An Island-wide Energy Blowout Party

To: The National Energy Conference
From: Robin Winkler
Taiwan Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association
wildatheart.org.tw
21 June 2005

Time to Question Assumptions (2): Energy

Against the background of developments in “cold fusion” several decades ago there was talk of “energy too cheap to meter,” a phrase that seems to come up in the context of nuclear energy time and again. An unlimited supply of cheap, clean and stable energy - everyone’s dream, and especially attractive to the imported energy dependent Taiwanese as we conclude these two days of discussions on global warming, responses to Kyoto, keeping a balance between the environment and the economy, and jump-starting a host of new business opportunities.

Allow me to digress. Humans first inhabited Taiwan about 15,000 years ago. Paleolithic, Neolithic peoples flourished throughout the island over these millennia and today Taiwan is graced with traces of these original human inhabitants, the approximately 2% of our population comprised of twelve recognized tribes and a number of asyet unrecognized indigenous peoples.

Digressing even further to about 2.5 million years ago, the land mass we know as Taiwan, for what was probably the third time, emerged from the Pacific Ocean through the collision of Philippine and Eurasian continental plates. That uplifting continues today, as does the gradual northeasterly drift of Taiwan, both phenomena explaining in part Taiwan’s high mountains and geologic unpredictability. In this environment of severe instability over four thousand plants and at least 400,000 insects and other animal species developed such that Taiwan is said to be second in the world in terms of diversity based on land mass of a country.

While records of Chinese visits to the island go back to the 11th century, outside contact really began with the Dutch and Portugese in the 17th century, followed by the Chinese migrations, Japanese invasions, and other incursions by a wide range of other opportunists and adventurers, including the author. Without exception, these visitors, upon arrival in Taiwan, were struck with the island’s natural abundance andbeauty.

We could thus say that these indigenous plants, people and other animals managed very well in Taiwan for quite some time.

So, in the space of 400 years, the western and eastern cultures have taught the native Taiwanese some serious lessons about civilization, technology and, of course, about energy. All this within a period that amounts to about .016% of the time Taiwan has existed as an island, or less than 3% of the time that Taiwan was “managed” by indigenous peoples using low or no technology andminimum amounts of energy, at least in the senses of those words “technology” and “energy” that we use today.

We have had what has amounted to an island-wide, 400 year-long energy blowout party during which the “new Taiwanese” (Europeans, Chinese, Japanese) have shown the natives how things can be with no holds barred on the burdens we place on the global environment, and with no limits to what we can achieve when “energy” is cheap and technology is abundant.

The scorecard today? Half of Taiwan’s rivers are seriously polluted, nearly all are dammed or are threatened with numerous water diversion projects (dams, irrigation, etc.), we have the highest population density in the world if the inhabitable mountainous areas are excluded, the world’s highest density of nuclear power plants, second highest use of cement per capita, one of the highest levels of species extirpation in the world due to over-building and habitat destruction, over 30 percent of our ocean shore is covered in cement or by one of the 240 fishing ports, and in the meantime, suicide, divorce, crime, cancer and mental illness are rapidly rising.

Any connection between these unfortunate attributes of modern society and our excessive use of “energy” and “technology”?

When humans have had access to limitless amounts of the kinds of “energy” that have propelled industrial revolution and the conquest and assimilation of indigenous peoples around the world, the record has not been good. Of course establishing a “cause and effect” relationship between the “unmetered” energy that Taipower gives to the Tao people of Orchid Island so that they can keep their air-conditioners running day and night – regardless of whether anyone is at home – and the demise of their culture, is not easy to do. But other than because some company’s public relations department tells us so, or because some government official being paid off by that company supports the company’s PR, why should we continue to believe the message implicit in every government and business utterance that the more energy we have, the happier we will be, or the better it will be for society?

The Tao of Orchid Island suffered near complete devastation of their traditional culture when their original homes were bulldozed at the insistence of Madame Chiang Kaishek so that they could live in what she believed were “decent” homes made of concrete and rebar. Further blows came with the storage of Taipower’s nuclear waste on the island in what was supposed to have been a canning factory. One wonders what is next for the Tao people after a few years of “free energy.”

So we ask the sponsors and the presenters of the National Energy Conference: Based on the record of Europeans, Americans, Chinese and Japanese to date, do we really want more of this stuff in cheap and unlimited quantities?

If we were to tap cheap, inexhaustible energy, … it would be “like giving a machine gun to an idiot child”.

Donella Meadows quotes Paul Ehrlich in one of her columns, reprinted in The Global Citizen.