Rain or shine, you can find John Nolt riding his bike from his South Knoxville home to his UT office. If you ask him what you can do to live more sustainably, he’ll tell you right off the bat: get on your bike, and quit saving your labor at home. Imagine for a moment our roads crowded with bicycles, clothes snapping in the wind in urban gardens, people working their lawns with push mowers and hand tools—a quieter world that needs less gas and oil.
Though Nolt sometimes claims to be a “neo-Luddite,” he realizes that most of us who are trying to live sustainably will still drive cars more than we should and pop those clothes in the dryer rather than take the time to hang them out to dry. This is where research enters the mix—as the creative process that will give us the technologies to reduce the effects of our labor-saving devices on the global environment.
Nolt, a UT philosophy professor, divides his teaching and research between logic and environmental ethics. His most recent book, A Land Imperiled: The Declining Health of the Southern Appalachian Bioregion (University of Tennessee Press, 2005), chronicles the harm already done to our own region and offers examples of how the damage can be reversed. More recently Nolt has been helping to organize a national conference on energy and responsibility that will be held at UT Knoxville in April 2008.
Central to discussions about energy and ethical responsibility is the idea of learning to manage in a sustainable manner, which generally means to live without exhausting natural resources. When asked about his own definition of sustainability, Nolt embeds human concerns in the natural.
“There are people who define it simply as the sustainability of wealth,” he says. “But I take the view that the sustainability of natural systems also encompasses human systems.”
In Nolt’s view, there’s no time to waste in adopting sustainable practices. There’s been an elephant in each of our living rooms, and its name is global climate change. Research and technology hold the greatest promise for shifting the current balance by lowering the carbon emissions that contribute to atmospheric warming.
“What we want from technology is an array of choices, a greater range of practical options that let us get as close as possible to sustainability,” says Nolt.
The idea of an ethical approach to the environment has gained momentum in the last 40 years, but it originally emerged from a preoccupation with how to live correctly that probably started when humans first had time to sit still.
“You can take an evolutionary view of ethics as the way human beings adjust themselves to the world around them,” says Nolt. “Go back to [the book of] Genesis, to the imperative to be fruitful and multiply. That’s fine for a time with very small nomadic populations. The ethic changes over time with our ability to technologically influence the natural and temporal. We haven’t had the power before to affect climate, to destroy whole ecosystems. The temporal aspect is that we didn’t have the ability to affect the future the way we do now. It is essential that we develop a conscience, and an ethic brings our moral vision in line with our power.
“Environmental ethics as I conceive it,” Nolt continues, “is an expansion of the scope of ethical thinking in two directions: first, beyond the boundaries of the human species to include animals, both wild and domestic, and biological entities at various other levels, including populations, species, and ecosystems; and second, beyond the present and near future into the distant future. These expansions are necessitated by the burgeoning power of human technology.”
For Nolt, our obligation to the people of the future is also an issue of environmental justice. He talks about how the environmental justice movement grew out of the realization that the most obnoxious, polluting industries were often located in places where people had the least political power.
“In the case of global warming, we are harming all the people of the future,” Nolt says. “In this case, the majority represented by future generations is being harmed by the minority, those of us who exist now.”
More and more people are involved in environmental activism. There seems to be a momentum now, a growing sense that maybe something can be done to start reducing the amount of carbon we’re putting in the atmosphere and to mitigate the damage already done.
“There have been remarkable changes in policy in relation to energy, enormous efforts at the state and regional levels put together by people who are conscious about these issues and acting out of conscience,” says Nolt.
John Nolt is not one to just talk the talk. Over the last three decades he has not only written books but also given his time freely to the environmental community. He helped found the Foundation for Global Sustainability back in the late 1980s and helped start Narrow Ridge, a sustainable living and earth literacy center near Washburn, Tennessee.
He talks about a turning point that came when his daughter was born, a renewed sense of urgency about the natural environment.
“I felt angry about the things that were available to me as a child that were no longer available to her,” Nolt says. “I played in the streams near my home as a child, but there was no clean water nearby for her to play in. What if she comes to me some day and asks how we could have let this all get so messed up?”
Nolt believes that some of the best ideas for sustainable living are the simplest. They involve replacing mechanical energy fed by fossil fuels with human energy—muscle power. This means riding a bike or walking instead of driving, hanging clothes out to dry instead of using a dryer, and doing daily chores instead of pumping iron.
“It kills me to go over to the gym and see all the people working out indoors,” he says. “They could be making power! The most elegant solutions enable us to use our bodies in a way that helps maintain health while using human energy.”
And he does practice what he preaches, riding his bicycle to UT, hanging out his laundry, and cutting his grass with a hand scythe.
“I feel an obligation to be a good example, to live in a way that’s beautiful, sustainable, and healthful, so that people can see that it’s possible to live a joyful life and not waste resources.”
Since prehistory, when humans first huddled around fires and wood smoke wafted skyward, energy production has negatively affected air quality.
Millennia hence, after a century and a half of rampant industrialization and parallel gains in power production and transportation, a few American policymakers, Senator Howard Baker Jr. among them, recognized that the nation’s prosperity and appetite for energy had come at a considerable cost to the environment.
In 1969 Baker, a Republican from Tennessee, and Senator Edmund Muskie, a Democrat from Maine, responded by drafting the Clean Air Act.
The following year, the U.S. Congress effectively launched the modern environmental movement by passing what remains the most comprehensive environmental legislation ever enacted. Baker regards his role in shaping the act as his most meaningful contribution from more than three decades of public service.
“We have seen our economy boom, our fleet of automobiles grow, our population increase, and the number of vehicle miles we travel multiply,” Baker says. “And yet, in every instance, our air continues to get cleaner.”
In 2003 Baker helped establish the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he earned his law degree in 1949, to develop programs and promote research to further the public’s knowledge of our system of governance.
Construction of the 53,000-square-foot Baker Center on the Knoxville campus will be completed in early 2008. The center will house a auditorium seating more than 200, a museum, classrooms, archives, and research space. The $17-million project is privately funded. The Baker Center is currently housed at UT’s Hoskins Library.
Early in 2007 the Baker Center, in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, named Jerry Paul its first Energy Policy Fellow. Paul, an attorney, nuclear engineer, and former Florida state representative, recently retired as the principal deputy administrator of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
Paul insists that, while there is growing support for alternative energy technologies, we face a dearth of sound data on the various options.
“We are in an unprecedented period of public focus on energy, and there’s building momentum toward transforming America’s energy generation and delivery portfolio,” says Paul. “But much of the debate emanates from parochial advocacy by sectors promoting their favorite alternatives.” Meanwhile, Paul maintains, there is a void of objective analysis integrating the pros, cons, and competing factors that determine the possible or feasible future energy balance.
The Baker Center’s executive director Alan Lowe sees energy research as a fundamental element of the center’s mission and one that requires a grasp of both science and policy.
“From the Baker Center’s inception, we knew that energy policy would be among our topics of highest interest,” says Lowe. “Among our many energy initiatives, the formation of the energy fellow position is critical, and I knew that Jerry would be ideal because of his understanding of the world of science and because, through his work as a Florida state legislator and his service with DOE, he also understands the complex process of policymaking.”
The goal of the Energy Policy Fellow Program, says Lowe, “is to stimulate discussion and debate of our nation’s energy policy, to engage experts across the globe in our work, and to propose solutions to what is perhaps our nation’s biggest challenge in the 21st century.”
— D. B.