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Energy Efficiency: Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

In “Is Efficiency Sufficient?” (prepared for the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, eceee, with funding from the European Climate Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Program), Chis Calwell notes that we’ve successfully increased efficiency, but energy loads are increasing. We could start a Manhattan project for efficiency, but unless we have a serious cultural shift in our approach not only to energy but to material, we will continue our trend to increased energy consumption.

The elephant in the living room is, well, the living room! When I was growing up we had a huge black & white TV in the living room. The lights dimmed when it came on, it took two and a half minutes to warm up and baked the paint off the shelf above it. But we turned it on a half hour a day (well, an hour on Sundays, for “Lassie” and “Walt Disney Presents,” the show before the “Wide World of Color”).

Free market capitalism runs on gains not reductions. If we are to rely on the market for solutions, there must be some real economic gain for reduction that is greater than cost reduction. In today’s world that would mean a sliding scale for energy that is opposite of what we have now: paying less per kWh for electricity if you use less rather than less if you use more. This certainly isn’t the “natural” order of free market, the free market relies on scarcity to increase price across the board. In Europe, they’ve increased the cost of energy “artificially” through taxes, acknowledging that the free market is severely short-sighted. In this country our gasoline taxes are going down as percentage of the cost because they are levied per gallon rather than per dollar. And there is no one who would suggest raising those taxes if we can’t raise taxes on the wealthy.

To a large extent this is also biological. Natural selection has favored those in our species that have amassed wealth, first in the form of stored food, now in the form of a much broader array of material—TVs, automobiles, computers, weapons, etc.—but the future of the status quo, if not the species, relies on cooperation. Perhaps if we can get our big brains to override our reptilian ones in this regard, we’ll be able to turn around. Otherwise we may be in for the most Malthusian of population curves.

Whenever I write something like this I ask myself, “How in the world does this help?” I’m not sure. I’m a “glass half full” kind of guy, though. I’ve seen this kind of trend before and often it ends with an abrupt shift when there is some kind of catalytic event. So I remain optimistic that a catalytic event will preclude an apocalyptic one.

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