Indiana University Research & Creative Activity January 1998 Volume XX Number 3


Finding ways to meet future energy demands without ruining our planet requires that researchers from many diverse fields work together. But different disciplines foster different worldviews that can be hard to reconcile.

Robert Bent, a professor of physics at Indiana University Bloomington, proposed and helped lead a faculty seminar on sustainable energy use that met throughout the 1996-1997 academic year. Bent believes one of our most difficult tasks is "to meet world energy demands without doing intolerable and irreparable damage to the environment." And one of his main jobs in the seminar--which regularly brought together thinkers from physics, biology, anthropology, economics, political science, Germanic studies, and business--was to merge two different worldviews. The biophysical worldview holds that nature determines the rules and constrains human options. The economic-political viewpoint is that human decisions and ingenuity are the main factors determining our future. The viewpoints have practical ramifications as philosophical concerns are brought to bear on possible solutions. Bent noted that seminar members confronted human-centered versus nature-centered views of ethics and differences on the intrinsic versus eco nomic value of environmental assets.

Those viewpoints can and must be bridged if solutions are to be found. Lloyd Orr, a professor of economics at Indiana University Bloomington, and seminar cofacilitator, gives as one example the way his field offers a tool to analyze the effects of biophysical constraints and help decide how to allocate resources when faced with natural limitations.

The seminar, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study, sought to tap the
participants' expertise on a variety of topics. After beginning with a session by John Sheffield of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who gave an overview of global energy needs and resources, the IU faculty explored:

Bent and Orr hope to summarize the seminar's proceedings in a document for policy-makers who need a concise, cross-disciplinary tool for understanding the complex factors affecting energy use.

Those policy-makers will learn that common to all definitions of sustainability in the seminar were concerns for continuing human life and preserving its richness in the context of a productive and healthy planet. Seminar participants also agreed, Orr says, that energy is currently underpriced: future generations and environmental effects are not fully factored in. Participants did not agree on what actions to take, on what the adjusted costs of energy should be, and whether costs should be adjusted through market forces, government action, or some combination.

Charting a course in an area this complex and important is difficult and, Bent says, the purpose of the seminar was "to try to show us the right direction." With specialists from different areas learning from each other, that direction is more likely to result in policy that, as Orr notes, must be "flexible and adaptable to encompass outcomes that will always surprise us."--Mary Hrovat

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