By David Lapp Jost
Michael Moore frustrated sustainability advocates recently with his Planet of the Humans “documentary.” And that frustration was quite justified. Moore used thoroughly debunked anti-renewable talking points, and some of his research was lazy. Especially considering Moore’s excellent and hard-hitting past work and the vulnerable state of fossil fuel industries that absolutely need to be dismantled and deserve a body blow, this was a tragic missed opportunity.
But Moore directed our attention to an under-appreciated point: our energy and ecological crises are not simply problems to be solved by shifting toward green power. They are also problems of waste and overconsumption. In acknowledging this, we can set realistic expectations and show how a cleanly powered, efficient future is possible. (Legitimate reports on how to achieve 100% renewable energy always emphasize this as well.)
In recent decades, a continuous stream of commentators have repeatedly posed a question: could we power our society renewably? They frequently say, “no.”’ From national papers of record, to hit pieces from right-wing media, to energy experts, many self-proclaimed pragmatists have been eager to explain why we simply couldn’t power our advanced lifestyle renewably. Sadly, the stream of articles continues today. These arguments are echoed in political and policy circles and in day-to-day debates and local media. The myth that a sustainable economy is impossible has done incalculable damage.
While this skeptical view is present in media and scholarly work, the impact surely falls most on politicians, through hundreds of millions of dollars of fossil fuel lobbying. It has sowed doubt and distracted from the imperative of developing clean sources of energy. And, indeed, many wonks have very successfully demonstrated the infeasibility of meeting our exact levels of consumption (and waste!) renewably. But they have failed to consider: do we really need to consume and waste as much energy as we do? Does it even help us live well?
A sustainable economy would not need nearly as much energy as we use now. But almost without exception, these critics do not even bother mentioning energy efficiency in their writing, or our system’s tremendous waste. They take it for granted that we simply *need* to consume as much energy as we do.
Neglecting basic questions of efficiency and waste that don’t even touch human well-being, they also don’t consider whether we could maintain a high quality of life while consuming different goods that entail lower energy consumption. For these commentators, the trumped-up question of meeting our current consumption “needs”’ replaces a much better question: could we cut waste, use efficient technology, change consumption patterns, and use renewable energy to power a sustainable, comfortable, and healthy lifestyle? That second question is flexible, hopeful, and the answer is definitely “yes!”
To confront fossil fuel interests that attack clean energy as unrealistic, we need to articulate this vision of a clean, efficient economy in which, yes, we could get our energy sustainably.
We currently waste a massive amount of energy that we do not need to produce, and we under-use energy efficient technologies. In one sense, we waste about 60% of our energy because internal combustion engines and fossil fuel plants are so inefficient.
But we waste even more in ways that we inaccurately think of as essential consumption. From homes, to factories, to universities, to businesses, many or maybe most institutions in the U.S. could implement energy efficiency measures that would pay off in 5–10 years, outperforming the stock market. We waste unimaginable energy in idling vehicles in traffic, in thrown-out food or crops that rot in fields, and in thoughtless and costly use of heating and electricity. And, of course, from vehicles to factory and farming machinery designed with unrealistically low expectations for energy costs, we could easily make or use technology that consumes less power. We’ve designed machines based on roughly $0.10/kWh prices in mind that irresponsibly ignore environmental externalities. They don’t have to be so wasteful.
Beyond addressing waste and inefficiency, perhaps we could re-evaluate our needs. Americans produce three times as much CO2 per capita as French people. Do Americans live better than British or French people who consume and pollute about one-third as much? No, not if the metrics of lifespan, vacation time (4–6 weeks a year in Western Europe, typically), access to free and high-quality education and healthcare, safety, and a clean environment are important. The American lifestyle is not comfortable compared to other rich countries; maybe we could live like British people, be more comfortable, and then only need to worry about producing 1/3 as much energy renewably?
Using public transit, biking, and walking are pleasant ways to commute. Homes do not have to be huge to be happy. Well-designed, compact cities save everyone time and money. Less air pollution means less asthma and lung cancer, pollution-related problems which afflict low-income and especially African American communities (communities that consume far less energy than average) in a sharply disproportionate way due to proximity to power plants and traffic. Less driving would reduce the 3–4 million serious injuries and deaths in auto accidents every single year in the US. Not only could we live like the British, but it would be good for us.
Let’s consider a country that has very successfully become more efficient, even without re-envisioning its quality of life. Since 1990, Germany’s population has grown by about 5%, or 4 million people. Germany’s real incomes have also increased, and Germans have access to free education, universal and very good healthcare, a flexible transport system, luxurious vacation time, and a strong labor market. Germans work almost 25% less than Americans and less than almost anyone else in the developed world (Germany’s best-kept secret). While maintaining this extraordinary quality of life and extending it to more people, Germans have cut carbon emissions by 1/3. Only to a modest degree was this through renewable energy.
As the chart below shows, this cut came from improvements in all sectors of the economy as government policies imposed high costs on waste and as people became more responsible and thought about their actions in ethical terms. This is what success looks like, and as more countries take this path, it becomes easier for everyone as market forces, technological development, and innovation spread across borders.
Chart courtesy Clean Energy Wire.
Clean energy advocates have a huge amount to gain from developing a new narrative around waste, efficiency, and consumption. In the media, in scientific circles, in policy circles, and in politics, we need to resolutely answer naysayers who are working against a clean future. If we can envision a society that wastes less and consumes more efficiently, it’s also far easier to envision meeting our actual energy needs with renewables, and we can debunk attacks on the viability of clean industries.
Reducing waste, using energy efficiently, and consuming less will accelerate the energy transition. Covid-19 has highlighted an emerging reality: because clean energy costs so little to run, fossil fuels are taken off the grid first when energy demand goes down. Renewables are increasingly the base load. We have now reached a point where energy savings translate directly into fewer fossil fuel plants, which means a weaker fossil fuel lobby buying off legislators and trying to maintain its death grip on the world. And, reductions and improvements in energy use would have enormous payoffs in grid efficiency, with less infrastructure needed to transmit and store electricity. A clean energy revolution is more politically palatable with less need to build controversial new transmission lines and batteries. Finally, many entrepreneurs, advocates, and leaders who support or work in energy efficiency also work with renewables; strengthening one sector will naturally strengthen leaders in the other.
A clean-powered future is possible. And even if we do not expect to get there soon, every step we take pays off in a lighter climate crisis and more manageable floods, in cleaner air and lowered lung cancer and asthma cases, and in a brighter tomorrow. Consuming and wasting less plays a critical role in this vision.