A Response to Jeremy Nichols

On May 10, 2010, Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians wrote an article entitled "Get Your Sharp Sticks Ready." His piece, referencing a comment given by Patty Limerick in a Denver Post article on May 9, 2010, provided the perfect opportunity to open a dialogue for discussion on this heated topic. Below, is Patty Limerick's response which was a bit too long to post in the comments section of his article.

Dear Jeremy Nichols,

We have joined forces in a peculiar cause: to demonstrate the practices that make the public discussion of energy policy into an unproductive mess. I write to propose that we put our energetic minds to work on behalf of a better cause.

There is no question that I did my part to set up the conditions for our train wreck in communications. Back on May 6, several student had come to turn in their final papers. I wanted to talk to them, but the phone rang. Bruce Finley from the Denver Post wanted to ask me some questions about a leasing auction for oil and gas drilling in North Park. Bruce Finley is a fine reporter, and he and his important subject matter certainly deserved my full attention. But I wanted to get back to saying goodbye to my students, and so I spoke in witless haste. I did not even pause to make the remark, now rather obvious, that I knew very little about the North Park situation.

And so, on May 9, I read the Sunday Denver Post and sank into well-earned self-reproach. Readers could watch as I reached my nadir in public communications: "Given our energy habits, and given our inability to change them, we have to go forward with this."

What had gotten into me?

In speeches and in reports (more on this in a moment), I have repeatedly and repetitively said the exact opposite, insisting that we are perfectly capable of changing our habits. Maybe this fatalistic and hopeless declaration of the "inability to change" was some sort of Freudian slip, in which I unintentionally betrayed doubts I usually keep concealed from others and from myself? Maybe I was just trying to talk too fast and get back to the students outside my office?

There is even greater mystery in the last seven words of the quotation: "we have to go forward with this." What did I have in mind as the "this" with which we had "to go forward"? Read in the context of the Denver Post story, the meaning seems clear: we have to go forward with the natural gas development of North Park. But here is what I meant and mean by "this": "We have to go forward with a clear and thoughtful exploration of the value of natural gas as a bridge fuel to a renewable energy economy, and we must think hard about the process of anticipating and regulating the impact of natural gas development." Kind of a long-winded "this," and understandably a target for abbreviation.

The second quotation from me, the one that concludes the Denver Post article, returns us to better traction: "It's time to hold the mirror up to ourselves. Simply taking a sharp stick and poking it at the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] is not really much of a social policy." I said this and meant this, and since this was the remark that most annoyed you, we have actual footing for a clear and illuminating conversation. You conclude your essay with this line, "I've got my sharp stick ready," while I remain convinced that a stick, however sharpened, remains a blunt and inexact way of taking up the big question of how we can best produce natural gas to use as a bridge to a renewable future.

So here's what I wish: the next time that you read a quotation from anyone (that would include me) that you find "appalling," contact that benighted soul directly. Point out the quotation that troubles you, and ask if its author really meant to say that. Listen to the response. And if you are still infuriated, then at least you will be positioned to write a more interesting, and less predictable and formulaic, denunciation of your opponent's wrongheadedness.

And, yes, I am putting this statement on public record without making any effort to contact you directly. But I welcome the chance for direct conversation. After we give that a try, our next step could be a co-authored essay telling Huffington Post readers how we fared with our effort at finding a twenty-first century alternative to reciprocal denunciation.

We already have plenty to talk about, but let me add another topic. I have, as I mentioned above, said repeatedly that I believed Americans can change their habits in energy consumption. The most sustained statement of my belief appeared in a Center of the American West report called "What Every Westerner Should Know about Energy Conservation and Efficiency" (on our website, www.centerwest.org). I had the privilege of having as my co-author an international expert on energy efficiency and conservation, Howard Geller. I hope the report has done some good, and I felt and feel very lucky to have had the chance to write the report and to send it out into the world.

What made this report possible?

Funding from BP.

In the more than forty days and forty nights since April 20 and the Deepwater Horizon blow-out, I have thought about this a lot. I would be more comfortable if our report on energy conservation and efficiency had been funded by a wind power company. But I feel certain that my understanding of energy issues has greater depth because of this uncomfortable gratitude. All the BP people with whom I had dealings were wholeheartedly in support of our efforts to persuade the public to reduce the waste of energy. It is my guess that all the BP people I got to know are in a great state of misery over the state of affairs in the Gulf of Mexico.

It may seem like a time for the sharpening of sticks and for aiming them at BP, but that seems to take a situation that calls for serious and deep national self-examination, among American citizens and consumers, and reduce it to yet another episode of shrill and unproductive condemnation.

Do I think I know how to put the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico to work in mobilizing support for the smartest possible energy policy?


Do I think I would I benefit from a conversation with you, Jeremy Nichols, on how to pursue this goal?


Maybe sometime this week?


Patricia Nelson Limerick
Faculty Director and Chair of the Center of the American West
University of Colorado, Boulder