The Tofflers on Energy Policy

As Virginia evolves toward a Knowledge-based wealth creation system, we need to take a fresh look at state-level energy policy. As Alvin and Heidi Toffler observe in their book, “Revolutionary Wealth,” America’s energy economy has not adapted as quickly as dynamic sectors of the economy.

Industrial America was built on the back of cheap fossil fuels and an immense infrastructure for distributing energy around the country. Costly and overdependent on imported oil and gas, the American energy-distribution system includes 159,000 miles of electrical-transmission lines and 2 million miles of oil pipelines that, because they are heavy fixed assets, are hard to alter in response to rapid change.

The United States is rushing to build an advanced knowledge-based economy but remains saddled with an industrial-age, legacy energy system politically defended by some of the world’s biggest and most influential corporations against a growing, growling public demand for fundamental change in the system. The conflict is not usually posed in these terms, but it is, in fact, an example of Second Wave vs. Third Wave warfare.

Unfortunately, the Tofflers provide even fewer specifics about a “Third Wave” energy sector than they do about the “Third Wave” transportation sector, so it is not clear what they have in mind. Allow me to hazard a few guesses.

A Third Wave, knowledge-based energy economy would, first and foremost, consume energy far more efficiently than we do today. Secondly, it would be more decentralized than the system we have today.

We would see more “distributed generation,” relying less upon giant power plants connected by gargantuan power transmission lines and more upon local, small-scale power generators and energy sources. We would see more “smart” meters that allow consumers to track their electric consumption minute by minute, not month by month. We would see rate structures that reward consumers for conserving energy or for shifting consumption to off-peak periods of the day and off-peak seasons. Similarly, we would see rate structures that require businesses and homeowners to pay their full locational costs — if it costs more to supply energy to a certain location, they would pay more.

A Third Wave energy economy would support the research of promising new technologies and remove barriers to the use of “green” fuels such as solar, wind and bio-fuels (but it would allow market mechanisms to dictate the pace at which such technologies were adopted).

A Third Wave energy economy would seek not only to develop more gasoline-efficient automobiles but would encourage Virginians to drive less by developing more energy-efficient human settlement patterns — i.e. human settlement patterns that would allow people to fulfill their needs with fewer and shorter automobile trips.

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6 responses to “The Tofflers on Energy Policy”

  1. Now you are talking sense, all but that last one.

    No matter how you design things, there will always be more opportunities in a larger radius than a smaller one. You cannot simply design away the desire to travel.

  2. E M Risse Avatar


    You did not mention Balance as in Balanced Communites.

    Energy consumption could be cut by a factor of 10 by creating Balanced Communities. Energy is the easiest place to start to prove to oneself that the 10X Rule is a Natural Law.

    Those who want to profit from dysfunctional settlement patterns try to sweep the facts under the rug of distorted analysis. Our next column will address this issue.


  3. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Ed, I meant to encompass the concept of Balanced Communities under the rubric of “more energy-efficient human settlement patterns.” An energy-efficient pattern of development will, of course, have a balance of jobs, housing, shops, entertainment, amenities, etc., allowing people to pursue their daily activities with fewer and shorter automobile trips.

  4. Ed, where is the data? How bout some example of commuhnities with similar numbers of people where one uses 10x less energy than another?

    The one example I can think of is about the guy who was first an industrial or manufacturing engineer who later became an anthropologist. He used his experience in time and motion studies to go study the work week of various African tribes.

    What he found was the least urbanized hunter gatherers worked far less than the more settled farmer ranchers, and a whole lot less than those which were urbanized.

    Then of course there is the question of how well they lived and what they had to live with.

    I’m wlling to believe that we can make some energy savings, but 10x just isn’t credible. And I don’t see any evidence yet that arranging the deckchairs differently is going to keep people from drowning.

    Just because there is a balance of stuff nearby doesn’t mean that people will actually use them. You can buy wine at the 7-11, yet people drive hundreds of miles to go on the winery tours.

  5. When you look at Arlington, which has had a thirty year, multimillion dollar experiment with Metro oriented development, only to find that they have a higher percentage than ever of people commuting out of the county, by car, then what can you possibly think?

    This is in spite of more residents and more jobs inside the county.

    I’m open to real data that makes a difference, I actually hope you are right, but I just don’t see the evidence.

    If Arlington doesn’t work, then where is the place that offers fewer and shorter auto trips?

    Look, if (when) I choose to, I know I can make a living, of sorts, right here on the farm (No health insurance.) I have a lot of skills. If I choose to, I can drive five or twenty miles and make a living fixing air conditioners, installing burglar alarms for the mansions around me, sawing logs, or driving a bobcat, or selling and repairing tractors.

    I’m not proud. Those are all honorable professions.

    BUT, I find that for the price of a couple of gallons of gas per day, I can make an extra,$75,000 per year, or so.

    EVEN, if Larry is right, and I OUGHT, to pay another $15.00 in tolls per day, it wouldn’t make any difference. The conclusion would be the same. It is worth the cost and time to drive.

    It would take a MAJOR change in costs to change the equation.

    I would not like it. Particularly since the farm already gave up sixty acres for the highway I am supposed to be ashamed to use, but the answer would be the same. It is still worth it to drive, quite some distance.

    AND, I would likely add as much of the cost as I can to my farm customers. There is no free lunch.

    Is the distance I drive a waste? Of course not. In the first place it is worth more money to me, and in the second place it makes the jobs I refuse more valuable to those that wish to have them. I might actually hire those people some day.

    Every thing that goes around, comes around. (Aging ultraconservative Hippy at Work.)

    I have worked hard to avoid the kinds of problems you describe, yet, here I am (at present.) It sucks (presently), I have to say, but it still sucks less than the alternatives.

    Looking around me, and looking at the evidence, I see a lot more people like me, than I see of the hypothetical people/situations you describe. I see all of them as working as hard as they can to avoid the same problems. You see thm as people eliberately “making bad choices”.

    Consequently, I cannot put a lot of stock in the hypotheses you describe.

    I don’t have all the metrics. But I do have feelings and intuitions. I know that if the sea state or wind changes in the middle of the night it will wake me up to change sails. I know that careful observation of what is around me immediately can alert me to conditions I cannot see or measure.

    You can drop anchor in the fog, and on a muddy bottom, and a lee shore if you like: you can have as many opinions as you like about where you are, but it is not an enterprise I am likely to take much stock in.

    I want soundings, bearings, GPS, RDF, star sights, the scent of land, sound of traffic on the beach, foghorns, Coast Guard on the radio, and speaking other ships, and still I will be overly cautious about making unfounded assumptions.

    Show me the metrics. Or, show me the experience.

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “EVEN, if Larry is right, and I OUGHT, to pay another $15.00 in tolls per day, it wouldn’t make any difference. The conclusion would be the same. It is worth the cost and time to drive.”

    I agree and I believe most folks who answer POLLs agree. Even $20-$30 a day for TOLLs is going to be something on the order of 1/2 to one hours worth of higher-salary pay. ($100K .. works out to about $40-$50 per hour.

    If you sign up for EZPass .. you’d get a monthly bill on the order of $600 or more IF you drive every day at rush hour – SOLO.

    So .. yes.. folks are not going to NOT drive for the higher salary – especially when many have a higher mortgage to go with it – but I do believe that a %600 monthly bill will not be summarily ignored either. It WILL change behaviors but I’m thinking it will change commuting behaviors before it changes behaviors with respect to choices about places to live.

    Right or wrong or indifferent.. when Mom and Dad have kids – the idea that their safety is assured only if you cocoon them almost every waking hour within the confines of an apartment or other similiar shoehorn-type living environment is going to be easily out competed by a home on a 1/4 acre lot with a backyard… others like you.. moms/dads/kids, schools NOT populated by gangs of street-tough kids, etc.

    I think personal safety is a significant factor for both self and family that affects people’s decisions about where to live.

    Having said that.. it’s clear that there ARE viable venues for safe New Urbanism projects… but I think they’re better suited to folks without kids.

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