the next century there will be less energy per capita available than during the last. Thus, a policy of curtailment—ending frivolous and wasteful uses of energy, deploying existing renewable power technologies in the most effective manner, and ratcheting down fossil fuel use quickly and dramatically so that the planetary fever goes no higher—is the overarching task for our times.

Americans, who have become accustomed to the idea that anyone should be able to use as much energy as they want, whenever they want, for whatever purpose (and it should be cheap!), will face a different reality in an energy-constrained future. In a sane world, we would not blow the tops off mountains in Appalachia to keep coal-burning power plants belching pollution so that office towers can leave the lights on all night. From motorized paper-towel dispensers and illuminated, empty parking lots to the worst inefficiencies of suburban sprawl, there are worlds of energy-wasting products, activities, and living arrangements that can and should simply be abandoned. Curtailment achieved through outright abolition of energy-wasting machines or activities would be controversial. Nevertheless, in an energy-constrained world with a bad case of human-induced hemorrhagic fever, the sooner citizens voluntarily begin curtailment efforts, the more options remain open to transition toward a more durable, ecologically sustainable energy system.