Driving True Economic Growth: Report From Aspen

How will we power the future? Photo: Brian Clark Howard


“Our fuel bill was $20 billion last year,” Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs, told a big crowd at the Aspen Environment Forum in late June.

Burke explained that the U.S. Department of Defense also spends about $4 billion a year in electricity costs for its 300,000+ buildings around the world, from bases to offices, representing about 80% of the federal government total for facilities. More than 25,000 people work in the Pentagon building alone, making it a massive user of resources.

Burke said the department is trying to lead the federal government in energy and fuel efficiency measures, especially since “fuel is a limiting factor” when it comes to battle situations. “We’re looking at how changing our energy use will make us a better force,” said Burke. “The Department of Defense has a history of being a powerful innovation puller,” she added.

Heather Quinley, head of stewardship for the utility Duke Energy, said the challenge is that “energy is not a top-of-mind thing for most people.” She said it will take a combination of new efficiency and renewable technologies and policy “that will drive us to the end game.”

David Owen, a staff writer for the New Yorker who moderated the Aspen session on energy, said an environmental economist told him, “frugality first then efficiency,” when it comes to green. Owen pointed out that energy conservation measures don’t always have a net positive impact on the environment, if the savings people realize in one area simply get plowed into some other consumption somewhere else.

Quinley said that needn’t always be the case, and she pointed to growing use of renewable energy as one part of the sustainability equation.

Limits on Growth?

During a later session on growth in Aspen, British environmental writer Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, argued that we have reached “peak” consumption in a number of key areas in the developed world, including “peak meat, travel, vehicle registrations,” and so on. Lynas pointed out that population growth is leveling off globally, especially in developed countries.

Lynas added that, in the United Kingdom, the gross domestic product has doubled since 1970 while consumption has largely leveled off. He pointed out that the planet “still has finite ecological limits,” and said we “still need more [economic] growth in developing countries.”

In steering the conversation to how to power that economic growth, Owen said, “One solar researcher I interviewed told me he was placing all his hope in nuclear fusion, while a fusion researcher told me he was placing all his hope on solar.”

Photo: Aspen airport carpet
Aspen airport.

Addressing today’s relative cheapness of natural gas and the fracking industry that partially drives that, Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, asked the audience, “Twenty years from now we’ll be looking at a dried up industry that blew away, leaving half a million new holes in the ground, ruined aquifers, and we’ll wonder if it was all worth it.” (Much of the crowd cheered.)

Jamais Cascio, founder and blogger with Open the Future (and a co-founder of Worldchanging), said, “The oil industry says fossil fuels will be dominant for the next 50 years, but that’s not sustainable.” Instead, Cascio said we are near an “s-curve” with renewables, when they will begin to ramp up more quickly. “Nanotech will really drive down the price. Solar paint is going to be transformative,” he said.

Gernot Wagner, an environmental economist and author of But Will the Planet Notice?, pointed out that already, Germany gets half of its electricity from solar power on weekends when the sun is shining.

Half for Nature

Speaking on an Aspen Environment Forum panel called “Old Greens Versus New,” celebrated conservation biologist E.O. Wilson said, “We should reserve half the planet for nature. I think it’s possible.” Wilson pointed out that with declining fertility, increasing urbanization, and improving technology, “we can feed 10 billion people.”

Wilson joked that he is “one of two living people who worked with Rachel Carson,” and he said we should put much of our energy into preserving wild spaces and connecting those with corridors for plants and animals to roam. To put things in perspective, Wilson estimated we could save 50% of all species by setting aside hotspot reserves–a process that would only require 0.1% of global gross domestic product.

At the Aspen Environment Forum, it was clear that we face significant challenges as a species, though we also have considerable opportunities.


Brian Clark Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.


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