The Politics of Energy

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In The Politics of Energy, Barry Commoner, one of the most outspoken and well-known spokesmen for the preservation of our national and international environment, presents his views on the nature of the energy crisis. As he explains it, much of that crisis is caused by political forces, and Americans have been given only scraps of contradictory information. In his Prologue, Commoner states that his book is an effort to clarify what is really happening, to demonstrate where the energy crisis is pushing us, and to offer a program to meet the crisis. He suggests that the people of the United States, alarmed and frustrated, may be led to accept the higher oil prices that can only worsen the inflation of our currency, to accept a pattern of gasoline rationing which forces poor people to buy ration stamps from the rich, and to accept a larger military budget, with accompanying cuts in social services, as well as a renewal of the military draft. The greatest danger, as Commoner sees it, is that President Carter’s moral equivalent of war could be converted by our present confusion into military action.

Although United States citizens have been repeatedly told that this country does not have enough oil and natural gas within its borders for its needs and have also become alarmed by the threat which nuclear power presents, especially after the incident of Three Mile Island in March, 1979, the facts are quite different from what we have been led to believe, according to the author. He says that we do have sufficient gas and oil from domestic sources to last for years, although the supply will inevitably become much more costly as it is depleted, thus becoming a major contributor to continuing inflation. The solution, he feels, lies in making up for shortages, now and in the future, by beginning at once a transition from oil and gas to sources of energy which are renewable—what he terms “solar energy.”

It is crucial to understand Commoner’s definition of “solar energy.” For many people, the term refers to the collection of the sun’s rays to be used principally for heating water and living space; but Commoner uses the term to cover any source of energy which is related to the sun. This includes, of course, direct heating of water and buildings through the use of the sun’s rays; but it also includes the transformation of the sun’s rays, through photovoltaic cells, for lighting and the use of the wind to drive electric generators as well as to pump water uphill to provide water storage for hydroelectric plants. Just as Commoner includes wind as a form of solar energy because the winds are produced by the upward movement of sun-warmed air masses, so he includes the use of plant material in his definition, since plants use the sun’s rays for photosynthesis. Plant material can be burned directly, as in wood-fueled heaters; a more sophisticated technique burns alcohol distilled from grain and fruit. The author also considers the methane gas that bacteria generate from various sources, including manure, sewage, and garbage, to be a form of solar energy.

Commoner concedes that we have at least two existing sources of renewable energy—breeder-based nuclear power and solar energy. He prefers solar energy because it is more widely dispersed and therefore more efficient than nuclear power. Nuclear power requires plants of very large capacity, plus the great expanse of transmission lines to distribute the resulting electrical energy. He also notes that the use of those long transmission lines results in a considerable waste of the electrical energy which is produced. He suggests, too, that any newly developed energy system ought to improve the environment,...

(The entire section is 1511 words.)