Vaclav Smil,  Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties
Cambridge, MA
MIT Press, 2003
ISBN 0262194929
Chapter 6,

Page 336

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, 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….

Page 337

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.

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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?

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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.