Winner, Langdon. Energy Regimes and The Ideology of Efficiency
Beverly Hills: 1982
To be taken seriously in energy policy deliberations, therefore, every concerned person must first bow down before the altar. One must swear to God and country that what ultimately matters are questions of efficiency. Something resembling an oath is taken that pledges one to examine all possible alternatives to discover those which give the most energy per dollar. It is possible to fiddle a bit with the specific definition of efficiency one employs. Some hope to modify the ritual by arguing that we must first identify and measure the end uses to which energy is put. But suggestions of that kind, as helpful as they are in certain respects, do nothing to change the fundamental nature of the discussion. One still puts Btus or Kilowatt-hours in the numerator and dollars in the denominator and worships the resulting ratio as gospel.
A fascination with efficiency has a long history in American life, announced early on, for example, in Benjamin Franklin’s maxims about the virtue of economizing on time, effort, and money. During the progressive era of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, efficiency became something of an obsession among the well-educated in the United States. Understood to be a criterion applicable to personal and social life as well as to mechanical and economic systems, efficiency was upheld as a goal valuable in its own right, one strongly linked to the progress of science, the development of industry, the rise of professionalism, and the conservation of natural resources.
In politics, the rule of efficient, well-trained professionals was seen as a way of sanitizing government of the corruption of party machines and eliminating the influence of selfish interest groups. Throughout the progressive era and in decades since, an eagerness to define important public issues as questions of efficiency has been a common strategy; adherence to this norm has been welcomed as a way of achieving the ends of democracy without having to deal with democracy as a living process. Thus, it is not surprising to see efficiency reappear at the center of today’s energy debate. For Americans, to demonstrate the efficiency of a course of action conveys a sense of scientific truth, political wisdom, social consensus, and a compelling moral urgency.
In fact, an astonishing feature of today’s energy projections and recommendations is how thoroughly devoid they are of any vision of history, how completely divorced from any theoretical grasp of the present situation other than that provided by neoclassical economics. When history is mentioned at all, it is typically represented on a set of graphs that show the rise and decline of various energy sources, rising or falling energy prices per unit consumed, and the relationship between energy use and gross national product over several decades. The history of the energy problem, it would seem, began in 1973, although some reports proudly point out that the cognoscenti had gotten wind of it three or four years earlier. If there is a story to be told about what it meant for modern society to adapt to the expanding use of hydropower, coal, natural gas, and petroleum, that story is never mentioned.
To persist in looking for the most efficient energy path to sustained economic growth, to establish the lowest cost kilowatt-hour or Btu as a primary social goal, to talk as if everyone had an equal share in the achievement of these objectives—such an approach means that questions about the quality of human association as affected by the social organization of energy will forever be put aside.