In the 2006 State of the Union Address, U.S. President George W. Bush admitted that the American economy had a serious problem with oil. “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.”� While there may be some quibble with the terms of addiction here, in that asking the current economy to give up oil is like asking a person to give up oxygen, the metaphor is poignant in allowing us to think such an addiction can be tamed, even transformed, through collective effort and willpower. What follows in the speech, however, is a strange pride in the statistic that since 2001, the U.S. has spent “$10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources — and we are on the threshold of incredible advances.” What President Bush did not go on to detail is that since 1980, a peak year, total energy research and development spending has fallen by 68% (World Energy Council 2007). (See Figure 1 below.) For such a serious addiction, energy research spending was cut drastically under Regan in 1986, and under the Clinton administration, spending hit a 26-year low in 1999.

The only administration that increased spending on energy research since 1980 was under George H.W. Bush. However, in 2007, spending on alternative energy research seems to be on the rise in both the private and public sectors. In the 2007 U.S. Federal Budget, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science is receiving a 14.1% increase in funds, with a significant percentage being put into Basic Energy Sciences. Overall, considering the scope and severity of the problem, this is still merely a drop in the tank.

 US national investments in energy R&D, 1974-99.
Figure 1. US national investments in energy R&D, 1974-99.
From: World Energy Council

It is not worth pondering long as to how many technological thresholds could have been crossed already if spending on energy research had continued along a 1980 level of commitment. The race for new low-emission renewable energy sources is beginning again, and this time it is not likely to stop. New energy technologies are likely to impact most every sector of the economy, from transportation to building and agriculture to industry. However, simply funding further research into newer energy technologies, does not guarantee fair and equitable results over the long-term. Some solutions are likely to benefit some populations, while they further exacerbate the living conditions of others. For example, the rising prices of corn in North America for use in ethanol production, mainly by the U.S., are already causing a significant increase in food prices for poorer citizens in Mexico. (Roig-Franzia 2007) The reason is that such corn is also used to feed chickens, thus impacting poultry, beef, eggs, and milk prices. So, to simply follow the current path of corn ethanol in E85 measures would put our fuel tanks in further competition with our stomachs. (Note: E85 is a standard where ethanol comprises 85% of the fuel.) On the other hand, if we were able to perfect a process to separate the protein from the sugars in the corn, we could feed the protein to cattle and fowl, while using the sugars to develop ethanol. Removing the sugar from the corn would also result in much fewer ‘cow burps,’ which are a major source of the greenhouse gas, methane.

Ethically, for reasons of environmental justice and towards meeting the goals of sustainable development, further research into alternative energy sources is an imperative for all nations capable of such research and development. A failure to increase research into alternative energy sources is unethical, in that it not only favors the current status quo in relation to energy infrastructure, and among other reasons, it increases the burden of costs for future generations in the both the clean-up of higher levels of atmospheric carbon as well as the inevitable costs to further innovate. However it is neither wise, economical, nor just to proceed developing certain sectors of alternative energy technologies without a proper analysis of the ethical dimensions of various proposed strategies.

One year later, in the 2007 State of the Union Address, President G.W. Bush called for the reduction of gasoline usage by 20 percent over the next 10 years. The President further argues that, “to reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 — and that is nearly five times the current target.” The main arguments for adopting these alternative fuel measures mainly concern issues around energy security, particularly in cutting total imports and further securing the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve against foreign (hostile) interests. Though the President does hint that new energy technologies will help us confront the serious challenge of global climate change, the stress is upon national security issues rather than the consequences of harms caused by failure to reduce GHG emissions. Because of this, technological strategies that have widely different environmental impacts such as greater use of clean coal technologies, wind, solar, nuclear, and biofuels (ethanol and biodiesels) are categorized together. This is a serious problem in that each of these technological paths engenders widely different ethical considerations that need to be taken into account based on their own contexts and contributions to environmental impacts, and not folded neatly together under the rubric of anti-terrorism legislation.

This post begins a series of articles here on that will evaluate the ethical dimensions of various alternative energy strategies. Following essays will analyze the ethical dimensions of each energy strategy, including questions of distributive justice, landscape and land-use ethics, unintended risks or consequences, and ethical issues involved in the exclusive reliance on market measures. We intend in future posts to examine the ethical dimensions of renewables and non-renewables, such as biofuels, wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, cleaner coal, and other fossil fuel possibilities.


Erich W. Schienke
Rock Ethics Institute
Science, Technology and Society Program
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA

Adler, Paul , Stephen J. Del Grasso, and William J. Parto. “Life-Cycle Assessment of Net Greenhouse-Gas Flux for Bioenergy Cropping Systems ” Ecological Applications 17, no. 3 (2007): 675-91.

Roig-Franzia, Manuel. “A Culinary and Cultural Staple in Crisis.” Washington Post, Saturday, January 27 2007.

World Energy Council. “Energy Technologies for the Twenty-First Century: Total Energy RD&D Expenditure: Country Summaries: United States�” Accessed, June 20th 2007.

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3 Responses to An Initial Ethical Evaluation of Alternative Energy Strategies: Introduction

  1. The time for employing alternative energy solutions is now.Did you hear about glacier in greenland that is melting at 2x the rate it used to every year? Makes me feel much better to use my own solar panels rather than paying the electric bill.

  2. dbaker says:

    how ethical is this?

    Dennis Baker
    103-66 duncan ave west
    penticton bc canada V2A6Z3
    cell 250-462-2771
    fax 250-493-3463
    RE : The solution to climate change.
    ( human excrement + nuclear waste = hydrogen )
    The USA discharges Trillions of tons of sewage annually, sufficient quantity to sustain electrical generation requirements of the USA.
    Redirecting existing sewage systems to containment facilities would be a considerable infrastructure modification project.
    It is the intense radiation that causes the conversion of organic material into hydrogen, therefore what some would consider the most dangerous waste because of its radiation would be the best for this utilization.
    I believe the combination of clean water and clean air, will increase the life expectance of humans.
    yours sincerely
    Dennis Baker

  3. mpard says:

    Why We Need Energy Alternative

    We are in the midst of an energy crisis. The price of a gallon of gas is sky high and there is a great deal of trouble-brewing in the Middle East, Iraq and Iran and other areas. These problems have made it clear to many United States citizens that we have an oil-driven economy.

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