“Energy,” said William Blake, “is Eternal Delight.” And the scientific prognosticators of our time have begun to speak of the eventual opening, for human use, of “infinite” sources of energy. In speaking of the use of energy, then, we are speaking of an issue of religion, whether we like it or not.
For Wendell Berry, a main tenet of religion is its binding us to a source of life. And that source must be destroyed.
They [humans] can only refine or convert it. And they are bound to it by one of the paradoxes of religion: they cannot have it except by losing it; they cannot use it except by destroying it. The lives that feed us have to be killed before they enter our mouth; we can only use fossil fuels by burning them up. We speak of electrical energy as “current”: it exists only while it runs away; we use it only by delaying its escape. To receive energy is at once to live and to die. (81)
We debate “peak oil” and “oil depletion” and understand the oil supply is fixed due to the incredible amount of time needed to convert plankton and bacteria to petroleum. We understand that populations of salmon and tuna are limited, and we offer fish farms as an alternative to wild catches because we have dangerously overfished the oceans. We know that injecting high pressure fluids into deep-rock formations to remove gas and petroleum risks water contamination and adverse health effects due to gases and fracking chemicals reaching the surface. We’ve learned that the use of pesticides can damage soil and contaminate the food chain. We study how coal-fired power plants generate ash and sludge containing mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic and other heavy metals. We bemoan the genetically-modified chicken and its short, nasty, brutish life which fulfills Thomas Hobbes’ view of humanity.
The difficulty with mechanically extractable energy is that so far we have been unable to make it available without serious geological and ecological damage, or to effectively restrain its use, or to use or even neutralize its wastes. From birth, right now, we are carrying the physical and the moral poisons produced by our crude and ignorant use of this sort of energy. And the more abundant the energy of this sort that we use, the more abounding must be consequences. (84)
For Berry to write “moral poison” gestures back to the Ancient Greeks and the meaning of miasma–stain, defilement, the taint of guilt; of persons, a pollution. Remember Sophocles’ play Oedipus Tyrannus. A plague has fallen across the city of Thebes and the surrounding land. Here Oedipus addresses his fellow-citizens in Robert Fagles translation.
A blight on the fresh crops
and the rich pastures, cattle sicken and die,
and the women die in labor, children stillborn,
and the plague, the fiery god of fever hurls down
on the city, his lightning slashing through us–
raging, plague in all its vengeance, devastating
the house of Cadmus! And black Death luxuriates
in the raw, wailing miseries of Thebes. (31-38)
Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon has been sent to the Delphic oracle to discover from the god Apollo the source of their woe. Creon returns and reveals all. These lines appear in the Hugh Lloyd-Jones translation as part of the Loeb Classical Library.
I will tell you what I heard from the god. The lord Phoebus orders us plainly to drive out from the land a pollution, one that has been nourished in this country, and not to nourish it till it cannot be cured. (95-98)
You know the story, Oedipus is the pollution not to be nurtured, to be driven out because unwittingly he has killed his father, the former king of Thebes, and married his mother. Because the murderer of Laius has not been brought to justice, a plague ravages Thebes. A moral crime has natural consequences–there is no separation from what we do and the world. However, Berry finds a distinction to be made between mechanical energy and biological energy.
The moral order appropriate to the use of biological energy, on the other hand, requires the addition of a third term: production, consumption, and return. It is the principle of return that complicates matters, for it requires responsibility, care, of a different and higher order than that required by production and consumption alone, and it calls for methods and economies of a different kind. In an energy economy appropriate to the use of biological energy, all bodies, plant and animal and human, are joined in a kind of energy community. (85)
The practical answer and philosophical approach may be found in Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament.
The capital of the nations which is real, permanent, and independent of everything except a market for the products of farming, is the soil. To utilize and also to safeguard this important possession the maintenance of fertility is essential.
In the consideration of soil fertility many things besides agriculture proper are involved–finance, industry, public health, the efficiency of the population, and the future of civilization.
The Industrial Revolution by creating a new hunger–that of the machine–and a vast increase in the urban population, has encroached seriously on the world’s store of fertility. A rapid transfer of the soil’s capital is taking place. This expansion in manufacture and in population would have made little or no difference had the waste products of the factory and the town been faithfully returned to the land. But this has not been done. Instead, the first principle of agriculture has been disregarded: growth has been speeded up, but nothing has been done to accelerate decay. Farming has become unbalanced. The gap between the two halves of the wheel of life has been left unbridged, or it has been filled by a substitute in the shape of artificial manures. The soils of the world are either being worn out and left in ruins, or are being slowly poisoned. All over the world our capital is being squandered. The restoration and maintenance of soil fertility has become a universal problem. (235)