Last month I attended a computational science conference in Washington D.C. The organizers of this particular conference are big into helping the students who attend make connections in town. To this end, they try to set up meetings between the students and congressional staffers from our home or school districts. In some cases we’re ever able to meet the congress members themselves.
Somehow they manged to cram me into three meetings into a single afternoon, and I found myself getting blisters on top of blisters hiking circles around the Capitol complex to meet with staffers in the offices of Rep. Barney Frank (MA), Senator John Kerry (MA), and Rep. Maurice Hinchey (NY). Meeting staffers can feel awkward and frustrating, particularly if you don’t have an agenda. Even if you do have an agenda, you might not get more than “The representative is a strong supporter of all the issues you mentioned.” I might write more about my strategy for these meetings later. For now, I want to talk about a particular comment that came up in Senator Kerry’s office.
A group of four graduate students had been scheduled to meet with one of Senator Kerry’s Legislative Correspondents, Lindsay Ross. Ms. Ross was actually the most engaged staffer I’ve met on Capitol Hill. She showed genuine interest in meeting us and learning what issues were important to us. At one point, the Energy Bill and energy technology came up, and one of my peers offered this challenge to the staffer:
There was a time when communication was what limited progress in this country. Back then, we invested in information technology, and now communication is free. It’s totally revolutionized the way the world works. What if we invested in energy in the same way? Can you take a moment, and just imagine a world where energy was free? <dramatic pause>
-Some Guy, Washington D.C.
I can imagine such a world, and it frightens the CO2 out of me. A world with infinite energy would have infinite consumption. For the first time in decades, Americans are (ever so slightly) curtailing their consumption of petroleum products. Even those who aren’t cutting back seem to at least be paying attention. And how can you not pay attention with daily messages like these? But if energy were suddenly “free”, there’d be a huge rebound effect, with disastorous consequences for waste, pollution, and climate change.
What frustrated me the most was that Ms. Ross had stars in her eyes after this guy’s diatribe. In D.C., everything about solving the energy crisis seems to center around sustaining an unsustainable system. I know that the person who said this has his heart in the right place. His goal was to push for funding into new and more renewable sources of energy, which could have a good effect. I just wish that he’d said “Can you imagine a world where energy was clean and renewable” instead of bringing it back to energy cost, and therefore consumption, so quickly.