Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency, MIT Press, 2005. ISBN 0262162326
The problem with efficiency as a numerical ratio is that there is no formula, no rule, no general principle for choosing. The choice of a ratio can be quite arbitrary – or, as we will see, strategic. Consequently, the very act of choosing a ratio determines value and the distribution of value.
I may claim my farm is efficient because I get more bushels per acre. But my neighbor claims she is more efficient because she spends less on machines per acre. I’m highlighting the value of production volume; she’s highlighting the value of minimizing capital costs. It is impossible to say which of us is doing better. I may like filling my silos to the brim each year; she may like extracting another year’s life from her grandparents’ old tractor. Both of us may be terribly efficient, given what we value. But without further specification, neither of us can claim to be more efficient than the other. Even if my neighbor and I both claimed our choices were means to, say, maximum profits, the efficiency ratios themselves are incommensurable. I’m measuring volume of grain, she’s measuring a machine’s usefulness.
Efficiency ratios are thus neither self-evident nor is their increase unambiguously “good.” No third party can set an unambiguously precise and comparable measure. Every choice of a ratio reflects a choice of values, a politics. And those values do not just separate along the familiar divides of modern and traditional, new and old, fast and slow, as this farming hypothetical might suggest. They separate along divides of time frame – short term and commercially meaningful versus long term and ecologically meaningful – and cost displacement – the ability to externalize the costs of production and consumption in time and space.
And yet, in modern society, efficiency is equated with all that is good. And not just good for a few but, the rhetoric has it, good for all: joint gains, gains from trade, win-win, all boats rise, jobs aplenty. The discrepancy between the ambiguity of value distribution and the definitiveness of rhetorical claims can in part be explained by a failure to specify ratios, as well as a failure to be explicit about what is left out of those ratios.
A pure efficiency exists only on paper. In the real world, some people gain as others remain the same or lose. Those others may be one’s neighbors or fellow citizens. But with increasing environmental criticality, risk export, and responsibility evasion (chapter 2), they are people downstream and downwind or on the other side of the globe, or they are future generations….
Efficiencies thus have a “simplification bias.” A simple, two-element ratio of concrete measures is preferred. Numbers that express lumens per kilowatt, grain per acre, and shoes per worker catch our attention. Scientist and lay citizen alike can understand and work with a ratio that is simple and concrete. The language of efficiency becomes universal when simple measurables are on the table. Immeasurables are for the clergy and the philosopher, sometimes the environmentalist.
So in my decision to adopt the technology, I can’t know ex ante whether the narrow efficiency gain for me will be offset by the broader efficiency gains (or, better, the access gains) of others. Once dependent on the medium, however, I have little choice. Today’s efficiency is tomorrow’s dependency.
Efficiency claims, for all the history or lack of history, are indeed political claims. They may be dressed up in the language of science and technology and progress, and thus have an apolitical appearance. But appearing apolitical is a political act. A way of avoiding awkward trade-offs. It is a way of advancing a narrow agenda (increased return on investment, a new building, a changed curriculum) by appearing to advocate a broad agenda. And that broad agenda is palatable, indeed attractive, not because it represents the painstaking process of finding common ground among people of diverse interests and values, nor even because matters have been reduced to a common denominator such as money. Rather, it is attractive because everyone sees a gain. Efficiencies wash away the divisiveness so consensus can settle out. Environmentalists, industrialists and politicians can fight tooth and nail about the value of a wetland or the importance of biodiversity. But, with efficiency, they can all come together: the environmentalist sees nature preserved when a housing developer agrees not to build on every acre. The developer sees lower costs because excavation and utility hookups can be consolidated when houses are clustered. Local officials see the same tax revenues with fewer government services.
It is easy to agree that the land should be protected, that climate change should be arrested, that pollution should be abated, that energy should be saved, that water should be cleaned. And it is easy to act to improve the environment if it appears that the efficiencies are just there for the taking, like hitherto undiscovered fruit waiting to be picked. It is quit another matter to spell out exactly where that fruit comes from, and what is forfeited by consuming it now and at this rate. It is quite another matter to reveal what happens downstream, downwind, to reveal who benefits and who loses, and to do so over an ecologically significant period of time.
A policy that promotes efficiencies – roadway for transport, electric bulbs for street lighting, administrative structures for medical care and retailing, recycling for waste management, and concentrated animals for intensified farming – promotes increased personal and social wealth in the here and now. It elevates monetary values as it depreciates values associated with the long term, with the security of ecological integrity and economic well-being.
Efficiency is suspect in the first instance because the ratio is rarely made explicit. In the second, it is suspect because ratios perceived are rarely ratios realized, because ratios proposed for all are only for some, because efficiency claims lead to the shading and distancing of costs, to deferral of impact in time and space. Efficiency is suspect because the benefits are readily highlighted, and the costs are shaded and left for others to pick up.
Haber, Samuel Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era 1890-1920, University of Chicago, 1964,
From the introduction and Page 74
We are often told that Americans love efficiency. In fact, we are told this so often that some serious students of American character have come to see such statements as commonplaces deadening our understanding of America and Americans rather than enlivening it. Yet if we give these commonplaces specificity, if we look closely at Americans professing the love of efficiency (and to a lesser extent acting upon it), we may come away from such study with a better understanding of our country and our ways.
The progressive era is almost made to order for the study of Americans in love with efficiency. For the progressive era gave rise to an efficiency craze—a secular Great Awakening, an outpouring of ideas and emotions in which a gospel of efficiency was preached without embarrassment to businessmen, workers, doctors, housewives, and teachers, and yes, preached even to preachers. Men as disparate as William Jennings Bryan and Walter Lippmann discoursed enthusiastically on efficiency. Efficient and good came closer to meaning the same thing in these years than in any other period of American history.
If we sift through the vast literature of efficiency that the progressive era produced, we can discover at least four principal ways in which the word efficiency was used. First of all, it described a personal attribute. An efficient person was an effective person, and that characterization brought with it a long shadow of latent associations and predispositions; a turning toward hard work and away from feeling, toward discipline and away from sympathy, toward masculinity and away from femininity. Second, the word signified the energy output-input ratio of a machine. This was a more recent use than that describing a trait of character. (However, mechanical efficiency may have added coloring to personal efficiency; the machine does, but does not feel.) The concept of mechanical efficiency developed out of the application of the laws of thermodynamics to the technology of the steam engine in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and soon it became a central concept of engineering.
The machine whose efficiency the engineer calculated, however, was often owned by a business enterprise interested in profit. Commercial efficiency, the output-input ratio of dollars, was a third meaning common to the progressive era, and a meaning which engineers who were concerned with the delicate adjustment of material means to ends could not ignore. Finally, efficiency not only signified a personal quality, a relationship between materials, and a relationship between investment and revenue, but, most important, it signified a relationship between men. Efficiency meant social harmony and the leadership of the “competent.” Progressives often called this social efficiency. And it is this meaning that has particular importance for the understanding of the progressive era…. The efficiency craze, which began with the Easter Rate Case in 1910, receded by 1915 and disappeared with America’s entry into the war. Efficiency as morality, the most widespread and easily acceptable form, was quickest to evaporate. Efficiency as a series of profit-making stunts was soon discredited. Efficiency as a technique of industrial management and as a form of social control found a small but steadfast following and had more lasting effects.
Pruger, Robert. Efficiency and the Social Services. New York: 1991 ISBN 1560241136,
Scratch below the surface of the term, “efficiency,” and it turns out to be a very murky, ambiguous idea that is thrown about with such reckless abandon that it can mean virtually anything anyone wants it to mean; getting more work done; cost-cutting; rooting out waste; cost-effectiveness; a favorable ratio of benefits to costs; output productivity; distribution and even rationing; and perhaps more. This not what science and rationality are made of.
Rizzo, Mario J. Time, Uncertainty, and Disequilibrium. New York: 1979. ISBN 0699026980, Page 72
Efficiency is a concept that has no meaning apart from the model that happens to be in use. Efficiency is always relative to the objectives and subject to the constraints specified in a theoretical framework.
Safe Energy Communication Council’s, Myth #6, Busters Fall 1990 Page 1
Energy efficiency is the fastest-growing, most abundant, least polluting and lowest-cost energy resource available in the United States today. In fact, the Department of Energy calculates that energy efficiency and conservation now supply more of our energy services than any other single source, at a lower cost than building new power plants or extracting more fossil fuels. Improving energy efficiency means instituting methods or technologies that use less energy to achieve the same results. For instance, an efficient light bulb; a house designed for efficiency is warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer than a drafty, inefficient one; an efficient automobile can travel the same distance using less gasoline; and an efficient motor can run equipment with less energy and do the same job. While energy efficiency has saved us enormously on energy and money over the past two decades, further improvements can do much more. According to independent analyses, America can reduce its total energy consumption by 20 to more than 50 percent.
President Bill Clinton, October 6, 1997 White House Conference on Climate Change, Georgetown University
We’ve worked far too hard to revitalize the American Dream to jeopardize our progress now. Therefore, we must emphasize flexible market-based approaches. We must work with business and industry to find the right ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We must promote technologies that make energy production and consumption more efficient.
Emerson, Harrington. The Twelve Principles Of Efficiency The Engineering Magazine Co., New York, 1919, Page 82
It is not either the right or the privilege of the Efficiency Engineer to set up ideals of morality, goodness, or beauty, or to assume that his ideal of purpose is superior; but he as a right to expect that some definite and tangible ideal will be set up so that at the start its possible incompatibility with one or more of the efficiency principles may be pointed out.
Schmidt, A. Allan, and James D. Shaffer. “Marketing in Social Perspective” Agricultural Marketing Analysis, edited by Vernon L. Sorenon. East Lansing, Michigan State University, 1964, Page 29
Economic theory provides a method of calculation positions of maximum efficiency or optimum advantage…. These calculations are valid, however, only within any given set of exchange system rules which defines the qualitative makeup of the inputs and outputs to be included.
Berry, Wendell. “Back to the Land.” The Amicus Journal Winter 1999, Page 37
In fact, the industrial economy’s most marketed commodity is satisfaction, and this commodity, which is repeatedly promised, bought, and paid for, is never delivered.
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of Business Enterprise. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1978. ISBN 087855690, Pages 8 and 18 cited in Knoedler, Janet T., “Veblen and technical efficiency.” Journal of Economic Issues, Dec97, Vol. 31 Issue 4, p1011, 16p
Veblen’s definition of technical efficiency was itself an engineering definition. It derived from his view of modern industry as a “[comprehensive] machine process” [Veblen 1988, 5] that was organized by means of pecuniary transactions to allow for careful management of the many interstitial adjustments that coordinated the various related branches of industry…. For Veblen, technical efficiency existed when interdependent mechanized production processes throughout the economy worked together “in an efficient manner, without idleness, waste, and hardship” to produce the maximum possible amount of output, using the most technologically sophisticated industrial techniques available.
Patten, Simon N. The New Basis of Civilization New York: 1968. Page 207
The men in whom energy is sapped, or who have been the victims of misfortune, are a class in which the normal race stimuli are failing to act. The loaf of bread, the cigar, the theatre ticket held before men as regards to work remain inducements only until they have been consumed. Zeal wanes as they are used up, and will not steadily flow again except from a fund of surplus energy that in its exit sharpens imagination and revives the drooping faculties. Give rain and crops grow; give surplus energy and men become spontaneously efficient.
Vaclav Smil, Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. ISBN 0262194929. Chapter 6,
Given the fact that efficiency has become a mantra of modern, globally competitive business whose goal is to make and sell more, the quest for better performance can be then seen, in Rudin’s (1999, “How Improved Efficiency Harms the Environment” at http://home.earthlink.net/~andrewrudin/article.html, p.1) disdainful view, as a justification “to consume our resources efficiently without limit.” And he points out the distinction between relative and absolute savings noting that “our environment does not respond to miles per gallon; it responds to gallons” (Rudin 1999, p. 2). So if we are to see any actual reductions in overall energy use we need to go beyond increased efficiency of energy conversions….
Given the complexity of modern societies regulation would always have a role in energy conservation but the bulk of such savings should be preferably delivered by an enlightened public that chooses to change its behavior and modify its lifestyle. Appeals for this shift have been made by many devoted conservationists. The fact that “improved efficiency coincides with increased use of resources should be enough to make us think in non-business terms…. Using less energy is a matter of discipline, not fundable political correctness” (Rudin 1999, p 4).
Seen from this perspective calls for energy conservation are just a part of much broader appeals for moderation (if sacrifice may seem to strong a term), frugality, and cooperation for the sake of the common good that form moral foundations of every high civilization. Being content with less or not requiring more in the first place are two precepts that have been a part of both Western and Eastern thought for millennia and that were explicitly voiced by teachers of moral systems as disparate as Christianity and Confucianism. How kindred are these quotes from the Analects in Arthur Waley’s translation (Waley, A. The Analects of Confucius (Translation in Lunyu). London: George Allen & Unwin) and from Luke (X11:22-34 King James version):
The Master said, He who seeks only coarse food to eat, water to drink and bent arm for pillow will without looking for it find happiness to boot.
And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. For the life is more than the food, and the body more than the raiment… make for yourselves purses which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not… for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The two tenets have retained a high degree of moral approbation in affluent countries even as their devotion to religion has weakened considerably. Of course, a mechanistic translation of some very effective past practices would not be the best way to proceed. There is no need to call, for example, for an emulation of what was perhaps the best energy minimizing arrangement: medieval monastic orders where most of the food, and most of all clothes and simple wooden and metallic utensils were produced by artisanal labor, where nothing was packaged, everything was recycled and where the inmates had no personal possessions beyond their coarse clothes and a few simple utensils and were content with bleak cells, hard beds, copying of missals, and occasional a capella singing.
What is called for is a moderation of demand so that the affluent Western nations would reduce their extraordinarily high per capita energy consumption not by just 10% or 15% but by at least 25% – 35%. Such reductions would call for nothing more than a return to levels the prevailed just a decade or no more than a generation ago. How could one even use the term sacrifice in this connection? Did we live so unbearably 10 or 30 years ago that the return to those consumption levels cannot be even publicly contemplated by serious policymakers because they feel, I fear correctly, that the public would find such a suggestion unthinkable and utterly unacceptable?
After all, even cancerous cells stop growing once they have destroyed the invaded tissues.
If we are to prevent the unbounded economic growth doing the same to the Earth’s environment then the preservation of the biosphere’s integrity must become a high purpose of human behavior. Inevitably, this must entail some limits on human acquisitiveness in order to leave room for the perpetuation of other species, to maintain irreplaceable environmental services without whose provision there could be no evolution and no civilization, and to keep the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from rising so rapidly and to such an extent that the Earth would experience global tropospheric warming unmatched during the evolution of our species from ancestral hominids.
Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World. London: Penguin Books, 2007. ISBN 9780143038986
There are many types of ecosystem such as a tropical forest, a grassland prairie or a coral reef but the foundation of all them, and therefore the basis for life on earth, is photosynthesis – the process by which the energy of sunlight is used by plants and certain types of bacteria to create chemical compounds essential for life. Apart from the exotic life forms that get live on the sulfur produced in deep ocean volcanic vents it is the only way that energy is introduced into the system. Very little of the sun’s energy is, in fact, converted into matter and there is no way in which this efficiency can be improved since it depends on the amount of light falling on the earth, the laws of physics and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Selective breeding of plants does not increase the efficiency of photosynthesis, it simply makes the plants put more of their effort into producing those parts that humans find useful at the cost of other parts.)
The higher the animal is in the food chain, the rarer it will be. Each step up the food chain is further removed from the primary production of the photosynthesizers, is less energy-efficient and consequently the numbers that can be supported gets smaller. This is why a very small number of carnivores can exist within an ecosystem compared with a number of primary producers. In the case of a deciduous wood in southern England, almost 90% of the primary production by the photosynthesizers (in this case trees, plants and grasses) eventually falls to the ground and decomposes on the woodland floor and another 8% is stored as deadwood which eventually decomposes. Less than 3% is available for the herbivores to eat and even less for the carnivores who have to live off the herbivores.
A medieval cow in Europe produced one-sixth of the milk and one-quarter of the meat of the modern animal. In China all but 2% of the calorific value of the diet came from vegetables, primarily rice. In Europe most people survived on a monotonous diet of vegetable and grain gruels and bread; meat and fish were rarer items except for the upper classes. As late as 1870, 70% of the French diet consisted of bread and potatoes and in 1900 only about a fifth of the calories came from animal products. Throughout Europe the majority of people lived on a maximum of about 2,000 calories a day (about the level of modern India), slightly higher in more prosperous countries such as England and Holland, but everywhere there were gross inequalities within society that meant that most lived on far less than this. In the early 19th century, in Norway, France and Germany, the average food consumption was still lower than contemporary Latin America and North Africa. The poorer regions of Europe had a particularly meagre diet. In some areas of France in the 18th century, for example in the Auvergne and the foothills of the Pyrenees, large parts of the population were still dependent on chestnuts for two or three months a year together with slops of maize and buckwheat, with some milk from a cow fed on weeds from the side of the road. These people lived on a diet that was far worse than that of their gathering and hunting ancestors.
An existence under the constant threat of starvation and in the face of the daily reality of an inadequate diet and malnutrition has been the common lot for most of humanity since the development of agriculture. Only slowly, in a few areas of the world, did some societies (principally Western Europe and its colonies in North America and Australasia) emerge from this long struggle to survive. They were able to do so as a result of a combination of developments which made larger quantities of food available to them. Over the centuries a number of small-scale improvements slowly raised agricultural output and productivity. It is possible to trace a slow improvement in European output and efficiency in the 600 years after 1200: by 1800 yields were about 2 1/2 times higher. This was the result of a wide variety of changes. The range of fodder crops was increased, legumes were more widely used to improve fertility, better breeding of animals and more cross-breeding enhanced output, rotations became more complex and rendering more widespread as more animals could be said during the winter months. Just as important though was the introduction of new crops and animals, which widened the agricultural base, providing greater stability against failure and improved food output.
The growth of rubber production in South-East Asia dealt a fatal blow to the Brazilian trade. In 1910 there were still over 150,000 tappers collecting it from the trees growing wild in the forests but this was far less efficient than gathering rubber from the neat rows of the Malayan states. Demand for Brazilian rubber fell steadily and by 1930 output was at about a third of the level in 1900.
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The creation of a world economy dominated by Western Europe and North America in the period after 1500 should have produced, according to the doctrines of liberal, free-market economics, a world-wide division and specialisation of labour. This should have allowed each country and area to concentrate on growing or making the commodities it was best suited to produce. As a result of this specialisation every area should, according to these theories, have benefited from the most efficient allocation of resources. The problem with this theory is that it completely ignores political factors — countries and areas were not equally powerful and they were not left free to decide what to produce. Political control enabled the colonial powers to ensure that the commodities they required were produced and allowed them to enforce a highly asymmetrical series of exchanges. In the words of Cecil Rhodes, one of the driving forces behind British expansion in Africa in the late 19th century, revealed the realities behind the theories of liberal economics:
We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.
The way in which one part of the world — Western Europe, North America and the white settlement colonies – became ‘developed’ and the way in which another part became ‘underdeveloped’ are not separate phenomena.
In the world economy that was created after 1500 one region was able to extract a large surplus of products and natural resources from the dependent area. The dominant economies of the industrialized core were characterized by the production of capital- intensive goods and relatively high wages and profits together with rising levels of consumption and wealth. The subordinate, peripheral economies were characterized by crop, raw material and material production that were of low capital intensity and linked to low wages and they repatriation of profits to the developed world. Although development took place in the subordinate colonial economies, it was almost entirely geared to the needs of the colonial or economically dominant power. Railways were largely confined to links between inland regions and a few key ports and their purpose was to facilitate the export of crops and raw materials. The achievement of political independence did not bring economic independence because the structure of the world economy had already been established. Only a few countries could avoid this trap — those are retained their political independence such as Japan, those that escaped European colonialism (and had huge US support during the Cold War) such as South Korea and Taiwan, oil-rich states of the Middle East and the trade-based economies of Hong Kong and Singapore. In late 20th century China, once it had recovered from the disasters of the century between 1850 in 1950, industrialised at a rapid rate and other countries such as Brazil and India made more modest steps in that direction. For most countries in the developing world particularly those in Africa, Latin America and much of Asia, these options were not available. All they could do was to increase production of a few cash crops or minerals in an attempt to raise income and exports. The problem was that this approach tended to lower prices, lower incomes, increase dependence on a few commodities and create greater vulnerability.
The consequence of this unbalanced development was a world characterised by increasing inequality. The industrialized world was able to live beyond the constraints of its immediate resource base. Raw materials were available for industrial production and food could be imported to support a rapidly rising population. This formed the basis for a vast increase in consumption and the highest material standard of living ever achieved in the world. Much of the price of that achievement was paid by the population of the rest of the world in the form of exploitation, poverty and human suffering. The environmental problems produced by this growing inequality in the world were different for the rich and the poor. The current environmental problems in the world can only be understood in the context of the nature of the world economy produced since 1500.
Humans are more efficient energy converters than animals. The amount of food they need is far less than the pasture and fodder requirements of animals and so in societies dependent on low-productivity agriculture there was little choice but to use people as the main source of power. For thousands of years it was a vast amounts of human toil and effort, with its cost in terms of early death, injury and suffering, that was the foundation of every society. Humans provided the main energy input into farming, carrying out a multitude of tasks, such as clearing land, sowing, weeding, digging, harvesting, constructing terraces and irrigation ditches, with limited assistance from animal power and with no more than primitive tools. With 90% of the population living as peasants this was the reality of human life for all but a fraction of the last 8,000 to 10,000 years. As late as 1806 one French agricultural writer could still advocate abandoning the plow and returning to digging fuels by hand which, he argued, although slower, was cheaper (there was usually plenty of surplus labor available) and more thorough. Humans also provided much of the power for industry. The Great Cane in the marketplace at Bruges, regarded as the technological marvel of the 15th century, was powered by a human treadmill. In the 19th century prisons in Britain offered a treadmill which could be hired by local industrialists. The highest walk on the Grand Canal in China was worked by teams of several hundred men using capstans and ropes. Human power was also the main form of energy in the house until the invention of a range of labor-saving household appliances in the 20th century. One hundred years ago 2½ million people (over 80% of them women) were employed as domestic servants in Britain and they constitute the largest single occupational category. However, the new household appliances were only available for the relatively prosperous. Even in the early 21st century hard work around the home, especially gathering wood and collecting water, was the norm for hundreds of millions of women around the world.
In the Inca empire the main method of communication, in the absence of domesticated animals, was a highly efficient network involving teams of runners to convey messages along the roads built by the state (using conscripted labor).
All the main coalfields of Europe were being worked by the 13th and 14th centuries, albeit on a very small scale. The call came from opencast mining or from shallow pits no more than about 15 meters deep. Deep mining was not developed until the 18th century when the high cost of charcoal offset the extra costs involved in the development of relatively efficient pumping machinery made it possible to remove water from deep shafts and galleries. These pumps were some of the first machines to utilize steam power derived from coal.
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Low prices and seemingly inexhaustible supplies have not encourage energy efficiency and therefore huge quantities of energy have been wasted. In some instances this was simply the result of new technologies necessarily being inefficient. In the 19th and early 20th centuries most coal was burnt in open fireplaces were over 90% of the heat was wasted (mainly by escaping up the chimney). Wood stoves were more efficient — about two-thirds of the heat was wasted. The earliest steam engines are hopelessly inefficient — at best 95% of the energy was wasted and they could do the work of no more than 200 men. The development of high-pressure steam systems increased efficiencies roughly 30-fold so that steam-driven turbines were about 20% efficient by 1910 and further improvements double this figure by the 1950s. Nevertheless this still meant that more energy was wasted than performed useful work.
Although electricity provides a highly convenient form of energy it is a highly inefficient way of producing energy. Generating stations have to be built and operated and high-voltage transmission lines constructed, all of which consumes energy. The earliest generating stations were only about 4% efficient. This rose to about 13% in the mid-1920s and then to about 25% by the mid-1950s. However, since then there has been almost no further improvement in efficiency. This means that although a third of the world’s energy is used to produce electricity, at least two-thirds of it is wasted in generation and transmission. The United States wastes as much energy in electricity generation as the total energy consumption of Japan. These inefficiencies are compounded by inefficiencies in consumption — homes, factories and offices are poorly insulated and domestic appliances and light bulbs use more electricity than is necessary. The sharp rise in oil prices in 1973-74 and 1979-80 did lead to programs designed to save energy and most of the industrialized world but once prices began to fall in real terms these programs were quietly abandoned and the emphasis placed once again on making more energy available.
Modern industrialized agriculture is highly inefficient in energy terms. The most energy-efficient agriculture in the world is rice growing in the paddy fields of China and South-East Asia where the output of energy is about 50 times greater than the input. Other so-called primitive agricultural systems are also highly-efficient, producing about 20 times the energy they use. At best, modern cereal farming produces only about twice as much energy as it consumes in the form of fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides and machinery. Modern agriculture is also becoming less energy-efficient. In the 20 years after 1952 energy imports rose by 70% of production only increased by 30%. Maize production in the United States shows an even worse situation. Energy inputs rose 400% between 1945 and 1970 but yields only rose by 138%. Overall the energy efficiency of American maize production has fallen by over half since 1915. Modern animal rearing systems consume large amounts of energy in heating the sheds where the animals are kept and in producing the artificial feed and the antibiotics they eat. Meat production in the industrialized world now consumes between two and three times the energy it produces. The production of frozen fish is the most inefficient of all forms of food production — it consumes about 20 times as much energy as it produces. On top of these energy costs in food production it is necessary to add the energy cost of processing and distributing food. This takes about three times as much energy as producing the food itself.
In spite of these considerable inefficiencies modern industrial economies are far more energy-efficient (in terms of the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP) than they were a century ago. The energy intensity of the British economy peaked as early as 1950-80 and begin falling slightly later elsewhere across the industrialized world — Canada in 1910, the United States and Germany in the 1920s, Japan in the 1970s and then the newly industrializing countries such as China and Brazil in the 1980s. United States is now about 80% more energy-efficient than it was in 1920. Overall the world is about as energy-efficient now as it was in 1900 (reflecting the use of poor technologies by newly industrializing countries) but the peak inefficiency came in 1970 and since then the world energy efficiency has increased by about 20%. There are, however, major differences between countries in their energy efficiencies the United States is still 60% less efficient than Italy and Japan and worse than India and China countries such as Ukraine, still saddled with hopelessly inefficient Soviet-age technology, are worse still — it is three times less efficient than the United States than five times worse in Japan.
There is, however, an important lesson to be learnt from the history of energy efficiency. Although the countries of the industrialized world are now more energy-efficient than they were a century ago this has not stopped a massive increase in energy consumption. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that increasing energy efficiency tends to lower energy, particularly electricity, prices (especially in real terms) and this encourages greater use of energy. The experience of the United States in the last two decades of the 20th century illustrates this factor very well. The energy intensity of the US economy fell by 34% in this period. Combined with a population rise of 22% this should have produced a fall in energy use. However, GDP per head rose by 55% and so the total amount of energy consumed rose by 26%. Across the world it seems highly unlikely that this pattern will change in the future. Further increases in energy efficiencies through new technologies will not stop rising demand for energy and even higher energy consumption. Ultimately the impact of energy consumption environment comes from the total amount of resources used in the pollution that is produced. How ‘efficiently’ this is done is of little consequence.
The switch to fossil fuels and the development of high energy-use societies has heightened the world inequalities. Fossil fuel consumption has been overwhelmingly the responsibility of the major industrialized countries. In the first half of the 20th century industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America consumed over 90% of all fossil fuels used in the world. In the early 21st century the fifth of the world’s population that lives in rich countries of the world still consumed over 70% of the world’s energy. The United States makes up only 5% of the world’s population it every year it uses 27% of the world’s energy. The majority of the world’s people who live in the developing world use only 10% of the world’s energy. The poorest quarter of the world’s population (just over 1½ billion people) use only 2.5% of the world’s energy. The average American now uses four times as much energy as their predecessors did a century ago, twice as much as the average European, 30 times more than average Indian and almost 100 times more than the average Bangladeshi. Indeed the US military now consumes as much energy every year as the total energy use of two-thirds of the countries in the world and it is more than the total energy use of the rich countries such as Switzerland.
The energy problems of the majority of the world’s population are close to the conditions experienced in the whole world before the 19th century. Energy is still in short supply and both human and animal power are still crucial. Half of the world’s population (about 3 billion people) still depend on wood, charcoal and animal or crop residues for their fuel supplies. The rapidly rising population in the 20th century placed a severe strain on these limited resources. At least 100 million people are unable to obtain enough fuel for even their minimum cooking and heating needs and nearly 2 billion people are depleting their stocks of wood faster than the replanting rate. Shortages of would bring about a vicious cycle in which dried animal dung is used for heating and cooking rather than as manure, thus reducing soil fertility, crop yields and the ability to maintain animal numbers. This then exacerbates many of the other problems of people living on the edge of poverty and with a poor diet.
The last 10,000 years of human history have witnessed an enormous change in the pattern of energy consumption, from the minimal demands of gathering and hunting groups to modern American levels. However, nearly all of that change has taken place in the last two centuries and by far the biggest increase in energy use is common in the last hundred years. Despite the increasing level of technological sophistication in obtaining and distributing energy over that period there has been a remarkable consistency of attitude toward energy. Human societies have really taken account of anything except short-term considerations and have treated all sources of energy as though they were inexhaustible. That cannot be the case with fossil fuels. Estimates of the point at which the reserves will be exhausted are difficult to make because of the problem of estimating the size of undiscovered reserves and future consumption rates. However, most estimates agree that there is enough coal to last for several hundred years (even at increasing consumption rates) while reserves of oil and natural gas are likely to be exhausted during this century, perhaps within a few decades. Long before reserves are exhausted severe problems will be encountered as supplies become difficult to obtain from remote fields and prices rise as demand comes up against supply constraints. However, before the world has to cope with a shortage of fossil fuels is likely to have to face far more severe environmental problems caused by their consumption over the last 200 years.
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Building roads may be popular with motorists, the car industry and the construction lobby but the social and environmental costs involved are enormous, especially when compared to railways. The energy input in terms of steel and cement for road-building is 3½ times greater than that for an equivalent amount of railway construction and four times as much land is used. Overall railways are six times more efficient energy terms than roads. Despite this in every industrialized country the capacity of the rail system has been severely reduced since the 1950s. In the United States railways account for 1% of all intercity traffic, cars for 85%. In Britain the movement of freight by road has risen by nearly 90% since 1970 while that on the railway system has fallen by a quarter.
These problems are increased by the way in which cars are used in their energy efficiency. For the majority of journeys the driver is the only person in the car and the number of miles traveled per car per year has risen steadily — in Britain it has quadrupled in the last 40 years. This trend is exacerbated by the energy inefficiency and high fuel consumption of most car engines. The average fuel consumption of American cars fell from 16 miles to the gallon in the 1930s to 13 miles to the gallon in 1973. The oil price rises of 1973-74 and 1979-80 improved this performance somewhat but the fuel economy standards for new cars has remained unchanged at 27½ miles to the gallon since 1985. The highly popular SUVs (4×4) are exempt from these standards because, following extensive lobbying from the car industry, they’re classified as light trucks. They now have half the US new car market and only achieve an average of 17.7 miles to the gallon. This means that the average American cars still travels only 22.3 miles to the gallon, far below European and Japanese standards. The amount of fuel used by each car every year in the United States is now four times the level of the 1930s. By the end of the 20th century transportation in the United States was responsible for 7% of the worlds energy use and was 25% higher than total Japanese energy consumption. The same pattern of marginal improvements in fuel efficiency being offset by a much greater car use are found elsewhere in the world. In Britain since 1960 fuel consumption per mile has fallen by 7% but this has been more than offset by the rise in the number of cars and the greater distance each are travelled every year — the amount of motor fuel consumed in Britain is therefore tripled since 1960.
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The fundamental problem in dealing with global warming is that there is no foreseeable technology that would, in the next few decades, stop the release of carbon dioxide every time fossil fuels are burned. ‘Carbon capture’ might be possible in a few decades’ time on large power stations but the internal combustion engine is not likely to be susceptible to this treatment in the foreseeable future. There are, of course, many technical improvements that could be made. If vehicles in the US were as fuel-efficient as those in Japan and Western Europe than large amounts of carbon dioxide output would be saved. Houses, and the electrical goods in them, could all be more energy-efficient. Greater use could be made of public transport. However, past experience suggests that extreme caution should be applied to any idea that technical improvements and increased energy efficiency will solve the problem of global warming. During the 20th century all industrialized countries became far more energy-efficient but this did not stop a huge rise in energy consumption. Indeed there is plenty of evidence that increasing energy efficiency, combined with greater wealth in society, simply increases demand for energy by far more than any efficiency savings.
To stabilize concentrations [of CO2] at around 400 ppm would require emissions to drop below 1990 levels within the next few years and decrease steadily thereafter to only a small fraction of the current output.
What are the prospects for achieving this goal? Energy efficiency can be increased in every area from generation to distribution to domestic and industrial use. Cars could be far more fuel-efficient, particularly in the United States. However, past experience suggests that increasing efficiency does not reduce overall consumption; in fact it tends to increase it.
David Owen, The Conundrum. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011. ISBN 9781594485619
Efficiency has been called “an invisible powerhouse” and “a fifth fuel.”
In a paper published in 1998, the Yale economist William D. Nordhaus estimated the cost of lighting throughout human history. An ancient Babylonian, he calculated, needed to work more than 41 hours to acquire enough lamp oil to provide a thousand lumen-hours of light — the equivalent of the standard 75-watt incandescent lamp burning for a little less than an hour. Thirty-five hundred years later, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson’s could buy the same amount of illumination, in the form of tallow candles, by working for about five hours and 20 minutes. By 1992, an average American with access to compact fluorescents, could do the same is less than half a second.
In other words, increasing the energy efficiency of illumination is nothing new; improved lighting has been “a lunch you’re paid to eat” ever since humans upgraded from cave fires (58 hours of labor for our early Stone Age ancestors, according to Nordhaus.) Furthermore, the effect is even larger than it seems, because our ever-growing ability to inexpensively illuminate our activities has transformed our lives in ways that go far beyond our expenditures on lighting. Increasingly inexpensive, efficient illumination has lengthened the workday, increased our opportunities for energy-hungry leisure, and given us access to luxuries that would otherwise be inconceivable. Many sources of artificial light — our television sets, our computer screens, our mobile telephones, the control panels of our appliances, in the front panels of vending machines, the projectors in movie theaters, the signs and billboards along our highways, the slot machines in Las Vegas casinos — don’t even register in our minds as forms of illumination. Indeed, we now generate light so extravagantly, and at so little incremental cost, that darkness itself become endangered natural resource.
Again, correlation proves nothing about causation. Nor is there anything earthshaking in pointing out that people nowadays are wealthier and consume more than people in the past. Yet it’s also apparent that sustained, dramatic improvements in the efficiency of lighting have not caused a drop in the total amount of energy we expend on illumination, or shrunk energy consumption overall — a fact that, at the very least, ought to make us skeptical about predictions that further efficiency gains will cause global energy consumption to fall.
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Harry Saunders, in a response to Amory Lovins’ objections to my New Yorker article, told me, “In Amory’s world, energy efficiency gains reduce energy use in a one-for-one fashion and everything else stays essentially the same as it would otherwise be. His ‘hoc’ (energy efficiency) accordingly leads him to a ‘propter hoc’ that is wildly off the mark. In reality, efficiency gains in the productive part of the energy economy unleash a host of effects that travel via multiple pathways through the economy: substitutions; output price reductions that feed other producers can work their way through products and services to the final consumer; newly enabled applications and products; and so forth. In economist-speak, Amory makes the mistake of treating energy-cost minimization as the economic force, when in fact it is overall profit-maximization and consumer welfare-maximization, which lead to far different energy-use trajectories. Actual energy-use dynamics are much more complex than this characterization, however alluring his argument may appear to the rational mind. Unfortunately he’s simply wrong.”
Saunders, in 2011, wrote, “Many of us, when contemplating the potential for reduced energy use, quite naturally reference our thoughts around those opportunities we see around us in our personal realm — energy used in the household or for private transportation. But this ‘end use’ energy consumption represents only a relatively small fraction of the energy we actually consume. Globally, some two-thirds of all energy that is consumed is the energy used to produce the goods and services we consume. Your washing machine may be very efficient in its use of energy, but think of the metal body alone in the energy required to mind, smelt, stamp, coat, assemble, and transport it to the dealer showroom where you bought the appliance. The energy ’embedded’ in your washing machine is substantial. The same is true for any product you purchase or service you consume.”
Efficiency improvements are not limited to energy. They take place throughout the global economy and push down costs at every level — from the mining of raw materials to the fabrication transportation of finished goods to the frequency and intensity of actual use — and falling costs stimulate both manufacturers and consumers. (Coincidentally or not, the growth of American refrigerator volume has been paralleled by the growth of American body mass index.) Harry Saunders has observed that efficiency increases occur in all factors of production — capital, labor, materials — and that all such gains also increase energy use, as well as synergistically reinforcing one another. He cites as an example the primary-metals sector of the economy — a sector that comprises companies which produce raw materials and alloys, mainly from ore and scrap. Between 1980 and 2000, he writes, this sector experienced “the aggressive introduction of electric arc furnaces for steel production that were highly efficient in the use of both capital and labor, in addition to energy” and this transformation contributed to average annual efficiency gains of 2.46% for capital, 3.30% for labor, 2.90% for energy, and 0.53% for materials — and resulted in an overall “‘all factor’ energy rebound” of 172%, thus more than negating any energy “savings” from efficiency gains.
“By this analysis,” Saunders concludes, “the increased efficiency of other factors not only increased energy consumption in this sector, but created significant backfire — a rebound in demand greater than 100%. The consequence of this phenomenon is rather profound. The problem is not so much that efficiency gains targeted at energy also improve the efficiency of other factors (a feature of energy efficiency that analysts such as Amory Lovins cite as a key ancillary benefit); the real problem is that technology gains, considered together, increase energy consumption. Without these gains, energy consumption would be lower. Analytically, this makes ‘teasing out’ energy-specific rebound effects extra challenging. But the larger problem is that from a climate perspective technology gains generally are a culprit in increasing energy use.”
In any context other than energy, such an observation would be uncontroversial. No economist would argue, for example, that making manufacturing plants more efficient causes total manufacturing to shrink. Leonard Brookes told me, “if you take all the resources available to you and succeed in raising the productivity of one of them, in relation to the others, then that particular one tends to have a higher level of employment in the economy. Now, this argument you see most clearly with labor. If you persuade the workers that they should increase their productivity, all of past history shows that this increases their employability. And there’s no reason that should be any different for energy. If you increase the productivity of energy, then this increases its employment level in the economy.”
Efficiency-related increases in one category, furthermore, spill into others. Refrigerators are the fraternal twins of air conditioners, which use the same energy-hungry compressor technology to force heat to do something that nature doesn’t want to do. Because of that technological relationship, innovations that push down the cost of refrigeration also pushed down the cost of air conditioning — thereby increasing its attractiveness to consumers — and vice versa. When I was a child, cold air was of far greater luxury than cold groceries. My parents’ first house — like 88% of all American homes in 1960 — didn’t even have a window air conditioner when they bought it, in 1954, although they broke down and got a unit for their bedroom during a heat wave that summer, when my mom was pregnant with me; their second house had central air conditioning but running it seem so expensive to my father that, for years, he could seldom be persuaded to turn it on, even at the height of a Kansas City summer, when the air was so humid it felt like a swimmable liquid. Then he replaced our ancient Carrier unit with a modern one, which consumed less electricity, and our house, like most American houses, evolved rapidly from being essentially un-air-conditioned to being air-conditioned all summer long.
Modern air-conditioners, like modern refrigerators are vastly more energy efficient than admit-20th-century predecessors — in both cases, partly because of tighter standards established by the Department of energy. But that efficiency is driven down the cost of operation, and manufacturing efficiencies and other productivity gains have driven down the cost of production, and those trends acting together have fueled market expansion, and the resulting economic growth is increase our wealth and therefore our ability to buy more. One consequence is that the ownership percentage of 1960 has now flipped: by 2005, according to the Energy Information Administration, 84% of all US homes had air-conditioning, and most of it was central. Stan Cox, the author of italics Losing Our Cool, told me that, between 1993 and 2005, “The energy efficiency of residential air-conditioning equipment improved 28%, but energy consumption for AC by the average air-conditioned household rose 37%.” That increase has been exacerbated by the fact that once people have air-conditioning they forget how to keep cool without it. My grandparents lived without air-conditioning in a hot part of the country but still managed to survive virtually a century apiece — and even in August my grandfather never took off his tie. They controlled summer temperatures by placing awnings over the windows, opening their windows and curtains at night enclosing them in the morning, and, especially hot nights, running a big whole-house fan that looked like a propeller salvaged from the Titanic. When I spent the night at their house during the summer, I would sleep on top of my covers with my head by the open window at the foot of my bed, and the basement zephyr would carry me off to sleep. I liked lying with my head by the window, because that way I could directly observe the many personal problems my grandparents’ neighbors, a large dysfunctional family.
In most of the United States today, such low-tech cooling techniques have essentially disappeared, to such an extent that when our houses feel hot to us we don’t even bother to draw the curtains, but instead reach for air-conditioner controls. One result, Cox has observed, is that we now use roughly as much electricity to cool buildings as we did for all purposes in 1955. Another is that a room that used to be a standard feature of houses in many parts of the country, the screened porch, has become far less common. (If you don’t have air-conditioning, the screened porch is usually the coolest room in your house: it’s where you go in the evening to beat the heat. But once you have air-conditioning the screened porch immediately becomes the hottest room in your house, and often seems unbearable by comparison. Once people who own old houses have added air-conditioning, they often enclose, air-condition, and heat their porches, so that they can continue to use them, year-round, without feeling uncomfortable. Energy use begets energy use.)
As Losing Our Cool clearly shows, similar effects permeate the economy. The same technological gains that propelled the growth of the US residential and commercial cooling have helped turn automobile air-conditioners, which barely existed in the 1950s, into standard equipment on even the least luxurious vehicles. (Similarly: power windows. In the United States, hand-cranked car windows are now almost as rare as hand-cranked car engines.) According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, running a midsized car’ s air conditioner increases fuel consumption by more than 20% — but the effects reach far beyond automotive cooling. Owning a comfortable car makes people willing to drive more miles and to endure commutes that would have seemed intolerable just a generation or two ago, thereby adding impetus to suburban sprawl and further reducing the appeal of (and demand for) public transit. Furthermore, access to cooled air is self-reinforcing: to someone who works in air-conditioned office in drives and air-conditioned car, living in an un-air-conditioned house becomes intolerable. A resident of Las Vegas once described cars to me as “devices were transporting air-conditioning between buildings.” In 1992, Gwyn Prins, a Cambridge University anthropologist, wrote that “physical addiction to air-conditioned air is the most pervasive and least noticed epidemic in modern America.” One sign of our dependence is the declining significance of seasonal clothing. The year-round business suit is a product air-conditioning; so are the Tweed sports jackets worn by Hollywood executives at mid-July.
Brookes told me, “Critics will say there’s a limit to how much you can backslide in your house. But you have to point out to them that they’re not taking into account the fact that, if you really do make it cheaper to get your home heating or central air-conditioning, then the demand for a better standard of home heating or air-conditioning goes further down the income spectrum.” In less than half a century it has become possible for Americans even a relatively modest means to spend the entire summer days without passing more than a few moments in air that hasn’t been artificially chilled — from home to car to work and shopping mall to home. (And although, as Lovins points out, we Americans don’t use our more efficient furnaces to heat our houses to “sauna temperatures” during the winter, we do now heat much more than twice as much living space per person as we did in 1950.) These same forces have accelerated the spread of cooling technologies all over the world. According to Cox, between 1997 and 2007 the use of air-conditioners tripled in China (where a third of the world’s units are now manufactured, and where many air-conditioner purchases are subsidized by the government). In Dubai, hotel swimming pools are often chilled, rather than heated, to keep swimmers from feeling poached. In India, air-conditioning is projected to increase tenfold in metropolitan Mumbai.
To suggest a causal connection between increased efficiency and increased consumption in this way strikes many economists and others is entirely misguided. Michael A. Levi, who is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written that “declining appliance prices have nothing to do with increased efficiency — in fact, everything else being equal, increased efficiency leads to higher appliance prices (because the equipment seller captures part of the energy cost savings).” Furthermore, he writes, “my guess is that the spread of air-conditioners (as well as cars and other such things) is driven mainly by the facts that people have more money to spend and that the devices are cheaper. The reduced cost of fueling them, I suspect, is a distant third.”
This seems logical; but it’s the kind of narrow, short-term, “bottom-up” analysis that Brookes and Saunders believe to be not only inadequate but misleading, since it focuses on specific end uses by consumers rather than on long-term macroeconomic effects. It also begs the question of where people get “more money to spend” and what makes devices cheaper, since even efficiency mavens treat increased efficiency as a form of income: it’s “the lunch are paid to eat.” (Even so, Saunders has shown, in the United States between 1987 and 2002, household energy use rose in every income category and was therefore driven by more than income increases alone.) Efficiency improvements, furthermore, producer Jesse Jenkins, who is the director of energy and climate policy for the Breakthrough Institute, has described as “frontier effects” — which, he writes, “result when efficiency gains unlock whole new areas of the production possibility frontier, leading to potentially vast new markets, or even whole new industries for energy services.”
Imagine you are an electronics engineer at Bell Labs in the 1940s. You feel frustrated by the large size, cost, and energy requirements of vacuum tubes, and you wish you had access to something that performs the same functions but with smaller, cheaper, and more energy-efficient. Then, in 1947, your colleague William Shockley and his team developed the transistor, which answers all those needs, and within a relatively short time of vacuum tube is on its way to becoming obsolete. But the transition from tubes to transistors doesn’t result only in the more-efficient redesign of electronic devices that existed in 1947: smaller, less energy-hungry radios; television sets that sit on narrower tables and don’t need to “warm up”; computers that are indistinguishable from Second World War-era computers except that they consume less power and fit into smaller rooms. Instead, entire new categories of energy consumption arise almost instantaneously — frontier effects — and all that new consumption accelerates and amplifies as transistors become still smaller, cheaper, and more efficient. Viewed solely in the context of 1947, the transistor is a brilliant breakthrough in efficiency, dematerialization and decarbonization: a portal to a low-energy future. But from the vantage point of early twenty-first century, 6½ decades after Shockley’s innovation, we can easily see that its real impact has been utterly different. Modern transistors are almost infinitely smaller and more energy-efficient than their mid-20th-century equivalents (since they are now etched onto computer chips and individually require only infinitesimal amounts of power) — but my house contains billions of them, and most of them perform functions that no one in 1947 could’ve anticipated. As a consequence by electronics-related consumption of energy and other resources has soared, not fallen — and so has the world’s. And, despite what Amory Lovins and other efficiency mavens have repeatedly claimed, the drop in unit energy consumption and the rising global energy consumption are not unrelated.
Frontier effects can work in both directions, since new markets and new industries often displace or even obliterate inefficient old ones. The free navigation app on my Droid X phone has made my year-old Garmin GPS device seem just about useless; the video camera on the iPhone killed the Flip. But if you widen your point of view, so that it takes in the entire economy you can easily see it the overall trend, historically and globally, has always been in the direction of more. Efficiency gains of all kinds have enabled modern workers to accomplish in minutes tasks that used to require hours, even weeks. But that doesn’t mean we call it quits after a few minutes, put up our feet, and spend the rest of our day twiddling our thumbs. We keep working and earning and spending and consuming — and we have the energy consumption, carbon output, and three-car garages to prove it.
Economic growth, by any definition, is the cumulative result of a vast and complexly interconnected web of factors, including productivity gains in efficiency improvements. And it’s not a force of evil, since it’s responsible for virtually all the tremendous comforts of modern life, including the innumerable reasons I’m grateful I’m alive today and not 100 years ago. But economic growth, no matter how it arises, has environmental consequences, too. If, in Vaclav Smil’s memorable phrase, energy flows are “the only real currency in the biosphere,” the ultimate source of our riches is clear enough. The issue is whether we have the moral courage and political will to try to bend it in a different direction.
Making US cars less costly to operate makes other countries’ cars less costly to operate, too — a bad thing, if the goal is to contain the direct and indirect environmental damage that is attributable, globally, to automobiles. The last thing the world needs is an inexpensive car gets 100 miles to the gallon, because once we have it there will no longer be a significant barrier, worldwide, to becoming a driver. And, as American history shows clearly, increasing the pool of drivers sets off a cascade of interconnected, seemingly irreversible environmental crises. More cars mean more roads, more roads mean more suburbs, and more suburbs mean more energy use and environmental damage in every category. And that goes for hybrids and electric cars every bit as much as it does for those powered by gasoline.
In 1976, Amory Lovins, in a celebrated article in Foreign Affairs called “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” argued that the United States faced a choice between its current, environmentally perilous energy policy, which depended on the steadily increasing use of fossil fuels and nuclear power, and what he described as a “soft energy path,” based on renewables, conservation, and efficiency. The conventional interpretation of our energy history since then is that America and most of the rest of the world have chosen the hard path over the soft, but in reality we’ve followed both. Nearly every energy-using device I own today is vastly more efficient than its 1976 equivalent: my house is better insulated; my furnace produces more heat from less oil; my windows are more weather-tight; my dishwasher and washing machine use less water, electricity, and detergent; in my car gets half again as many miles to the gallon despite being faster, heavier, less polluting, more mechanically reliable, and more equipped with fancy accessories. Yet my energy use and environmental impact have risen, because I have used my efficiency gains to leverage increases in my consumption, not to shrink it, and to satisfy wants that, 40 years ago, I didn’t know I had. Believing that we can address our energy and climate problems with efficiency gains and other “soft-path” strategies is like believing that homeowners can make their debt problems go away by increasing their charging limits on their credit cards. Lovins is undoubtedly correct when he says that we could live regally on little more than what we currently waste. But turning reduced waste into reduced consumption is a trick we haven’t figured out. Paying the world to eat lunch, so far, hasn’t caused the world to lose weight.
Every suburban parent knows that the easiest way to have a frank one-on-one with a child is take the child for a drive, since the child’s is strapped into his seat in more or less the posture of a psychotherapy patient and can’t escape.
A modern driver, in other words, gets vastly more benefit from a gallon of gasoline — makes far more economical use of fuel — than any Model T. owner ever did. But we have used those remarkable efficiency gains to increase our consumption, not to reduce it, and we now depend on our cars in ways that our grandparents and great-grandparents could never have imagined. Given that dependence, it shouldn’t be surprising to us that our driving-related energy use has grown by mind-boggling amounts. US consumption of motor gasoline has risen from about 11½ million gallons per day in 1920, to 43 million in 1930, 110 million in 1950, to 243 million in 1970, to 304 million in 1990, to approximately 390 million today. As always, the problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption. Paving roads reduces rolling friction, thereby boosting miles per gallon, but also makes distant destinations seem closer, making it easier for us to drive longer distances and enabling us to live in new, sprawling, energy-gobbling subdivisions far from where we work and shop. And the effect is self-reinforcing, because living in those subdivisions further increases our dependence on cars, and so pushes up the number of miles we drive in all our other activities. When efficiency advocates say that automotive efficiency initiatives lose only 10% of their fuel savings to rebound, they make it clear that they’re not looking at the real issue.
During a talk I gave in New York 2011, I described one possible vision of a green automobile: no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of 25 miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon. You’d be able to get your child to the emergency room, but could never run over to Wal-Mart for a bag of potato chips, and you’d take public transportation to work. It’s a given among environmentalists that Americans pay too little for gasoline, since a relative bargain pushes up our energy consumption by encouraging us to drive too much. Yet increasing fuel economy is the exact economic equivalent of reducing the price of gasoline, since doubling a car’s miles per gallon has the same effect, on the driver’s wallet, of halving the cost of the fuel. One of the arguments made by the proponents of electricity- and methane-powered vehicles is that they will (in theory) substantially lower the cost of driving. How likely is that to weaken our infatuation with automobiles?
Herman E. Daly — an ecological economist and professor emeritus of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland — has written of the environmental necessity of imposing frugality (i.e., artificially increasing energy’s scarcity through caps or taxes) before promoting efficiency (i.e., artificially increasing energy’s abundance). He has written that “frugality first induces efficiency second; efficiency first dissipates itself by making frugality appear less necessary. Frugality keeps the economy at a sustainable scale; efficiency of allocation helps us live better at any scale, but does not help us set the scale itself.” If we impose limits on our consumption of fossil fuels, advances in efficiency will enable us to live well with less damage; if we pursue efficiency alone, we will only make our problems worse.
Steve Sorrell, a senior fellow at Sussex University and coeditor of a comprehensive recent book on rebound, called Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Consumption, told me, “I think the point may be that Jevons has yet to be disproved. It is rather hard to demonstrate the validity of his proposition, but certainly the historical evidence to date is wholly consistent with what he was arguing.” That might be something to think about as you climb into our plug-in hybrids and continue our journey, with ever-increasing efficiency, down the road paved with good intentions.
The modern American environmental movement was inspired, in 1962, by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which described the environmental impacts of pesticides. The global spread of inexpensive, highly efficient outdoor lighting has arguably been his ruinous — and it’s more insidious, because the impact isn’t obvious. (For clear depictions of the scale of this problem, type in “earth at night” at Google.)