Conservation Will Not Save Us

As an approach to dealing with the world’s energy needs, conservation has two problems. It does not address the real problem, and it is not sufficient to solve the problem it does address.

Quantitatively Insufficient

Only those who already have plenty can cut back. Energy use has, not surprisingly, a strong positive correlation with standard of living. As with everything, there is a law of diminishing returns, and it is only one element in the broader social context ; but, while there may be quibbling over whether Australians (who use, on a long-time average, a continuous power of 7450 watts per person from all sources), Americans (9540 W), or Swedes (7280 W) live better, few would deny that they all tend to be better off than Uruguayans (1650 W), who in turn have it head and shoulders over the people of Senegal (360 W).

Energy makes it possible to purify drinking water and decontaminate sewage, preventing the worst outbreaks of communicable disease. More to the point, it does so without further burdening the natural systems which tend to be overtaxed in areas which are at all built-up, or are suffering from drought or other kinds of environmental stress. This is just one of many ways in which access to energy can be literally a matter of life and death.

It also illustrates the positive environmental effects of energy. The biggest single driver of environmental destruction is poverty ; it is the poor who burn clearings in the rainforest in order to plant for a year or two. A little artificial fertilizer, to allow them to work the same plots long-term, and transportation to get their crops to market, would be the strongest measure of protection for land and wildlife. The greatest counteragent to poverty in the world is access to energy. Rural electrification was surely one of the chief factors in the twentieth-century prosperity of the United States, the very prosperity which made possible Clean Air and Clean Water Acts which no poor country has the least hope of putting into practice.

Jevon’s Paradox is the observation that, when efficiency in use of a resource improves, the total use of that resource likewise increases. This is not really a paradox, but a consequence of the fact that greater efficiency means a greater benefit from each unit of the resource used. It is also not an invariable rule, since demand for a resource is limited by the demand for what it is used to produce. But energy is a factor of production for almost everything.

While human appetites are certainly not insatiable, the fact is that the world is full of people who are very far from satiety. World energy demand has been rising, and we may safely anticipate that it will continue to rise, no matter what measures of efficiency are employed. That is the practical fact of the situation, and any response which ignores it is doomed to failure, and worse, to irrelevance.

Conservation is not a source of new energy. It is only good sense to curtail the unproductive uses of energy, those which contribute the least to human happiness and wellbeing. At the end of that road, however, extensive and crying needs yet remain.

No doubt the very uneven distribution of energy use across the world reflects some real waste and extravagance. Kuwait, an oil-exporting country which reports a consumption of 16.25 kW per head of its small population, is a likely candidate. But that is no standard to measure by in a world which also includes Burkina Faso, where a figure is not even reported.

Suppose for a moment that prosperity and a fully satisfactory standard of living proves achievable at a consumption of 4660 watts, the present average over the European Union — which includes some less than wealthy countries, such as Bulgaria. Since the world average today is 2430 watts, an increase of global energy use (and therefore of production) by ninety per cent would be required, even after drastic cuts in many countries. And that is with no allowance for future growth!

Conceptually Flawed

Just what does ‘conservation’ signify? If it means using resources so as to get the maximum of benefit from each unit, then of course it is a good and sensible thing. If it means arbitarily limiting the use of a particular resource, without concern for the consequences, then we must question it at the very least.

The idea of “doing less with less” appeals to those who are disgusted with the wastefulness of capitalistic society, with its imperatives to produce and sell as rapidly as possible, and let the morrow look out for itself. But the plain fact is that the billions who lack access to adequate drinking water are in no position to reject crass materialism. And it is pointless to argue whether we truly need cities, and all they bring with them, when more than half the world’s people are living in urbanized areas.

Sad to say, the opportunity for people in traditional societies around the world to integrate elements of modernity with their accustomed ways of living has largely passed. (We cannot acquiesce in the claim that it never existed at all, because the Machine has its own logic : technology is a human creation, and humans choose how to apply it.) When confronted with entire displaced nations, the necessity is to ensure that they have the chance to find their own ways forward. This they certainly cannot do if they are debarred “for their own good” from the use of industrial technology and the energy that drives it.

Indeed, the whole idea smacks very strongly of the wealthy extolling the virtues of poverty to discourage rivals. And that is criminal — and worse yet, idiotic — when atomic energy and ultimately space resources offer abundance for all. No, energy — not Internet access, or sexuality, or race — is the defining social-justice issue of our times. Access to energy is vital for human beings to reach their potential. Rejecting atomic energy is embracing injustice.

Kernkraft? Bitte!