How Improved Efficiency Harms the Environment

           by Andrew Rudin, August 1999

If you wanted to save the whales, would you support a market system which consumed them more efficiently? For example, would you vote to subsidize the manufacture of more efficient fish-processing factories? Would you offer rebates for efficient fish consumption in restaurants? Or, do you think the only way to save whales is to not consume them at all?

In summary, our energy policy, thanks to American environmentalists and politicians, is to consume our resources efficiently without limit. To suggest limits to waste is American, but to suggest limits to consumption is not. It's like getting fatter while being on a diet and feeling good about it. We consume enormous amounts of energy and material efficiently.

The influence of improved efficiency is very apparent in our use of energy. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, before the recent emphasis on improved energy efficiency, we saw many examples of using energy within limits. Princeton Universitystudents studied identical houses to show that half the changes in energy use were due to the behavior of the occupants. Chefs prepared identical meals on the same stove using a third of the energy of their colleagues. There are a large number of examples in which the same benefits are had with no improvements of technology, but that is out of vogue.

We can most clearly see the difference between limited consumption and improved efficiency in the behavior of electric utilities. Most of the time, utilities will promote electricity as being an efficient way to provide comfort, light and mechanical power. Then, on the hottest and most humid day in the summer, they revert to conservation by telling their customers to turn things off, knowing that "off" is their only salvation.

Limits to our energy use implied by agreement to the December 1997 Kyoto Protocol apply to each of us. We hope that improved efficiency will allow us to comply in ways that do not challenge our wasteful lifestyles. But just like electric utilities which are faced with greater demand than they can supply, we must sooner or later admit that we are using more and more energy. Our singular goal can't be just improved efficiency, but using less energy.

Why is improved efficiency so popular?

Efficiency is good for business. Owners and investors emphasize that improved efficiency must be our mantra if America is to remain globally-competitive. Improved efficiency has also become the manifesto of our environmental movement because the concept is politically-correct, fundable and the basis of economic growth.

The most seductive aspect of improved energy efficiency is that it justifies our lifestyles. Take the example of car ownership. We can own as many cars as we want, and drive them as far as we want, as long as we think they are efficient. In comparison to the fuel economy average our 1997 fleet, however, Model T Fords got more miles per gallon. All we have done is add weight and amenities -- more bang, with few if any noticeable bucks, with sport utility vehicles exemplifying the greatest amount of amenities to date -- volume, height, weight, status, safety and so on.

And we have lost additional ground because many of us now wish to drive alone. Between 1980 and 1990, single occupancy vehicles increased 35%. We used to think of driving as a family thing... "See the USA in your Chevrolet" did not imply spending years alone, traffic-jammed on super-slab parking lots inside our mobile tin boxes. Vehicle miles per gallon increased as passenger miles per gallon reversed any gains.

Efficiency ratios do not keep environmentally-relevant scores because our environment does not respond to miles per gallon; it responds to gallons. Efficiency is a game without any limits to consumption or goals with which to keep score. In contrast, energy conservation implies limits, like giving away your car, or not driving it.

Efficiency also takes first prize in motivating us to continually landfill obsolete things. Because efficiency is a ratio of what is to what ought to be, it stimulates our discontent with each item that captures our attention. Nature seems to need our help; just look at all those wasted seeds from weeds and trees in our back yards, for example. We should be able to genetically-engineer ourselves toward cleaner lawns, shouldn't we? We feel that we must scientifically improve each and every natural process, and if we make them more efficient, we can gain greater benefit, more bang, with no limit. Cognito ergo consume.

For example, each part of our computers is becoming more efficient -- bigger hard drives, faster speed, more memory, bigger monitors, faster modems... you name it. When we buy one, some newly-designed improvement deems it obsolete before it's even delivered. How does that obsolescence harm the environment? Germany's Wuppertal Institute calculates that the manufacture of one personal computer uses two thirds of the weight of material needed to manufacture one car, and that does not include materials to manufacture the car's electronics.

Our emphasis on efficiency is an emphasis on things, particularly the benefits of using things. We know that efficiency is a ratio of benefits to costs, bangs to bucks, but only the bang makes things sell. Costs are magically transformed into benefits through low interest payments, leases, rebates, discounts, sales... and now, even trading credits for producing environmental toxins. The costs are further de-emphasized by the very small print and the quiet legal mumbling at the end of radio advertisements.

Utility customers feel less personal responsibility for the energy they use because the main message from America's environmental organizations is merely to purchase efficient uses of energy. We have been so proud of the utility rebate programs which supposedly transform the market for efficient products. All we have to do is buy efficient products, consuming for some greater social good.

By making bucks from usage invisible, we remove any and all limits to consumption energy and material. Our efficient materialism ironically shows our fundamental disrespect for material. There are no green lights or smart buildings. These are mere blessings on our consumption... making all of us feel-good, co-dependent consumers.

By emphasizing the benefits of usage and minimizing the cost, improved energy efficiency rationalizes consumption by expanding the limits of natural resources. We love the bang more than the buck. Since benefits are enjoyed only through consumption, any incremental benefit justifies incremental pollution. And if we think there are limits, let's try to think of the words describing "most efficient" or "most inefficient." There are none because both inefficiency and efficiency describe consumption. Only conservation implies limits and restraint. We cannot consume more to become great any more than we can eat more to become svelte. While efficiency tells us what to buy, conservation tells us how to behave.

By emphasizing narrow personal benefits, improved energy efficiency is culturally self-referencing. American environmental organizations are hailing the unqualified success of energy efficiency programs in gambling casinos, utilities and huge polluting industries. We are presenting energy-efficiency awards for multi-story signs advertising Coca Cola because each of its zillion lamps are energy efficient. We bless cheap superstores as "green" because they have a couple solar panels, a cork-floored foyer, or electronic ballasts for cheap fluorescent lighting.

But then all economic and ethical values derive from within the efficiency ratio. Vested interests resist outside values and ethics. The ratio protects them. But if we disagree with the values associated with gambling, pollution, and bubbly sugar-water, well... tough. If any of it is green, it's all good.

Improved efficiency benefits the already wealthy. It's fundable and pro-big-business because improved efficiency requires capital investment, with by far the greatest benefit going to owners and investors. And once the investment has been made, the greatest return on that investment comes with greatest production (and consumption) of product, wasting a whole lot of energy efficiently. We improve efficiency by eliminating variation, which is why we have stifling sameness in stores and products and uniform dress.

The wealthy have taken greater advantage of utility rebates for energy efficient equipment. But then rich people use lots more energy than the poor. And now, American environmental organizations are promoting how improved energy efficiency increases employee productivity, with no mention of similarly increased employee compensation. Whose side are we on? For those of us who are not rich, efficiency will turn our craft into drudgery, or we'll be downsized via the next email. If efficiency has any limits, they are prescribed by the rich to be followed by the poor.

And lastly, even if energy efficiency succeeds, the lower use of natural resources will decrease the cost per unit of energy. Less demand will cause greater supply which will result in lower costs as is happening now with gasoline cheaper than bottled water. In other words, if we want to protect the environment, we have to emphasize conservation and restraint, not improved energy efficiency and consumption. This is a moral issue, not an economic one.

To the degree that we want to protect the environment, we must emphasize conservation, not efficiency. America was built on the wisdom of frugality. Conservation is heroic because it implies discipline, sacrifice, caring for common interests, while efficient consumption is a better choice for spoiled wimps because it does not challenge our wasteful lifestyles.

So what to do?

To lower our energy usage, we must first track our own consumption and then reduce it. Tracking our consumption means reading our utility meters, recording gasoline consumption and airplane trips, and being aware of each purchase we make. Reducing our energy consumption means making our utility meters spin slower and even in reverse, using less gasoline, making fewer trips by air and purchasing less and less new stuff.

What about the bigger picture? Well, let's start by understanding that efficiency is limited by quantification. And what we cannot quantify is far more important than what we quantify -- like love, beauty, family, community, peace, appreciation, grace, harmony, wonder, spirit and wisdom. In the debate about the how global warming harms our environment, when we hear someone quantifying a natural resource, we should understand that they are promoting a noticeable bang and hiding its unquantifiable buck. By re-defining our natural inherited gifts as mere natural capital or resources, we coach ourselves on how to best rip open our inherited gifts and consume them with minimal appreciation.

Let's remember the types of inefficiency we admire. Young children are the epitome of inefficiency in their total dependence. The best learning is intensely inefficient; cheating is efficient. Direct experience has greater value than vicarious experience via books, TV and the internet. True democracy is very inefficient, which is why big business lobbies the elected instead of the electorate. In short, the best things in life are free and cannot be made more efficient without destroying their value.

Also, let's note that most great solutions aren't market-based. Is the anti-smoking campaign market-based? How about handgun or land-mine control? Imagine training your child with payments for not spitting on the sidewalk or not killing someone. By offering rebates for energy efficient motors and lamps, we degrade their value. We should use less energy because it is right action, not just because someone pays us to do so.

The fact that improved efficiency coincides with increased use of resources should be enough to make us think in non-business terms. Perhaps we can consider the energy value of more spiritual terms like conservation, abstinence, fasting, sobriety, discipline, and restraint... in short, less net energy use instead of improved energy efficiency. It's not the lamp, it's the switch because the more inefficient the end use, the greater the benefit from keeping it off. The more efficient the end use, the greater the justification and temptation to use it.

Using less energy is a matter of discipline, not fundable political-correctness. We can learn clues about efficiency values from restaurants: the lower the light level, and the smaller the serving, the higher the cost of the meal. In contrast, efficiency is supersized burgers and fries... and the poor health that comes with indulgence. Grace, simplicity, and humility are drowned in salty-sweet grease, air conditioning and fluorescent light.

So, let's give up our cars so we can slow down and enjoy neighborhood life. Let's favor local business over outsiders so our communities become more stable. Instead of adding more efficient street lighting, let's learn the names of the kids in the neighborhood to make them feel more secure. And let's have local gardens with organic vegetables, fragrant spices and flowers. And let's have lots of parties from which we can walk home, saying "Hi" to folks we know along the way.

As more and more of us do this, we will bring about a pleasant revolution. If we don't watch TV, politicians can no longer get our votes with mere TV ads designed by focus groups and opinion polls. In addition to that miracle, we will help local, small, independent business people become more prevalent... coffee houses, farmers' markets, theater, music, groceries, all kinds of small businesses, and artists... lots of artists. We will have more prime time to spend with the kids, more time to relax, less crime in our communities, and less environmental pollution. Appreciation stems from our belief in our infinite capacity to enjoy everything, just as it is. Any exciting bangs from using up our inherited gifts have less meaning and mystery than letting them remain unopened.

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© 1999 Andrew Rudin, All Rights Reserved.