The Soft Case for Soft Energy

By Taylor, Jerry; VanDoren, Peter | Journal of International Affairs, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Soft Case for Soft Energy

Taylor, Jerry, VanDoren, Peter, Journal of International Affairs

Since the 1970s, North American and European governments as well as many policy analysts have believed that fossil fuels will gradually be replaced by "softer" sources of energy--mainly renewable energy sources such as windpower, solar power, biomass, geothermal power, speculative hydrogen power technologies and energy conservation. These soft energy sources have been considered more environmentally benign than coal or oil and nearly as attractive economically Soft energy advocates believe that only a moderate amount of government intervention is necessary to increase the use of soft technologies and the efficiency of the economy.

The state and federal campaigns against fossil fuels, however, have not produced the quick victory that advocates predicted. Instead, they have taken on the characteristics of the Vietnam War. For over 25 years now, between $30 and $40 billion has been spent to force soft energy onto consumers(1) in a campaign employing a dizzying array of federal and state taxes, subsidies, preferences and consumption orders.(2)

Indeed, victory over fossil fuels is nowhere in sight. Renewable energy--wind, solar, geothermal and biomass--comprise only 1.5 percent of the energy market,(3) and revolutionary advances in natural gas technology, not soft energy, are fundamentally reshaping the energy industry. Still, soft energy advocates continue to proclaim that an energy revolution is upon us and that just a few more subsidies and mandates are necessary to bring us into the progressive energy promised land.

Soft energy advocates including Amory Lovins and Christopher Flavin justify their call for governmental intervention in energy markets by relying on four arguments. First, they argue that energy markets are riddled with "market failures" that lead to economic inefficiencies. Second, government is said to have subsidized fossil fuels, artificially tilting the market against soft energy Third, such advocates predict that global warming will inevitably force governments to dramatically restrict the use of fossil fuels, making the advent of a soft energy economy a question not of "if" but "when." Finally, soft energy policy experts assume, if implicitly, that they have superior information and insights that market actors simply lack or choose to ignore. Government intervention, they conclude, is the only way to achieve the "best" use of energy

This paper briefly examines the economic and environmental rationales behind the ongoing campaign to promote soft energy Those rationales, while superficially attractive, do not hold up well to scrutiny. There is no compelling reason to believe that soft energy will play any larger role in the 21st century than it does today.


Remarkably few non-economists understand the exact meaning of the terms "market failure" or "efficiency," despite their promiscuous use in public debate. Harvard University professor Steven Kelman, for instance, interviewed staff members of U.S. congressional committees to determine their understanding of the terms and found that neither Republicans nor Democrats understood either concept.(4) Consequently, the charge of market failure is used with little care or precision and is subject to extensive misuse. Nowhere is that more true than in the energy debate.

Market failures result when the marketplace is unable to secure adequately "public goods," defined as those commodities for which it is difficult to restrict the benefits of trade to those who participate in the transaction. A common example is air pollution. If someone brought suit against a factory's pollution or negotiated a contract with the factory to reduce pollution, the benefits of the suit or contract could not be restricted to the person who filed the charges. The others in the neighborhood, the free riders, would also benefit.(5)

Implicit in the charge of energy market failure, then, is the idea that fossil-fuel markets are characterized by property rights that do not require users to pay for all the costs imposed by their use, and that harmed third parties face public-good problems in organizing a solution. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Soft Case for Soft Energy


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.