Huber, Peter W. Hard Green
New York: 1999
Pages 61 and 143
Purity is half the Soft Green battle; efficiency is the other half. How much more efficient it must be to eat soft. How much less energy and material it must take to live simply, naturally, and close to the earth. How much more efficient it must be to brow crops without the vast, costly, ruinous, destructive excesses of fertilizer and pesticide.
Efficiency figures even more prominently on the Soft agenda for energy. Most important for Lovins, more important than all the organic fuel, is conservation. “Technical fixes,” Lovins insists, can cut energy “waste” in half. “Negawatts” are cheaper, safer, better in every respect than megawatts. Making cars more efficient is soft, drilling for more off-shore oil is hard. Roof insulation is soft, artic gas, hard. Even better than solar in Arizona or a windmill in California is utility-sponsored home weatherization in New York.
The best thing of all about efficiency is that it entails no pain. Accused of peddling a policy of painful privation, Lovins responds that he “explicitly assume(s) no significant change in where we live, how we live or how we run our society,” and that he “goes to a hell of a lot of trouble to make the phrasing accurate.”
It is in the promotion of efficiency that Soft energy pundits claim to have achieved the most, the fastest. The drive for efficiency succeeded beyond all expectation. Our ceilings today are insulated twice as well, our walls 40 percent better, our floors four times as well. New furnaces, air-conditioning units, heat pumps, refrigerators, water heaters, washers, and dishwashers all use much less energy than their predecessors. Gas furnaces are 20 percent more efficient, mainly because pilot lights have been replaced with electronic starters. The efficiency of refrigerators has more than doubled; washing machines and dishwashers are 60 percent more efficient. Cars averaged 13.5 miles per gallon in 1975, 22.5 mpg in 1995. Extremely efficient fluorescent lights are proliferating. And almost all of these excellent numbers continue to rise steadily.
In other words, billions upon billions of barrels and watts have been saved by technology that simply made them unnecessary. The Softs quote these statistics all the time. It is easy to convert such numbers into equivalent numbers of oil tankers unfilled and power plants unbuilt. The Softs often do.
Come to think of it, we made comparable improvements in the efficiency of our diets during this same period, too. We zealously “conserved” calories. We favored “efficient” foods, foods that deliver extra miles of repletion on fewer gallons of calories: low-fat milk, diet sodas, and fat-free potato chips. Between 1970 and 1990 the average Americans has added the sugar equivalent of about a pound a year of artificial sweetener to his diet. We recently added the marvelous olestra to our larder of caloric efficiency. It has the “mouth feel” of pure oil yet is indigestible by the human gut.
Yes indeed, we have certainly grown very smart at conserving calories. Yet our contumacious scale refuses to acknowledge the fact. Could it be broken? We know in our hearts that it isn’t. Wardrobes full of clothes that are now several sizes too small tell us the same. The scale is not broken. Despite all those calories conserved, we have just grown fatter.
The Softs were wrong. Completely, laughably, ridiculously, preposterously wrong. For what it’s worth, Hard is far more efficient than Soft. But it’s not worth what the Softs say it’s worth, for the simple reason that “efficient” has almost nothing at all to do with “frugal.” This is true for food, and it is true for energy. The whole gigantic myth to the contrary is no more or less than a case study in wishful, credulous, anti-scientific propaganda….
Outrageous though the proposition may sound, it is the free market that delivers real efficiency—economic efficiency -- in refrigerators, cars, and homes. Not because it minimizes use of oil, watts or an other single factor of production. But because economic freedom lets us optimize our economic choices along the many different dimensions that value and wealth comprise: comfort, pleasure, and satisfaction. Yes, a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles is, indeed, “efficient.” It wastes gas, but it is still efficient in the holistic, economic sense, at least once pollution costs are properly internalized. The gas guzzler makes the driver who buys it richer, in that he is happier owning the car then something else he might have bought with the money. That’s why he bought it. That’s what “efficiency” means, in economic parlance. And as I shall argue in the following section, that kind of efficiency, economic efficiency, is the only kind that limits growth. It does so by making us richer.
But the Softs, as I say, just don’t distinguish economic efficiency, which in the end is green, from the thermodynamic kind, which isn’t, at leas not the way they set about delivering it. They deliver it by prescription. And whatever it may do for the motor in your refrigerator, prescription is economically inefficient. Economic efficiency is never conjured out of the depths of government codes, registers, proclamations, prescription, regulation, and meddlesome forms of tax or subsidy. However loudly they may be rationalized in efficiency’s good name, those things deliver only its counterfeit, its precise opposite. Governments can’t prescribe or impose efficiency, not the economic kind. Free choice in a free market is as efficient as you can get.
We ought to have learned that by now.