Energy and Ethics

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In the Energy and Science section, we learned that there are many advantages to using renewable energy sources instead of non-renewable energy sources. The science section emphasized that unlike coal, oil, or gas, the renewable energies of the sun, wind, water, and geothermal are

  • Clean: using renewable energies lowers carbon (CO2) emissions
  • Accessible: most are available everywhere in the world
  • Abundant: together, the supply is inexhaustible
  • Sustainable: they can support ecosystems and ensure future availability

The benefits of renewable energy are clear. Yet, approximately 80% of the energy human beings use around the world still comes from non-renewable sources that are environmentally destructive. There are many reasons why this is the case, including:

  • Economic and political systems of the developed world which are deeply rooted in fossil fuel use
  • Lifestyle habits of people in the developed world that are shaped by these economic and political systems and expend large amounts of non-renewable energy
  • The necessity for millions of people living in poverty in the underdeveloped world to burn biomass (especially wood) for energy

Closer Look

Take a look at this article published by the World Bank for a comprehensive description of development language.

We use the language of “development” here because it is currently the language most commonly used to differentiate wealthy nations from countries that are poor. Summarily we can say that, as it is used here, “development” refers to the quality of life that is made available to a society’s human inhabitants, and the level of that society’s economic growth. Countries in the developed world are rich in resources and commerce and offer a quality of life which provides easy access to education and health care, employment opportunities, availability of clean air and safe drinking water, safety from the threat of crime, and so on. Whereas underdeveloped countries are poor and the majority of citizens do not have access to even the most basic human needs, such as shelter, safe drinking water, and clean air.

Energy and Humans: A Brief History

The Emergence of Industrialized Energy

Human beings have burned coal for heat energy on a small scale since ancient times, but it was not until the eighteenth century, at the start of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, that energy technologies were created that had the capacity to consume non-stop an unlimited amount of coal for energy (such as the steam engine). As a result, the extraction and use of fossil fuels expanded across all of Europe, changing the lives of the people who lived there. This society-wide embrace of technology and use of fossil fuels for energy gave rise to what we call the ‘modern world’. Unfortunately, by the mid-nineteenth century, the widespread use of coal and other fossil fuels created problems of air and water pollution in Europe.

Coal, shown here in it's native and processed forms, is the first fossil fuel humans discovered as a source of energy.1

While Europe was initially producing this new fossil fuel technology during the eighteenth century, the economy in the United States was still rooted in organic, renewable energy sources. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the U.S. coal industry had grown into the world’s largest, fed from coal mines built across the Appalachian Mountains, through the Midwestern prairies, and into the Rocky Mountains.

Coal Mining Regions in the United States in 2010.1

This development was an industrial triumph that positioned the U.S. as a world power for the first time in history. It was also an environmental disaster. Within a few years of building the largest coal industry in the world, the United States had to face the same environmental pollution problems that had become commonplace in Europe.

A 2013 photograph of Shanghai China in midday, showing the air pollution emitted from China’s coal-fired power plants.1

In the early twentieth century, many believed that water, air, and human lungs could cleanse themselves of fossil fuel pollutants. However, in the twenty-first century this mistaken idea has completely vanished in the face of soil erosion, release of acid rain and particulate matter, spread of greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals, pollution of air and water, and warming of the atmosphere, all caused by large-scale fossil fuel consumption.

In 2014, the number of human deaths due to air pollution emitted by fossil fuel use in China was estimated at 670,000. It is also estimated that in the United States approximately 20,000 people die prematurely each year due to fossil fuel pollution. Furthermore, world estimates put the global rate of mortalities directly caused by the burning of fossil fuels at 3.1 million people per year.1 

Shifting from Non-renewable to Renewable Energy

Today, the principle challenge concerning energy is how to make the necessary shift from non-renewable to renewable energy, a shift that is long overdue. As noted above, this challenge is not solely a matter of changing energy technologies. It is also a matter of changing social systems and lifestyle habits. The dominant patterns of life, both individual and institutional, that have existed for two hundred years in developed countries will need to change.

The shift to renewable energy will require national governments and international organizations to develop and enforce new energy regulations. Businesses will need to make their valuation and use of energy transparent and add the ‘externality costs’ of environmental impact to their accounting method (called Triple Bottom Line Accounting; see figure below). People (especially in developed countries) will need to discontinue habits of life that waste energy.

‘Triple Bottom Line Accounting (TBL) is a method of full cost accounting that expands a business’s ‘bottom line’ calculation of profit and loss beyond labor and material expenses (economic costs) to costs of ensuring social fairness in business practices and product impact (social costs) and impacts of business operations on natural resources (environmental costs). Read more on the possibilities and difficulties of TBL accounting.1

Unfortunately, deeply-ingrained habits of life can be difficult to break. In developed countries today, fossil fuel generators produce an enormous quantity of unsustainable energy at a relatively low market cost. In the transition phase from unsustainable to sustainable energy, many people (especially in developed nations) will be called upon to both reduce their energy consumption and pay more for the energy they use.

Furthermore, it is not only individual people who resist making lifestyle changes, but also political and economic institutions, which typically favor stable routine over transformation. At all levels, change can be threatening and difficult. It requires us to rethink our priorities, look at our fundamental values, and make serious decisions. In other words, significant change in energy sources, use, and policy forces institutions and individuals to confront ethical issues. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace affirms in its document Energy, Justice and Peace (hereafter EJP), “Energy transformations are never ethically neutral activities.”2

As we continue to consider the ethical issues raised by energy, let’s keep in mind the question posed at the end of the El Hierro case study from the beginning of this chapter:

  • What contribution do the moral principles, goals, and virtues of Healing Earth make to our ethical judgments about acquiring, using, and distributing energy?

Looking Back

To review the foundations and norms of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic, return to the Introduction.

Moral Principles and Energy

To address the environmental challenges of energy from a moral perspective, we return to the three foundations of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic, which affirm that:

  • the natural world has intrinsic value
  • the natural world has instrumental value
  • environmental sustainability balances nature’s intrinsic and instrumental values

This foundational ethic forms the basis for the more detailed ethical norms we need to guide our decisions about energy. These norms are expressed through moral principles, goals, and virtues.

Among the intrinsic values of the natural world, the sun’s solar energy ranks among one of the highest features. Solar energy (along with hydrothermal vents) is what makes biological life possible on Earth. By activating the planet’s life-giving processes, the sun enables plants to grow, rain to fall, and wind to blow. If food, water, and atmosphere are valuable in themselves, then their source of energy is likewise intrinsically valuable.

As an expression of our moral obligation to care for creation, we are called to draw on the energies of nature in ways that neither exhaust non-renewable sources nor impedes or damages renewable sources.

The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to designing solar energy systems for people living in energy poverty. SELF is a strong advocate of the right to energy.1

The challenge of transitioning to sustainable energy sources worldwide is a matter of human rights. Just as human beings have a right to the basic necessities of life, such as shelter, food, etc., all people also have a moral right of access to the energy they need for life. However, national governments around the world are yet to translate this moral right into a legal requirement. For example, 18% of the world’s population currently lives without electricity. Legal recognition of the right to energy would direct foreign aid and national infrastructure projects toward a more just distribution of energy resources so that all people could have access to electricity (as well as the other forms of energy they need).

To this end, the United Nations’ Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, named 2014 - 2024 as the Decade of Sustainable Energy for All. Throughout this decade, the U.N. will encourage governments and non-governmental organizations to make renewable and sustainable energy available to more people. One project included in this effort is the “global tracking framework,” which gathers baseline energy availability data from around the world and provides bi-annual updates on trends in energy access.

From a moral perspective, energy is also considered a common good; that is, a power that enables “social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.”3 The Energy, Justice and Peace (EJP) document further states:

Access to energy--and to the various energy sources or resources, as well as to all the other natural resources--is one of the conditions for today’s realization of the common good.4

The moral principles, goals, and virtues discussed in this section are further elaborated in the 2013 document from the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace entitled Energy, Justice and Peace: A Reflection on Energy in the Current Context of Development and Environmental Protection.1

While an individual person, company, or state institution may legally own an energy source (such as a coal mine, hydroelectric dam, or wind farm), ownership is only considered morally legitimate when the use of that energy neither harms human beings, nor destroys the sustainability of other living species.

As we have noted in the Biodiversity and Natural Resource chapters, the common good is grounded in the moral principle of the universal destination of earthly goods. According to this principle energy has a “universal destination”, it is to be used for all people, because it is a fundamental requirement for life. However, the moral principle of the universal destination of goods can conflict with the economic interests of individuals or nations who fail to acknowledge that the concept of “private property” was created by political and social interests. Therefore, although humans have created social methods to make private ownership of land and natural resources legal, EJP tells us that “[w]hatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to the universal destination of earthly goods.”5

Imagine that the air we breathe could be owned as private property. If you were not the owner of private air, then you would have to buy or rent it from someone who does. Imagine further that the owner who sells you air to breathe decides to raise the cost of air to a price that you cannot afford. What would happen to you? How would you get the air you need to breathe? You would have to either find less costly air for sale or rent air from a private owner (who will most likely charge you interest). Without air, humans (as well as other organisms that rely on elements of the atmosphere for life) would suffocate and die.

In the above scenario, we can recognize that the owner’s decision to raise the cost of air to an unaffordable price for his customers is morally reprehensible. Air, like energy, has a universal destination; it must be available to everyone because life depends on it. Allowing the ownership of air would only be morally justified if that ownership made air more easily accessible (than when it is not owned) to those who need it. In the case of the owner above, the opposite happens—the owner makes air less accessible to people who need it by raising the cost to an unaffordable price.

Moral ownership of energy--whether by individuals, municipalities, businesses, or states--must combine a just benefit to the owner with a sincere effort at improving clean energy distribution for the community. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops state in their Reflections on the Energy Crisis: “energy is a tool for fulfilling essential human needs. No energy policy is just which fails to meet these needs.”6

The moral principle of the preferential option for the poor calls us to find ways of making energy available to human beings who need it for survival. It is estimated that over three billion people in the world rely on traditional biomass, such as wood, for daily food preparation and heating (this is a little less than half of the world’s population). Additionally, an estimated 1.2 billion people in the world live without electricity. Even where electricity is available, millions of people cannot afford to buy it.

In the section below, we will use the virtue of justice as a lens through which we can examine in more depth the vast inequality between the energy abundance in developed countries and the energy poverty experienced in the developing world. Policies developed to address energy equality must also observe the principle of subsidiarity; that is, national and international organizations should be ready to give energy aid (subsidium) to local communities, but in so doing not restrict or eliminate the ability of smaller social units from taking environmentally sound energy initiatives on their own.

Questions to Consider

Imagine again that you live in a world where the air you breathe is subject to private ownership (whether by individuals, groups, or government institutions). In this case, imagine that you own all the air in your community. By selling the air you own to your neighbors, you sustain an income that comfortably supports you and your family.

  • Suppose an adult in your community is unable to work due to the onset of severe illness. Therefore, this neighbor no longer has the money to pay you for the air they breathe. What will you do with this customer? What moral principle/s will guide your decision?
  • Imagine that the factory which employs most of the people in your community slowed production, and therefore laid off 50% of the workers. Those who were not laid off had their hours decreased to part-time. As a result, most of the people in your community can no longer afford the sale price you charge for air. Without air, your neighbors will die. However, without their purchases to supply your income you will not be able to comfortably support your family. What will you do? What moral principle/s will guide your decision?

Moral Goals and Energy

If we take seriously the moral principles of the common good, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor then we are challenged to develop goals that honor these principles. The definitive moral goal of Healing Earth is to propose ways of making sustainable and renewable energy sources available to all people (i.e. energy justice for all). As Pope Francis remarked in his encyclical Laudato Si, "We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels--especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas--needs to be progressively replaced without delay."7

What is an electricity ‘grid’?
An electricity grid is an interconnected network of power-generating systems and high-voltage transmission lines that distributes power to customers. A national grid is an interconnected system of electrical power that is meant to serve the energy needs of an entire country. A mini-grid is an energy creation and distribution network that serves a localized group of consumers. An off-grid approach to energy production and use relies on sustainable practices that are not connected to either a national or mini-grid system of energy. Watch this instructive video on electrical generation and the grid.

In order to work toward this goal of energy justice for all, we must use different approaches. One approach to bringing about energy justice for all focuses on the immediate amelioration of the current wealth disparity that exists between individuals (or groups of people). The primary goal of this approach is to assist the poor in accessing the energy they need as soon as possible. For most countries, especially in the developing world, the moral urgency of this task will require blending the use of renewable and non-renewable energies in order to get energy to people living in poverty as quickly as possible. However, this approach provides only a short-term solution to the overall problem of energy justice because it continues to make use of nonrenewable forms of energy.  In some cases, the use of non-renewable energy will even be expanded.

According to the United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All effort discussed above, 2030 is the target date for making energy accessible to all people worldwide. It is estimated that 55% of the new electricity needed to meet this goal will have to come from mini-grid and off-grid sources. The rest will need to come from national electricity grid expansion.

Inspired People

Rickard [photo]

Deeply concerned about the environmental effects of nonrenewable energy, high school student Beth Rickard founded a Conservation and Renewable Energy (CARE) program in her school at Arcata, California. The program organized school and community presentations on renewable energy, provided information on how to install solar panels, and gave training sessions on how to do home energy audits. Her school is now 36% solar power, plus 50% of the money the schools saves in energy costs is put back into CARE for expanding its programs. Read more about this teenage energy hero.1

Achievement of UN’s goal of energy access to all by 2030 is also challenged by those who oppose continued use of non-renewable resources in order to provide energy to those who currently lack it. Such opponents believe that the development of renewable energy technologies will be stalled if energy access for all (regardless of its source) is the sole focus of energy justice action.

For example, some scientists argue that we will have to continue to rely on natural gas as a source of energy during the transition from reliance on non-renewable to renewable energy sources. Here natural gas would serve as a “bridge” while transitioning the energy sources used by the world’s national electricity grids. However, other scientists and ecologists fear that building a natural gas infrastructure that can sustain our energy needs while the transition is taking place will divert attention and action away from the development of renewable energy technologies, which is what will make the transition away from non-renewable energy sources possible. In light of this concern, a balanced transition must maintain momentum toward renewable energy technologies while addressing immediate energy inequality with a blend of renewal and non-renewable energy sources.

Listen to this U.S. debate over the pros and cons of natural gas as a bridge to a renewable energy future.

This is a good example of how we must weigh the value of our moral goal with the value of the means through which we achieve this goal. Making moral judgments about ends and means can be difficult. This is an important and complex debate, but one that must be morally based on the ultimate goal of making sustainable and renewable energy sources available to all people.

Mindful of both tracks toward energy availability and sustainability, the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace calls for a “New Energy Paradigm” in EJP. This paradigm seeks the “sustainable development of energy systems” for all people.8  EJP further explains that the goal of universal access to renewable energy must:

  • set up some form of management of energy economy and finance
  • foster sustainable behavior by private and public bodies, and by civil society in general

Questions to Consider

Think about what activities make you happy? Do any of these activities depend on electrical energy? If so, how? If not, why not?

As you grow older do you think you will use more or less electricity energy than you use now? Explain your answer.

What are your personal moral goal/s with respect to energy?

Moral Virtues and Energy

Distinct from moral principles, which we are called to honor, and from the moral goals that we are urged to pursue, moral virtues are qualities of inner character that we are challenged to develop in our everyday life. In 1990, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that “the common good, both domestic and global, requires that we as individuals make sacrifices related to energy use.”9

Inspired People

Ngowi [photo]

In 2013, Patrick Ngowi was named Africa’s ‘Young Person of the Year’. Patrick is a business entrepreneur from Tanzania who has addressed the energy inequality in his country by creating and supplying a market for solar energy products. Patrick’s company, Helvetic Solar Contractors, has grown to $8 million in revenues, selling everything from solar panels and water heaters to battery packs, generators and back-up units. Look here for Patrick’s story.1

A willingness to make sacrifices for the common good is a moral virtue. However, making individual sacrifices for the common good conflicts with other values held by many developed societies, such as individual capital gain and comfortable living habits which rely heavily on non-renewable forms of energy. Therefore, a willingness to make individual sacrifices in order to achieve the goal of renewable energy access for all can also require courage in the face of opposition.

There are many people around the world who are working courageously for energy justice. Just one example is a group of Roman Catholic nuns who have publicly protested the development of a natural gas pipeline through the pristine mountains of central Kentucky. Their Energy Vision Statement has been signed by over 1,000 people and 125 faith-based organizations. You can sign it too, at

Making a sacrifice for the good of others is also an act of generosity.

Cadets from the US Military Academy work with Ugandan construction workers from Green Heat Uganda to build a biogas digester--a renewable energy source that uses waste and food scraps to generate heat for cooking.1

Action based on the virtues of courage and generosity are familiar to us all; think of parents who make sacrifices every day for the good of their children, or of soldiers laying down their lives for the lives of other men and women. Even in business and commerce, employees often work unpaid hours for the benefit of their companies. Individuals who live in developed countries and practice energy conservation are also making a sacrifice for the sake of the common good of the human family and of the Earth itself. In this way, we can all practice the moral virtues of courage and generosity.

Some may consider such actions not sacrifices at all, but rather expressions of temperance; that is, acts of moderation in the consumption of energy. Living in a way that is guided by the temperate use of energy is the opposite of what Pope John Paul II called a life of “absolutized consumerism”.10

Closer Look

Watch the Story of Stuff (2007), a 20-minute video that exposes the underside of unsustainable production and consumption patterns and the social issues they cause. For more information about the project behind this video, visit the Story of Stuff webpage.

Human beings who ‘absolutize’ consumerism (consumption of material goods and services) define their personal happiness according to the amount of material goods that they can amass and consume. No one is born with this definition of happiness. One must be taught to value wealth and the accumulation of goods over other things, such as energy conservation.

In the developed world, there is no shortage of businesses with product marketing campaigns eager to convince us that happiness is found in consuming and accumulating material goods. This persuasive, yet hollow perspective drives an ever-expanding, wasteful process of consumption of Earth’s energy.11

Alongside temperance, the moral virtue of prudence also warns against the wasteful use of energy rooted in unlimited consumerism. Recall that using energy sustainably means using energy resources in a way that preserves ecosystems and ensures that future generations can meet their energy needs. Prudence is the wisdom of taking precautionary action in the present for the sake of the future.

Future generations are not the only people missing from the perspective of those who seek happiness through absolutized consumerism. People living in poverty are also missing from this perspective.  A person who practices the virtue of justice always keeps others--especially the poor--in view. The just person puts herself in the place of the other in order to check whether or not the other’s life is degraded by her actions. From a group perspective, we can see that the lifestyles of a mere fraction of the world’s total population draw a disproportionate share of the Earth’s energy, while the poor of the world unduly suffer from that use, by living in societies that suffer from both degraded natural environments and escalating political violence due to scarce energy resources.

This famous lithograph Jesus in the Breadline by Fritz Eichenberg reminds Christians that moral decisions must consider the situation of others, especially the poor.1

The moral life also includes the virtues of gratitude and kindness. In the case of energy, this means that virtuous people receive and use energy with gratitude, always mindful that it is a gift which makes all of life possible. As Pope Benedict XVI emphasized in his encyclical letter Caritas in veritate (Charity in truth), “gratuitousness should contribute to the solidarity-based management of this precious gift [of energy]”.12 Care for others in view of their energy needs is a kindness rooted in human solidarity and gratitude for the natural world.

When Pope Benedict XVI speaks of the “gift” of energy, the gift-giver he refers to is God. In the Roman Catholic Christian faith tradition, gratitude is the proper response to God for the blessing of life-giving energy. What is the spiritual importance of energy in other religions of the world? Does energy have any spiritual significance in your life? The next section on Energy and Spirituality invites you to explore these questions.

Questions to Consider

‘Absolute consumerism’ is the phrase that Pope John Paul II used to describe a lifestyle wherein a person finds their core identity and purpose in the never-ending and ever-greater acquisition of material goods and services. Although all of us must consume material goods and services to live, absolute consumerism expends vast amounts of energy.

  • What signs would you look for in order to recognize when someone has moved from temperate consumption of material goods to ‘absolute consumerism’?
  • What signs are present in the way in which someone uses energy that you can rely on to identify ‘absolute consumerism’?