Professor discusses fossil fuel use reduction
In the modern world, the consumption of energy is a common problem, whether it is through energy-eating supercomputers or the lack of carpooling by those who commute to work. Last Friday, the Rutgers Energy Institute invited Richard York from the University of Oregon to speak at the Marine Sciences Building on Cook campus.
York’s seminar, titled “The Challenges of Reducing Fossil Fuel Use,” stressed the complications of reducing fossil fuel dependency.
York, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sociology at the University of Oregon, focused on how society depends on fossil fuels and how this dependency can be reduced.
“I’m somewhat skeptical of how problems are framed as technical and solvable with appropriate technological innovation and application,” he said. “Technology matters, but as a social scientist, the theme I’m running here is how the society manages a certain technology.”
He said he believes many reasons exist for societies not to focus on extracting fossil fuels. Fossil fuels contribute to greenhouse gases, air pollution and increase the severity of oil spills.
He introduced his idea called the “displacement paradox,” which demonstrates how difficult it is to replace fossil fuel energy.
“Nations developing non-fossil fuel sources of energy do see a suppressing effect on fossil fuels, but the replacement is not as effective as one would hope,” York said.
This struggle to replace fossil fuel energy is demonstrated by a 50-year study held by Nature Climate Change from 1960 to 2009, he said. The global study suggested on average, 10 units of non-fossil fuel energy replaced one unit of fossil fuel energy.
It is clear energy sources like hydropower, solar, geothermal and wind have impacts on fossil fuel generation, but society is too reliant on fossil fuels to easily replace it, he said.
“Research in many fields suggests that a lot of the reasons we want things are because we produce them,” York said. “The supply affects the demand — by adding or supplying energy we generate consumption.”
Having different methods of generating energy also makes it necessary to find ways to transport the energy, he said. This contributes to a rise in energy production as well as fossil fuel consumption.
This effect was also illustrated in the past, he said.
Before fossil fuels, oil from animals was a major source of energy. People used whale oil for lighting, margarine and industrial lubricants.
“There’s a certain irony to this situation,” he said. “The discovery of petroleum should have saved the whales, but it only drove whaling.”
The vast majority of whaling occurred after the establishment of a fossil fuel market in the 20th Century, York said. He credited this to the ability of humans to chase different types of whales after the development of fossil fuel-powered ships.
Sail ships were not able to chase blue whales or thin whales, but the innovation spurred by the petroleum market allowed for steam ships, which offered new prey for whalers.
“It’s the rise of fossil fuel that accelerates whaling and therefore supplies a demand for them,” he said. “So we have a source of whaling after whale oil has essentially been rendered obsolete.”
The availability of options introduces a problem — generating a form of energy unlocks a variety of other options for energy production, he said. This increases overall consumption that can be related to an analogy of teatime.
If one type of cookie was offered during teatime, there would be minimal consumption, he said. If various types of cookies were offered, the person would be more likely to test every option.
“The solution isn’t just to generate solar power or wind power,” York said. “You have to think of the social, political and economical contexts of technologies that result from their contributions to societies.”
Rachael Shwom, assistant professor in the Department of Human Ecology, said the issue of climate change couldn’t be mitigated by a renewable energy generation alone.
“We need to really account for this change of energy usage in policy decisions,” she said.
York believes energy used to be heavily related to the structural circumstances. The United States set itself up to be distributed across miles of space, thus creating a dependency on petroleum.
Early on, General Motors Company actively purchased rail lines and shut them down to expand and support freeway production, he said.
Cities in Europe and on the East Coast of America have infrastructures that were built before the existence of cars, therefore have less need for petroleum, he said.
“We have expectations for jobs and lives that go long distances,” he said. “It is hard to oppose that dependency.”
Matthew Purri, a School of Engineering first-year student, said he agreed with this sociological focus on energy production.
He said when people are applying for jobs they have the mindset they might be commuting for at least an hour by car.
York said forms of energy production should not be seen as competing.
“If you want more energy, you must get both,” he said.
He said the answer is not to push the use of alternative energy, but to limit the use of fossil fuel energy.
“We use more energy than necessary,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves why we have societies. It has a lot to do with human history and the quality of life. We’re a product of our time.”