Conservation Is the Best Security

As we face the Triple Threat and try to make sense of what it means for humanity, there will be voices, strong, well-financed, articulate voices, clamoring for their nation to strengthen its military. They will wave the flag of security – “we must become (or remain) strong.” As we have discussed elsewhere, however, the idea of using military force to secure energy supplies is fundamentally doomed. It will never work.

The security that matters, the kind that allows nations to focus on teaching their children and healing their sick and keeping their streets safe, will come only when those nations reduce their demand for energy. When the supply of energy is declining – and we obviously believe this will be the case within our lifetimes – the individual, the town, the state or province, and the nation each wrestles with a fundamental choice: do we reduce our demand? Or do we try to increase our supply? If we decide to increase our supply, from whom shall we take it? That is, in an age when the supply of energy is constantly declining, our grab for more supply will always be at the expense of some other person or town or nation that expects to use that energy. How do we decide which one to victimize? And once we’ve made our decision about who has to live with less so we can have more, how will we deal with the “blowback” when our actions breed resentment, hatred, police action, retribution, or concerted international action?

Faced with such a choice, conservation is the cheapest, fastest, and safest way to equalize demand and supply. Conservation is the “low hanging fruit” of the energy balance game.

The technology exists now to reduce our energy demand sharply. By being first and smart, Denmark has demonstrated that at least one nation can reduce its energy demand sharply and maintain economic growth. Denmark has held its energy consumption stable for 30 years as nations further south (with milder climates) have seen their energy consumption constantly climb. It has done it with a robust array of subsidies, taxes, and incentives designed to encourage, or force, Danes to be attentive to energy consumption as part of their daily routine. When a Danish electric power plant produces excess heat, that heat gets routed to nearby homes to help them stay warm. All appliances are energy-efficient, all new buildings (and many old ones) are super-insulated.

All this efficiency comes at a price. Danes who buy a car pay a tax that roughly doubles the cost of the vehicle, and they pay more than 40% more for electricity than U.S. customers (about 20% more than in the U.K.). Yet Denmark’s economy remains one of the strongest and most resilient in Europe.

And think about what they’re not paying. Every man, woman, and child now living in the U.S. is now or will be paying for the U.S. energy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The eventual cost of the wars, including the defense department outlays now and in the future, the long-term care costs for the returning wounded soldiers, the toll on equipment, and the interest cost, is about $2.4 trillion according to the Congressional Budget Office, or $2,400,000,000,000. There are roughly 125 million households in America, so that’s about $19,000 per household. U.S. taxpayers haven’t started paying the “war tax” in earnest yet, because the government has chosen the cowardly route of borrowing the money and passing the debt on to its nonvoting children. The cost is already beginning to be felt, however, as the U.S. dollar loses its purchasing power and the cost of food and energy increases.

And this is just the money cost. No one has attempted to quantify the cost to Americans of the deaths of thousands of their sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers, or the shattered lives of tens of thousands of soldiers who have limped home injured. No one has attempted to quantify the cost of the loss of those freedoms of which Americans are justifiably proud. (Note: nobody is turning over Danes’ phone call records to the government so it can spy on its own citizens.) No one has attempted to quantify the cost of fear that the U.S. government trots out whenever it might serve its political interest to do so. No one has attempted to quantify the cost to innovation and creativity when the best foreign students no longer come to the U.S. to study but choose Canada or France instead.

Most energy-consuming nations had a resolve to conserve energy in the wake of the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s. That resolve faded in most of the world, however, when oil demand crashed and energy prices fell. Just not in Denmark. Not in Japan either, where motorists have learned to switch off their car engines whenever traffic stops, and where, as one town manager put it, “saving energy has become our national duty.” These nations have learned that sound conservation policies are the best way to guarantee their securityand keep their economies growing.

We’re not at all sure that every nation can succeed in the way that Denmark and Japan have chosen. For starters, a great deal of the economic growth these two nations enjoy comes from developing and selling to customers in other nations the tools for conservation and sustainable energy technology. Obviously, not every nation can do that, because somebody has to be a buyer. So we mustn’t oversell the strategy. It could well be that when a nation commits to energy conservation, truly smart, effective energy conservation, it may see its economic growth rate suffer. Because we think in survival terms, however, we find a decline in economic growth infinitely preferable to energy wars. More secure, too.