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Less energy is better--really

I now make it a staple of my public talks on energy to ask who in the audience has been to Europe. Usually many hands rise. I then explain that Americans seem to love to get on a jet plane, cross the Atlantic, and spend time in a theme park called Europe where good meals abound; interesting and usually friendly people reside; and beautiful, historic cities and breathtaking countryside are everywhere. What they may not know is that by American standards Europeans live in an energy-starved society where the per capita energy consumption is only half that of the United States.

There are many things that make European energy frugality possible: the density of European cities; the wide availability of good public transportation; the willingness of people to walk or bicycle to their destinations; small cars; and parsimonious use of central heating to name just a few. Perhaps the key to understanding Europeans when it comes to energy use is the very high price of energy in Europe, due primarily to stratospheric energy taxes. For example, in the United Kingdom the effective tax rate on motor fuel for automobiles as of December 2010 was 175 percent. When something costs a lot, people tend to figure out how to use less of it or to use it not at all.

The European example should give us great pause on this side of the Atlantic. It is perhaps the clearest illustration that beyond a certain level of energy consumption, the quality of life rises almost imperceptibly or not at all. In fact, high energy use may even be correlated to a lower quality of life in the United States where obesity and diabetes have become epidemics (in part because we drive too much instead of walking or bicycling); where sprawled out suburban development made possible by cheap fuel condemns many of us to spend hours in the car each day; where the availability of that cheap fuel encourages motorized recreation that keeps our lakes and parks abuzz with engine noise while it degrades and pollutes them; where cheap consumer goods are often characterized by their low quality; where mountains of those shoddy goods clog our landfills; and where all the required extra energy production creates additional pollution at our mines, power plants and factories.

And yet in the United States, we continue to focus on producing ever increasing amounts of energy, believing wrongly that greater energy use will always mean an increasing quality of life. Any person who dares to talk about cutting our energy use usually gets shouted down as a Luddite who hates the poor and cares for plants and animals more than human beings. Keep in mind that compared to America, European countries collectively run an economy larger than that of the United States; generally have considerably lower levels of inequality; provide universal health care with better overall outcomes; and enforce stricter environmental, health and safety regulations--all on half the energy per person. Vaclav Smil illustrates this phenomenon in a recent article entitled "Science, energy, ethics, and civilization." (PDF) He notes that there is an inflection point for many quality of life measures at around 100 gigajoules/year per person. Above that, indicators improve very little. For comparison the United States uses 330 gigajoules/year per person. Smil thinks consumption above 200 gigajoules is actually counterproductive.

To the rational mind the sensible thing to do would be to cut down. But humans are evolutionarily designed for scarcity. Their evolutionary impulses haven't caught up with modern realities. Besides this, consumption has also become correlated with status. As Thorsten Veblen so ably explained in The Theory of the Leisure Class, in a mass society it is much easier to display one's social position to large numbers of people by buying a grand mansion or an expensive automobile than by trying to walk the streets of a city the size of New York with a large retinue. Veblen coined the now familiar phrase to describe the first strategy: conspicuous consumption. The second strategy often sufficed in ancient Rome which was, of course, much smaller in population than New York. Veblen also expressly showed how the quest for social status trumped abstract theoretical notions of rational utility-seeking in economic decision-making.

Humans are energy-gathering machines. If they did not gather more energy than they expend, they would instantly die out. Every organism on the planet seeks to maximize its energy gain. So consistent is this pattern that Howard Odum dubbed it the Maximum Power Principle and proposed it as the fourth law of thermodynamics.

But as with any adaptive strategy, it eventually becomes maladaptive. If an organism cannot evolve to match changing conditions--in this case, rapid fossil fuel depletion, climate change, soil degradation and so on--then dieoff or extinction can follow. And, just because I and many others can articulate the problem, it does not at all imply that a meaningful and broad-based understanding can spread and that a response can be implemented in time to avert the worst. Every fiber of a human being instinctively rejects limits on energy gathering--unless those limits can be framed as a necessary sacrifice for the good of a group to which that human being feels a strong attachment.

To say one needs to use less energy for the good of humanity has very limited appeal. To say one needs to do it for God, king and country is a move in the right direction.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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