The Public Has Spoken, and They Want it All


[Data source: Pew Research Center July 31 poll - pdf here]

My son is a little over two years old. When confronted with choosing which one of his two favorites toys he will take to daycare, his answer is obvious: he takes them both.

Americans recently spoke to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press about energy (report here, middle of the page), and when asked to decide which goal is more important (energy independence, low prices, job creation or the environment) their choice was clear: all of the above.

To be fair to Republicans, at least the majority of them (54%) do not see one of the issues as a priority; unfortunately, it is environmental protection (!). Democrats and independents, on the other hand, simply want it all.

If you follow the clean energy sector at all, you would probably know that wanting it all is just not a real option, so my first reaction was to blame the respondents for their irrationality. But as I thought about it over the week, it appeared to me that the questions rather than the answers were the real problem. I explain. When asked about moral issues (whether it is gay marriage or enhanced interrogation techniques), we often follow our convictions, and our answers tend to be precise: we either agree or we disagree. Decisions are emotional, and rational discussions almost impossible to maintain as tradeoffs are also moral in nature and hard to quantify.

Economic questions on the other hand (and energy questions are always economic in nature) are different, because tradeoffs are quantifiable. We can tell with relative precision how much certain decisions are going to cost. We can also count with the one economic rule that rarely fails: there is no such a thing as a free lunch.

Under this light, it seems useless to frame questions about energy in a vacuum. By asking people to rate four or five very important goals, the researchers were setting themselves up to get all of the above answers. In the absence of tradeoffs, we all want free, clean energy that doesn't help despots abroad, laws of physics be damned. When we define them however, we can begging to see the complexity of the environmental and energy problems we face today:

- would you want cheap domestic energy if that means wiping out flat the Appalachian mountains, and turning Los Angeles and many other cities into grey smog basins, Beijing style? Will you pay for society's extra medical costs? (via GreentechSolar)

- would you be willing to pay an extra x percentage on your electricity bill and two extra dollars per gallon of gas so your kids inherit a country and a planet not worse off than today's?

None or these are easy questions, and there are many many more, but they already provide a basic sense of the trade offs involved as we move forward. Barring a dramatic technological breakthrough, local, clean and cheap energy (arguably the Holy Grail of this century) is just not attainable today, and the sooner the people know about it, the better and more informed the policy and market decisions (with their tradeoffs) will be.