Prior to the first official Earth Day on April 22, 1970, what news coverage there was of energy issues consisted primarily of technical analyses of industrial processes and stories about rate adjustments. These stories were not attractive fare for general assignment reporters, who usually lacked the necessary technical expertise to effortlessly translate the complex into the comprehensible, much less make it scintillating reading. Moreover, few journalists had either the motivation or time to acquire the know-how this assignment would require. The stories usually had little impact, even when accurate, given that such articles often seemed better suited for geologists, chemists, engineers and statisticians than John Q. Public.
During those days, an endless supply of cheap energy was taken for granted by Americans, so there didn’t seem much raw material for general-interest stories about energy-related issues in daily newspapers. Fuel sticker shock was reserved for those who ventured beyond the borders of the United States.
But in the 1970’s, it became increasingly evident that inexpensive energy might not be as infinite as we had originally thought. The 1973 Arab oil embargo was the first jolt. It was followed by the late renowned geophysi-cist M. King Hubbert’s well publicized projections of oil deposits’ finite nature. The “net energy” hypotheses of University of Florida ecology Professor Howard T. Odum—that it takes energy to produce energy—created additional trauma. Odum’s deceptively simple, yet revolutionary, premise can be illustrated as follows: If nine gallons of fuel are required to operate an industrial process that produces 10 gallons of finished product, then only one (not 10) gallon of new fuel have, in effect, entered the marketplace.
Newspapers Reject His Energy Message
In a six-part series of columns I wrote in the final months of 1973, I explored potential ramifications of Odum’s far-reaching theory. My reward for shining a spotlight on energy, specifically on Odum’s perspicacity, was that 13 newspapers—representing approximately one-third of my clientele at the time—cancelled my nationally syndicated environmental column. Such a simultaneous cancellation was highly unusual, and even though these news organizations wouldn’t directly say so, I knew their response was in reaction to this series.
What did they find so threatening about the topic of net energy? Most likely it was the suggestion of an end to the cheap, plentiful supply of energy that fueled America’s great prosperity in the second half of the 20th century. Such a thought raised the prospect of some energy shortages, higher prices, and at least a temporary downturn in the economy at a later date. In this series of columns, I examined net energy’s implications for lifestyle change, stressing the pressures to end conspicuous consumption. Continuing in that vein, I wrote of the need for us to put greater emphasis on recycling and reuse of materials. From the newspapers’ perspective, all these changes raised the specter of a decline in advertising revenues.
Net energy’s ramifications for agriculture and transportation were also significant. Our nation’s farmers were among the most energy inefficient food producers in the world because of their heavy use of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. This, too, was not something newspapers wanted to hear, especially those located in the farm belt. Net energy’s lesson for transportation was greater emphasis on “people energy” in the forms of walking and biking, a switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles, and increased use of public transit. The message undoubtedly rankled those newspapers that relied on highly profitable automobile advertising supplements.
Odum argued that products should be priced by how much energy was needed to make them, not by some contrived dollars and cents measure. I guess my temerity at treating such a thought seriously was enough for some editors to relegate me to the loony bin.
Initially, I was stunned at the visceral reaction to the series but, upon reflection, realized that Odum’s hypothesis raised some uncomfortable questions, not only for newspapers, but also for many other segments of American society.
Energy as a Front-Page Story
As we headed into the 1980’s, the fear of oil embargoes and surge of dire supply forecasts faded with a return to an energy glut (however fabricated). Nonetheless, energy was fast becoming a more expansive and popular story line, and this phenomenon was reflected in how frequently I wrote about the subject in my column.
Reporters began to flock to this emerging beat and receive more assignments for their enterprise because energy use was increasingly being linked to pollution, various public health issues, transportation questions, wilderness preservation, and adequate food and medicine supplies. In another decade, energy would be drawn directly into the national security debate because of energy facilities’ vulnerability to terrorist attacks. In short, by the time the 21st century arrived, a realization was growing that energy had an integral role in virtually every aspect of our lives. This added dimension propelled energy from the business page to the front page as it became not only a big story but, in many instances, the story.
During the past two decades, fewer articles have been published about the adequacy of future fossil fuel supplies. The previously mentioned artificial glut seems to have temporarily alleviated concern over energy shortages, as has the reassuring proposition that technological advances can squire us through a transition to the post-petroleum era without any need to cut back on our use of oil. Environmental hard news stories and advocacy columns such as mine have tended to focus on threats to wilderness preservation from energy development and the ecological impact of massive oil spills. The hazards of nuclear power proliferation and the adverse effects of industrial and vehicular fossil fuel emissions on air, water, wildlife and public health have also received more coverage.
There has been plenty of press on the battle to keep the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—America’s Serengeti—free of any oil rigs. Reams of copy have been written about the nuclear power plant melt-downs and subsequent contamination at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island and Russia’s Chernobyl facility. During the past two decades, journalists wrote about widespread thermonuclear warfare’s potential to wipe out life as we currently know it. Saddam Hussein’s igniting Kuwait oil wells in the first Gulf War sent black clouds swirling as far away as Europe and drew attention to the scientists who theorized about a “nuclear winter” in the aftermath of an atomic war. Under that concept, fallout from extensive nuclear explosions would circle the globe for months, blotting out the sun and causing devastation, famine and possibly a fatal setback to modern civilization.
More recently, energy coverage is branching out to include international terrorism and an evaluation of military strategy. Journalists have reported about how renewable sources of energy tend to be decentralized in contrast to a main power grid and thus less vulnerable to sabotage. Nuclear power plants make tempting targets for attack, and questions have been raised about the quality of their security. And there has been much discussion in the news media about just how much our military interventions were motivated by our need for a guaranteed supply of imported oil.
Because of its potential for reducing humanity’s reliance on “dirty” fossil fuels, renewable energy has been drawing increased press attention during the past two decades. With so much gloom and doom in the daily renditions of news, the prospect of clean, renewable energy sources, such as sun and wind power, has become grist for upbeat features. Yet the enthusiasm is not universal.
It is ironic that hard-core conservatives, who routinely promote technology as the path to societal salvation, regard renewable energy with suspicion. Many consider environmentalists’ advocacy of renewable energy a challenge to the capitalistic primacy of giant utilities that manage the nation’s main power grids. Hence, conservative critics take every opportunity to question the practicality of renewable energy’s widespread application. And this political bias is ideologically bolstered by the decentralized infrastructure of renewable energy and need for generous government subsidies to gain competitive parity with conventional energy sources in the marketplace. (That the U.S. government heavily subsidizes the fossil fuel industry is conveniently ignored.)
Conservatives dismiss widespread use of such energy alternatives as exotic figments of a science fiction writer’s imagination. By contrast, those who champion renewables vehemently argue that without these sources, a sustainable energy future is likely beyond our reach. It is a controversy that makes for good copy, even for general assignment reporters.
Although there is much more awareness of energy’s importance in our daily existence, energy pervasiveness is all too often still not appreciated, even by those who report regularly on it. We see this in the news media and public’s frequent failure to recognize energy’s vital, if sometimes oblique, influence on such knotty problems as urban sprawl and escalating food prices. Of greatest significance is the wariness journalists display in exploring what lifestyle changes future energy supply and demand will almost certainly impose. Perhaps this reluctance is not unlike the reaction to my columns of more than 30 years ago. Some editors seem reluctant to rock the boat. But isn’t it their job to do so?
Edward Flattau is the author of “Evolution of a Columnist” (Xlibris Corporation, 2003). During the past three decades, Flattau’s twice-a-week environmental column appeared in as many as 120 daily newspapers and has received 10 national journalism awards.