Frustration is mounting with the Denton gas drilling ordinance re-write process. I think a major cause of frustration is a sense of futility. Even if we get some improvements, we will just be rearranging the furniture on the Titanic. This ordinance can do nothing more than put lipstick on a pig. We may get some new screening requirements and maybe even vapor recovery units – but this is all cosmetic. It does not address a deeper-rooted, systemic problem.
How do we label that problem? We may find some guidance from Amory Lovins’ 1976 essay Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken. Lovins contrasts our status-quo “hard” energy technology system (large-scale, centrally-managed, corporate-controlled) with a “soft” path that we could choose – one that is small-scale, tuned to context, and democratically/locally controlled.
Most prophetic are Lovins’ remarks about the politics of a hard technology system. No ordinance revisions will address these political problems. For those feeling frustrated, it may be precisely this realization: We are trying to democratize a system that is, in its essence, anti-democratic. It only gives us a few crumbs of power – perhaps to post ‘no smoking’ signs on pad sites, maybe to require some tree planting.
But the larger reality is that we are fundamentally disenfranchised. The frustration is that sickening feeling that it is more rational to simply acquiesce – to let the experts figure it out and to play the role of passive consumer enjoying, as Marcuse said, our “smooth, comfortable unfreedom.” Why spend so much time and energy trying to reform a system that does not compute your existence? The problem with natural gas is not this-or-that design flaw -- it is its hardness -- a massive system run by powerful, entrenched interests and managed by bureucrats and technocrats. No ordinance revision will change that reality.
Here is an excerpt from Lovins that I find particularly meaningful in light of Denton’s current situation, especially the ongoing questions about who has been crafting the ordinance (in never-ending closed sessions) and which priorities they represent:
The hard path, sometimes portrayed as the bastion of free enterprise and free markets, would instead be a world of subsidies, $100-billion bailouts, oligopolies, regulations, nationalization, eminent domain, corporate statism.
While soft technologies can match any settlement pattern, their diversity reflecting our own pluralism, centralized energy sources encourage industrial clustering and urbanization. While soft technologies give everyone the costs and benefits of the energy system he chooses, centralized systems allocate benefits to surburbanites and social costs to politically weaker rural agrarians. Siting big energy systems pits central authority against local autonomy in an increasingly divisive and wasteful form of centrifugal politics...
In an electrical world, your lifeline comes not from an understandable neighborhood technology run by people you know who are at your own social level, but rather from an alien, remote, and perhaps humiliatingly uncontrollable technology run by a faraway, bureaucratized, technical elite who have probably never heard of you. Decisions about who shall have how much energy at what price also become centralized—a politically dangerous trend because it divides those who use energy from those who supply and regulate it.
The scale and complexity of centralized grids not only make them politically inaccessible to the poor and weak, but also increase the likelihood and size of malfunctions, mistakes and deliberate disruptions. A small fault or a few discontented people become able to turn off a country…Societies may therefore be tempted to discourage disruption through stringent controls akin to a garrison state. In times of social stress, when grids become a likely target for dissidents, the sector may be paramilitarized and further isolated from grass-roots politics.
Any demanding high technology tends to develop influential and dedicated constituencies of those who link its commercial success with both the public welfare and their own. Such sincerely held beliefs, peer pressures, and the harsh demands that the work itself places on time and energy all tend to discourage such people from acquiring a similarly thorough knowledge of alternative policies and the need to discuss them. Moreover, the money and talent invested in an electrical program tend to give it disproportionate influence in the counsels of government, often directly through staff-swapping between policy- and mission-oriented agencies. This incestuous position, now well developed in most industrial countries, distorts both social and energy priorities in a lasting way that resists political remedy.