A piece of good news consistently misunderstood by both sides in the energy debate is that we use far less energy that we once did. From the right, the argument is that energy creates wealth and we can ignore any consequences, but from the left, equally misinformed, is the idea that using energy is inherently unsustainable in a world of declining resources. We need to go back to the most consistently wrong scientist of all time, Thomas Malthus, followed by the even more depressing William Jevons to find the root of these misconceptions. As usual, the simplest theories are often the wrongest. Flat earth, earth at center of universe ,moon made of cheese and flames coming out of taps sounds logical to primitive societies, but history has proved that more people and more energy have improved the world, not destroyed it.
An excellent recent book Paul Sabin’s “The Bet” provides a history of the modern energy debate of the last 60 years. Bill Gates, said it was one of his favourite books of 2013, and this is a man who can afford a book habit:
Sabin chronicles the public debate about whether the world is headed for an environmental catastrophe. He centers the story on Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, who wagered $1,000 on whether human welfare would improve or get worse over time. Without ridiculing either proponent, Sabin shows how their extreme views contributed to the polarized debate over climate change and other issues that continues today.
BTW, BG also chose two of my non-energy favourites,Jared Diamond’s “The World until Yesterday”and Marc Levinson’s The Box and explained his choices thus:
...these books tell amazing stories of human ingenuity. It is this ingenuity that helps explain why the world keeps getting better, and why at the end of each year I look forward to the next one with hope and optimism.
Yet, as Sabin points out, the environmental movement has consistently, and wrongly, been heralds of doom. That’s even stranger since the greens have been allied (wrongly today in my view) with the left, a movement historically optimistic compared to reactionary forces who tended to take a more gloomy view of human nature. This is the Achilles Heel of modern environmentalism: they are so depressing that they provide no hope. As the Man of the Year, Pope Francis notes:
“An evangeliser must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral"
On the subject of hope and optimism, two opposites agree that the narrative for the planet at the end of 2013, or dawn of 2014 if you prefer, is one where things are getting better. From Think Progress on the left:
Contrary to what you might have heard, virtually all of the most important forces that determine what make people’s lives good — the things that determine how long they live, and whether they live happily and freely — are trending in an extremely happy direction. While it’s possible that this progress could be reversed by something like runaway climate change, the effects will have to be dramatic to overcome the extraordinary and growing progress we’ve made in making the world a better place.
From the Right, Fraser Nelson, editor of the UK’s Spectator:
Next year marks a millennium since the sermon given in 1014 by Archbishop Wulfstan in York where he declared that “the world is in a rush and is getting close to its end.” Ever since, people (especially clergy) have had a similar story to tell: the world is moving too fast, people are too selfish and things are going to the dogs. The truth is that the world is in a better shape now than any time in history – a claim which may sound bizarre, but it’s borne out by the facts.
BTW, Nelson does engage in self-criticism rare among the UK press:
The LBC interviewer joked that I’d have my journalistic credentials stripped from me: isn’t journalism about telling folk how bad things are going?
It’s a very good point. Good news seldom makes good copy, and not because of a wicked conspiracy by the press. The positive stuff is less likely to be read, or to sell newspapers. This is due to human nature: as a species we’re more interested in what’s going wrong than going right. If you’re down the pub and see a friend and you say your neighbor has just ditched her husband after a massive bust-up etc – people will listen. Say your neighbour’s had a good 2013 and expects a better 2014 and no one would care. The same is true in journalism – which creates a heavy bias in the media towards what’s going wrong.
But what is going wrong with the world is vastly outweighed by what is going right. And the run of depressing news stories can actually blind us to the greatest story of our age: we really are on our way to making poverty history. Thanks to the way millions of people trade with each other, via a system known by its detractors as global capitalism.
It’s a story that no one organisation or government can take credit for – and a story that doesn’t particularly suit anyone’s agenda. But the story is there, for those with an eye to see it.
Going back to energy, a consistent plea from greens is for everyone to simply make do with less. What they object to hearing, because there’s no capital in good new is a story like this :
The average amount of electricity consumed in U.S. homes has fallen to levels last seen more than a decade ago, back when the smartest device in people's pockets was a Palm pilot and anyone talking about a tablet was probably an archaeologist or a preacher.
Because of more energy-efficient housing, appliances and gadgets, power usage is on track to decline in 2013 for the third year in a row, to 10,819 kilowatt-hours per household, according to the Energy Information Administration.
There are some great figures in this story: $1.36 to power an iPad compared to $28.21 for a desktop computer, or how a 40 inch LED TV uses 80% less than cathode ray tubes. Over the years I’ve pointed out that LED lighting will save more power than the entire UK nuclear industry currently produces. This from July 2008 shows that I once had a life before shale gas:
Today, an estimated 22 percent of the electricity produced goes to lighting buildings. A highly efficient form of OLED lighting could significantly reduce the electricity demand and boost savings. Another factor influencing broad adoption of LEDs is the fact that they outlast incandescent bulbs. Over the next 20 years, the rapid adoption of LED lighting in the United States could reduce electricity demands by 62 percent and thus eliminate 258 million metric tons of carbon emissions, according to the Department of Energy.
According to Jevons, and today’s greens, any energy, or resources in general, that we save gets used elsewhere. But on a global basis, energy intensity per unit of GDP becomes far more efficient. In the UK, we used 203 million tonnes oil equivalent of energy in 2012, compared to 204 in 1968 when there were 9 million less of us, breathing dirtier air and living shorter lives walking much more than driving. But do we get to hear about that?
Pessimism sells. It shifts books and newspapers, sends ratings soaring. It fills lecture halls, wins research grants, makes political careers. We are fed this constant diet of doom, predicting anything from meteorological Armageddon to a tyranny of austerity, and so it is little wonder that we tend to miss the bigger story. A cold, dispassionate look at the facts reveals that we are living in a golden era. and that, if you use objective measures, 2013 has been the best year in human history.
2014 promises to be even better. But who makes money selling good news? The gas industry provides a good counter example: We have a great product that people have forgotten how to sell, one in which familiarity has bred content, unawareness and thus ultimately contempt. We now have far more gas than we know what to do with. We need to create demand for our product, and that has to start not with the defensiveness of the past, but with enthusiasm.
The airline industry doesn’t take out ads telling people planes won’t crash. Gas has to start selling their benefits. Hope can be ultimately more profitable. But first, the gas industry has to stop acting as if it's coming back from a funeral.