geography 442 – a student-directed seminar

A Need for Alternatives, Not Substitutions (CR3)

By Alison Smith

It is clear that business-as-usual along side over consumer habits cannot be maintained within our sphere of physical limits. Our economic framework based on continual capital-intensive growth is completely dependant on the use of cheap energy at the expense of human equity and environmental stability. With peak oil extraction either fast approaching or close behind the current decade, the path of energy substitution will ultimately feed the expansion of the social, economic and environmental crises we are already facing. An approach that may positively address these three detrimental issues is energy alternatives. In other words, a primitive breakdown of current energy intensive technologies, as opposed to, enhanced technological substitutes for oil. Ivan Illich essentially forecasts the affects of increased per capita wattage and stresses the significance of rational technologies, such as the bicycle, in his prophetic publication ‘Towards a History of Needs.’ He argues that the loss of rational technologies is apparent when the choice to modernize towards a ‘western’ standard presents its self and in so dependence on energy can rarely be reversed. Due to a present day absolute attachment to energy consumption coinciding with the oil depletion, investment in energy substitution is rabid and has resulted in the emergence of techno-fixes. Claire Fauset’s analytical report, “A Critical Guide to Climate Change Technologies” complements Illich’s conclusions regarding the faults of substitution and the benefits of a socioeconomic reconstruction. Fauset sheds light on the devaluation of alternatives by stating: “A rational solution is impossible because our economic system forces us into irrational short-termist decisions” (Fauset). Advanced technological substitution approaches such as agrofuel or hydrogen promote current levels of energy consumption and ignore the potential of man powered alternatives.

Illich’s concept of an energy threshold – a level of consumption that becomes destructive to society as a whole – correlates fittingly with fauset’s frank ‘right questions’ tactic. We have failed to face the simplicity of our energy crisis because our questions stem from what Illich refers to as “industrial-minded planners bent on keeping industrial production at some hypothetical maximum” (Illich). Fauset challenges western civilizations frame of mind by juxtaposing two angles to similar questions. Within the substitution perspective one would ask “how can people run their cars without oil?” and within the alternative avenue we should be asking “how can people get where they need to go without contributing to climate change?” In essence, rational technologies that rely more heavily on manpower are the only modes –in this case regarding transport- that will not add to social inequity or climate acceleration.

It is important to investigate the false hopes of improving global condition that substitutes emit. Firstly, the implementation of agrofuel has appeared to be “a green fuel that would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the transportation sector, provide a renewable energy source and rejuvenate rural economies” (Food Secure Canada). When in reality this source of fuel starkly opposes this common misconception. It has been well analyzed and hypothesized that the use of agrofuel on a universal scale will “limit land use and result in competition between food and fuel” (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy). There are two easily detectable concerns with an agrofuel based global economy. The demand for basic crop vegetation, such as corn or wheat, will accelerate and over reach the capabilities of supply. Creating sever food shortages. The other concern relates to the fact that the corps well be yield in regions such as Tanzania or Uganda primarily for export. The investment in the crops are not in support of local energy shortages but are to be diverted from their origins and subsidize the maintenance of high wattage per capita within ‘western’ regions. Hydrogen is the other techno-fix that fits the profile of an energy substitution that will not provide any change in consumer energy judgment. Nor will the current availability of renewable energy sources (wind or solar) be of an adequate amount to mitigate climate change. Therefore a primary energy source of either coal or gas would need to be employed to sustain demand. Basically acting as a fake substitute because the same materials would be used in production and no alteration on emission or consumption levels. Fauset sums up the draw towards irrational technologies by stating, “techno-fixes appeal, in short, to the powerful because they offer an opportunity to maintain power and privilege.”

There is no false hope of contributing to the reduction energy consumption, pollutant emissions or social inequity from the operation of a bicycle. The alternatives insinuated in Illich and Fauset comments of energy, environment and civilization merge with a plea for simplicity. Humble actions such as drinking water from a reusable vessel, layering up in the cold or engaging in a bartering exchange all demonstrate primitive breakdowns of our ‘high-tech throw-away’ western psyche.

Works Cited

Fauset, Claire. “The Techno-Fix Appoach to Climate Chnage and the Energy Crisis.”

Abramsky, Kolya. Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution. AK Press, 2010. 301-307.

Food Secure Canada. Agrofuel briefing note. 2010. <>.

Illich, Ivan. Toward a History of Needs. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “Trade Observatory.” 2007. Agrofuels: Opportunity or Danger? <>.

1 comment

1 Inga Molzen { 06.11.14 at 4:43 pm }

Some of the most intense community based protests in South Africa are linked directly to the alienation of the majority of its Citizens – Urban and Rural- from the economy, through growing unemployment, threatening compounded impact retrenchments, and their lack of access to services and utilities – which include “power”! So there is a teetering edge being revealed in the country’s’transition from 1994 into 2014 around access to power in all its expressions and forms across race, space, and place. Not only do millions go to bed hungry without access to an evening or morning meal, but hungry for alternative ways of conceptualizing a broader access to resources, opportunities and the expression of their skills and experiences that if heard and tapped into would contribute significantly address a global impoverishment of the land through crude capitalism and consumption, greed, and a gnawing poverty among the people who are ‘rich’ in so much but for the ability to be productive, pro-active, planning and pre-emptive. The challenge is how inclusive can we make the National Development Plan? The challenge is how inclusive can we make the Economy?

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