Written by Charles Eisenstein
Energy policy blah blah blah, life cycle analysis blah blah blah, energy return on energy invested, peak oil, carbon footprint, renewables, hydro, nuclear, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.
That was a compelling analysis, wasn’t it? Now that I’ve gotten it out of the way, let’s move on to the good part. I’m going to take an unusual approach to considering energy policy, one that applies equally to one’s personal energy as an embodied being of flesh.
In most policy discussions of energy, the main question is how to source it. Over the modern era we’ve seen one technology supplant another, each promising a new era of clean, abundant energy. Your memory may not extend that far, but I remember in the days of my youth in the 1880s when the new oil furnace promised to finally free us from the wood smoke that choked our cities, towns, and homes every winter while denuding the landscape of trees. What a boon for the environment it was to be! It was also around that time that Science’s latest gift, kerosene, replaced the filthy tallow and whale oil lamps that stank up our houses and stripped the ocean of whales.
I remember something similar as a teenager in the 1920s, as automobiles replaced the ubiquitous horses that drowned our cities in manure. Do you recall the days when, every spring, the rains turned the roads into mires of horseshit half a foot deep, only to be baked by the July sun into a fine powder that clung to clothing and nostrils? And oh, the flies! What a boon to the environment the horseless carriage was!
When I was a young man in the early 1950s, a new power source came on line. Atomic power, we called it. Here was the final end to pollution. No more smokestacks, no more coal dust, no more pollution. Clean, limitless atomic power was finally going to usher in the true potential of the modern age.
Each of these innovations turned out to be an environmental disaster. But not to worry! In the last few decades new technologies have emerged that will finally allow us to generate plentiful power without pollution. Wind, biomass, and solar allow us to make electricity and fuel without negative environmental consequences. Well, that was the idea, anyway. Now it is becoming apparent that the centuries-old pattern is repeating itself. The environmental damage created by the lithium mines, cobalt mines, silver mines, rare earth mineral mines, and so forth is no less appalling than the damage from oil spills, drilling projects, and emissions. And the ecosystem destruction wreaked in the pursuit of industrial-scale biofuels far outstrips their putative climate benefits.1
So the question remains, how are we to meet our energy needs sustainably, without doing further damage to human health, the planet, and the rest of life?
Actually, that is the wrong question, whose framing forecloses the possibility of an answer. The main issue is not how we obtain the energy, it is the use to which we put it.
To explain why, I will invoke the notion of sacred reciprocity and attempt to rescue it from the garbage bin of spiritual clichés. For any being or any system to thrive, giving and receiving must be in a state of balance. The balance is not rigid or static; it is a state of dynamic equilibrium.
By that principle, in the absence of reciprocity the manner of our taking does not much matter. Reciprocity means that we recirculate the beauty we take back to the world whence it came. We receive what nature gives, change its form, and pass it forward, adding to the world’s health, beauty, and aliveness.
My wife Stella, who is of South American descent, works in a Peruvian shamanic tradition. One of that tradition’s key practices is the making of despachos, temporary shrines composed of flowers, small decorative objects, colorful candies, and so forth, which are then burned or buried. It is understood that the apus and other spirits are nourished by beauty.
This understanding is by no means limited to Peru. Anyone who maintains an altar enacts it through the careful arrangement of the sacraments. The magnificent architecture of Western cathedrals and mosques bespeaks the same understanding, and quite explicitly: the purpose of such extravagant effort was to glorify God. The same spirit is also visible in the Far East, for example in the Taoist and Shinto temples of China and Japan. At their best, they were an enhancement to the landscape, not an imposition onto it. They were an addition to nature, not an extraction from nature.
The beauty or ugliness of a society’s religious architecture reveals its state of health or illness. As goes its religious architecture, so goes the rest of its buildings, and so goes everything it does. Not only are Christian churches built after 1950 generally as ugly as the rest of the modern landscape, so are the temples of the dominant religions of modernity (Science, Medicine, Commerce).
Even something as mundane as food production can proceed in the spirit of extraction, or in a spirit of reciprocity—a contribution to life. For example, the food production practices of indigenous North America detailed in Kat Anderson’s classic Tending the Wild increased food productivity and biodiversity at the same time. When colonizers and settlers destroyed these practices, the result was ecosystem degradation. Today’s rampant wildfires are part of that genocidal legacy.
It may seem fanciful to imagine that making a despacho or building a shrine or doubling the time and effort on a building to make it beautiful could have any relevance to the arithmetic of climate emissions, resource depletion, or biodiversity loss. It seems almost a form of spiritual bypassing to avoid these quantitative issues of energy production and consumption. But here is the catch: most of the uses to which humanity puts its energy do not actually serve human welfare, let alone the well-being of the rest of life. Switching to “sustainable” resources will not change that.
One way to understand the significance of the despacho, as well as of sacred architecture, or maintaining an altar or shrine, is that it establishes a principle, a precedent, and a habit. The habit is the habit of devotion: devotion to beauty, devotion to life, devotion to healing.
It is also the habit of the artist. An artist is one who does something better than it needs to be done for any foreseeable return to herself. Thus she is in the spirit of gift. This is what I mean by sacred reciprocity.
In most construction projects, the first step is to clear the site. The first step is one of disregard for whatever was there before.2 Devotional architecture, and the devotional mindset in general, does not reduce the world to zero in order to start again. It embraces the gift of the world as it is, and seeks to continue the process of creation.
Devotion is what completes the circle of giving and receiving, feeding via human creativity the energies of nature back to their source. Otherwise, no energy technology will be benign. All will create imbalance. Used moderately, none are that harmful. Used immoderately, all are harmful. A few wind turbines in ideal locations are harmless, but what will be the impact on weather patterns, bird migration, and so on if we spread them over the entire landscape? I once spoke to an indigenous person about this; he warned of the consequences of what he called “stealing the wind.” He didn’t predict exactly what would happen, but he knew it wouldn’t be good.
Recently I heard of a new geothermal technology to tap heat from the earth’s mantle to produce electricity. It uses focused millimeter waves to drill as far as 20 kilometers beneath the earth’s surface where the temperature is 500 degrees. Water injected into the borehole turns into supercritical steam to power turbines. The technology can use existing infrastructure (driving converted fossil fuel plants) and repurposed oil & gas workforce. The potential supply of power seems limitless. The heat reservoir of the earth’s interior could power civilization at current levels of consumption for billions of years.
However, as Stanley Jevons observed back in the 19th century, resource use tends to expand to match its availability. Absent a devotional attitude, we will be profligate with any new energy source, using it to its limits. Who knows what effects “stealing the earth’s heat” will have on volcanism, plate tectonics, geomagnetism, or other processes if its extraction bore no limit.
Given the ways in which we use electrical power and fuel today, I’m not so sure that expanding its availability would be a good thing. Do we need more electronic devices, more plastic objects, bigger homes, more roads, more airplanes, more ubiquitous machines, more technology pervading every aspect of life? What is the positive vision for humanity that requires expanding energy production? Is our goal to bring North American lifestyles to the whole world? Given all that has come with that lifestyle (the addiction, depression, chronic illness, domestic violence, mindless routines, compulsive consumption, etc.) we might want to question the assumption that greater well-being will result from higher levels of energy use per capita.
All the more frightening are the so-called “free energy” technologies that extract energy from the zero point field. Is this energy really free? What imbalance in the fabric of the cosmos might result if we tapped it too deeply? And perhaps more to the point, if we gained access to unlimited energy right now, would we put it to enlightened use? After all, the first use to which we put the last great leap in energy technology was the Bomb.
Today, free energy devices remain outside consensus reality. That is fortunate. I don’t think we are ready to use them responsibly. Perhaps they will remain inaccessible until we are ready to use them responsibly.
Each type of energy source corresponds to a state of consciousness and a phase of civilization. Fossil fuels correspond to a state of expansion. They work by combustion, making small explosions that expand the air around them, their own gases, or steam. This consciousness of expansion was appropriate for the growth phase of civilization. They also embody separation from nature. Unlike wood or animal power, they come from outside the living world. Thus they comport with the mentality of man controlling nature from outside it. Their exhaustion accompanies the exhaustion of this mode of civilization and this mode of human beingness generally. It’s not quite finished yet. We seem to be trying to extend its term with solar, wind, and biofuels, which do what fossil fuels do, only less well. Their true potential awaits breakthroughs inaccessible to the mind of separation.
The enormously greater energies that new technologies might access will become available only when civilization and its prevailing consciousness enter a new phase.
Today we face two sorts of limit on the continued use of fossil fuels. The two seem unrelated. The first is the limit of supply, as easily recoverable deposits dwindle. The second is the ecological limit. But these appear as the result of ignoring a different kind of limit, the limit that a devotional attitude naturally brings. When we conscientiously ask whether a given use of energy truly serves life and beauty, often the answer will be, No.
The approach of ecological and supply limits signals that our taking has swollen beyond our giving. But here is an absolutely crucial point—if it surprises you, please pause to meditate on what I’ve written: The limits of supply and ecological burden are NOT asking us to use less. They ask us to use differently. (And when we use differently, we will use less.) It is the devotional use of energy that brings giving and receiving into balance.
When we do that, we will have passed the initiatory trial, and new sources of energy will become available to us. Until then, no new invention will save us. Today’s twin crises of energy shortage and ecological collapse put us in an increasingly uncomfortable position, asking us ever more urgently: Who do we want to be? The universe in its generosity will not relent in intensifying the conditions that face us with that choice.
Much of what I’ve said here applies also to one’s personal energy. Many of us today are reaching our limit. The condition called burnout mirrors the depletion of fossil fuels. But the solution to burnout is not to drink more coffee, or eat more food, or take better supplements. Nor is it to keep doing what we’ve been doing, only less of it. It is the same with fossil fuels: the solution is not to ramp up fracking to get more oil, nor is it supplementation with “renewables,” nor is it to use energy as before, only less of it (conservation). Burnout signals that the time has come to turn one’s energy toward different ends. That doesn’t mean that the old ends were wrong. It is that the time has come for a change.
I was going to end this essay there, but today I was watching the tiny ripples in the water as it rode up, glass-like, onto the flat sand at the beach. My son Cary was playing out in the waves. The ripples entranced me into timelessness. This devotion I speak of, this service to life and beauty, what motivates it? Love, you might say. But whence love? Devotion too needs nutriment. That nutriment comes from contemplation of the wonder, beauty, mystery, and magnificence of creation. Without it, devotion soon becomes a pantomime or a chore. In those minutes toe-deep in the water, I had utterly released all thought of productivity, all thought of giving anything in return for the dazzling beauty before me. I was fully receptive. My receptive attention was itself a gift to the object of my regard.
Contemplating the beauty of creation is the most useful thing we can possibly do right now. It is not a substitute for useful action. It is the wellspring of useful action. When grateful awe inhabits us, we bring it to everything we do. We yearn to add to the magnificence, the aliveness, and the beauty we have unstintingly admired, and cannot bear anything that diminishes it. That is the source of devotion. That is the solution to the energy crisis.