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Energy Alternatives: The Big Picture

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What with a growing climate crisis and increasing uncertainty over the future of fossil fuels, it can be no surprise that the question "What's the alternative to current energy systems?" is in the air. And there has been no shortage of answers competing for space and attention. In energy policy today, the main conflict is not between energy business as usual and "The Alternative", but among the different proposed alternatives themselves.

What are these different alternatives? What kind of changes are being proposed? Who would bring them about, and how? Where is the conflict among different energy alternatives going? Where might activists intervene most strategically to build alliances to bring about the changes in energy systems that are necessary - as well as to oppose initiatives that will only make things worse?

It is hard even to survey this territory. The problem is not just that the suggested solutions are diverse. The questions being asked are also different, as are the criteria for answering them, the vocabularies in which they are expressed, and the politics with which they are associated. Figuring out what the assumptions and audiences of the various alternatives are is half the work of assessing where a democratic and survivable energy future might lie. The point of this report is not to simplify the debate over energy alternatives, but to clarify how complex it is. If the need for action is urgent, then so is the need for an understanding capable of making that action effective.

A Sense of the Territory

As a start on answering these questions, a sample of energy alternatives proposals and the questions they address is displayed over the following pages, roughly and naively divided accord - ing to whether the proposals appear global (Table 1), national (Table 2) or local or individual (Table 3) in scope. The sample is tiny. It does not pretend to be representative. But it is diverse enough to suggest how hard it is to understand what the alternative energy debate is about and how hard it might be to make it possible for everyone who is interested to participate.     

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