“Mounting evidence suggests that the United States is approaching (if not beyond) the level where further energy growth costs more than it is worth.”
– John Holdren. “Too Much Energy, Too Soon, a Hazard.” Windsor Star, August 11, 1975.
John Holdren in 1975 was assistant professor of energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley. Forty years later, he is in his seventh year as the science advisor to President Obama.
What has not changed is an his anti-energy philosophy, as evidenced by this long-forgotten 1975 essay. It is reproduced in its entirely to add to the Holdren record, one that he has chosen not to renounce or demote in his present capacity.
The United States is threatened far more by the hazards of too much energy, too soon, than by the hazards of too little, too late.
The hazards of too much, which have been as widely underestimated as the liabilities of too little have been exaggerated, include diverting financial resources from compelling social needs, making hasty commitments to approved technologies, and generating environmental and social costs that harm human welfare more than the extra energy improves it.
The idea that slower growth of energy use is better follows from several lines of reasoning – all supported by an accumulating volume of evidence.
First, rapid growth of energy use fosters expensive mistakes. The pressure of growth encourages the nation to seize any and all sources of supply that seem available. Some of these sources seized in haste are overpriced, some will prove unreliable and hence even more expensive than anticipated. Some will produce unexpected environmental and social burdens.
Second, even at slower growth rates, a point exists beyond which more energy can do more harm than good.
The relation of energy to well-being, in other words, is two-sided. Through its productive application in economic-technological systems energy fosters well-being: but the environmental and social effects of mobilizing and using energy can undermine well-being by means of direct damage to health, property, and human values, and by disrupting indispensable “public-service” functions of natural systems (climate regulation, fertility maintenance, waste disposal, controls on pests and disease organisms).
The higher the level of energy use already attained, the more likely it is that the economic-technological benefits of an additional unit of energy will be outweighed by the social and environmental costs. Mounting evidence suggests that the United States is approaching (if not beyond) the level where further energy growth costs more than it is worth.
Third, conservation of energy can mean doing better, not doing without. The essence of conservation is the art of extracting more well-being from pound automobiles for half-mile round trips to the market to fetch a six-pack of beer, consumes the beer in buildings that are overcooled in summer and overheated in winter and then throws the aluminum cans away at an energy loss equivalent to a third of a gallon of gasoline per six-pack, this “primitive existence” argument strikes me as the most offensive kind of nonsense.
Fourth, saving a barrel of oil is generally cheaper than producing a barrel. Reducing waste through higher efficiency makes more energy available for genuine needs, but at smaller economic cost than the alternatives of more mining, more drilling, and more power plants. In this sense, conservation is the cheapest new energy source.
Finally, less energy can mean more employment. The energy-producing industries comprise the most capital-intensive and least labor-intensive major sector of the economy. Accordingly, each dollar of investment capital taken out of energy production and invested in something else, and each personal-consumption dollar saved by reducing energy use and spent elsewhere in the economy, will create more jobs than are lost.
The notion of a one-to-one link between energy use and well-being is the most dangerous delusions in the energy-policy arena. Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland all produced more gross national product in 1974 than did the United States despite energy use per capital of less than half that in the United States.
It is time we studied how the frugal Europeans get so much prosperity from so little energy. By carving the fat from our energy budget and wisely applying these savings, we probably could hold United States energy growth between now and the year 2000 to one per cent per year, instead of the three to four percent so widely forecast.
If our goal is to maximize human well-being, accounting both for the benefits of energy use and likely costs, we should not aim at more energy growth than this. And I believe it possible we should even aim at less.