Energy Ethics: A Positive Response

APRIL 01, 1981 by JAMES A. WEBER

Mr. Weber of Chicago specializes in communications and public relations. He is author of Power Grab: The Conserver Cult and the Coming Energy Catastrophe, reviewed in the July 1980 Freeman. He made this presentation at an energy awareness/management conference celled “Energy Crossroads.” Held on November 18-19, 1980 st the Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago Cluster, the conference was cosponsored by the school and Energy Education Programs, Woodstock, Illinois.

Energy is the capacity to do work. We use energy to do work which otherwise would have to be done by using our arms and legs and backs. It is through the increased use of in animate energy such as coal, oil, gas and nuclear power in place of and as an extension of our own human energy that we have been able to achieve continuing material progress. Energy performs an extremely vital function which is just as important today as it has been in the past and will be in the future.

In these times, however, energy is being asked to do many things which it hasn’t been asked to do in the past. It apparently is not enough that energy does an ever-increasing amount of work for us. Now, energy is also being asked to help rearrange our social relationships. In addition, it is being asked to assist in devising a new economic system. Furthermore, it is being asked to contribute to the development of a new political system. Finally, it is being asked in one way or another to practically show us the way to salvation.

With all these demands, it would come as no surprise if energy were to simply throw up its hands and say: “I’m going out and have a nervous breakdown; I deserve it.” Perhaps to some extent, this is what we have been witnessing in recent years in the case of energy: a nervous breakdown.

And no wonder. Following the energy crisis in 1973, it seems that every group in the country has come forward with plans and proposals for what energy should or shouldn’t be, should or shouldn’t do, should or shouldn’t develop into. Oftentimes, the basic function of energy to do work has seemingly been ignored, if not completely forgotten, in the rush to use energy as a tool for accomplishing some social, economic, political or moral goal. And, in this rush to capture energy for “our side,” religious groups have become increasingly vocal.

The Religious Perspective

The religious approach is on two levels. One is the quite practical level on which all of us operate: How can we reduce the amount of energy we use, or use it more efficiently, in order to hold the line on, or even reduce our energy costs? There are of course many positive and practical things that can be done at this level.

The other level is more of a philosophical one in which the overall role of energy is evaluated from a social, economic, political and, ultimately, theological perspective. Many of the questions asked at this level are ones that weren’t asked as little as 10 years ago. The number of people who in 1970 questioned the relative ethical merits of solar energy versus nuclear energy or pon dered the moral worth of co-generation were distinctly in the minority. Yet questions like these apparently are of blazing theological significance to many religious groups today.

To develop answers to these questions, we must have some historical perspective on energy and its role in past and present societies. For example, why use energy in the first place? Why not just use our own human energy and forgo the use of other energy forms? Because we human beings are extremely small, inefficient and costly producers of energy.

Working at maximum strength, we might be able to produce enough energy to power a 100- watt bulb—but only for a short time. Some of you may recall Bronko Nagurski who played fullback for the Chicago Bears. Bronko was once asked where he got his tremendous physical strength. He said it came from plowing fields. But they said to him: “Oh, c’mon, Bronko, a lot of people plow fields and don’t have a build like yours.” And Bronko’s response was: “Without a horse?” Just imagine Bronko Nagurski plowing a field without a horse. How much power do you think he was producing? Just about enough to power a 100-watt light bulb, which is an infinitesimal amount in the world of energy.

We human beings are also very inefficient energy users when you consider the total amount of energy which goes into producing the food we consume to provide our energy. It takes about 10 units of energy in terms of gas to power farm tractors and other energy to produce fertilizer, bring food to market and refrigerate it before use to produce one unit of food energy. So, by the time food gets on the table, it represents an energy efficiency level of only 10 per cent. Then, when we consume the food, our bodies use up about two-thirds of its energy content just to keep our systems going. Only what’s left is available for doing work and this comes to an efficiency level of only about 3 per cent. By comparison, a nuclear or coal-fired power plant operates at an efficiency level of 40 per cent or more.

Finally, human energy is very costly. Take, for example, a simple task such as toasting a piece of bread. If we were to use human energy, we could hook up a bicycle to a generator and peddle the bicycle to produce electricity to toast the bread. Now, a typical toaster hits a piece of bread with 1,000 watts for one minute to toast it. But, since we can only produce about 100 watts, we would have to peddle the bicycle furiously for about 10 minutes to achieve the same toasted bread. Suppose we hired somebody to toast this piece of bread for us at a minimum wage of $3 per hour. It would cost us 50 cents to have the worker peddle the bike for 10 minutes. But the electricity which comes out of that hole in the wall to toast the bread would cost only 1/10th of a cent at a rate of 6¢ per kilowatt-hour. In other words, human energy would cost 500 times more than inanimate energy, and this ratio between the costs of human energy versus inanimate energy holds true for other jobs, too.

Human Energy Is Limited

Man, therefore, is a small, inefficient and costly producer of energy. Today, there is a highly vocal position which has grown up around the view that this smallness of man is a good thing. The philosophical or theological leader of this movement is the late E. F. Schumacher, and the “bible” of the movement is his book, Small Is Beautiful. In this book, Schumacher states that “man is small, therefore, small is beautiful.” This view has become the starting point for a whole string of supposedly “moral” positions concerning energy, including the use of so-called “natural” or “soft” versus so-called “unnatural” or “hard” energy resources, operation of decentralized versus centralized energy facilities, and zero versus continuing growth in the use of energy.

However, it should be pointed out that there is nothing “beautiful” about being small to men and women who need energy to improve living conditions for themselves and their families. So it should not be a source of wonder that not only have people been eager to develop energy but the history of human advancement has been based on the increasing use of larger, more efficient and more economical energy resources in place of the small, inefficient and costly energy provided by human beings.

Primitive man consumed energy only in the form of plant food, and his consumption consisted of about 2,000 kilocalories a day—only enough to keep him functioning from day to day. This more than doubled to 5,000 kilocalories a day when he began to hunt and use fire as a source of energy. Early agricultural man more than doubled energy consumption again to 12,000 kilocalories a day. Another doubling occurred to 27,000 kilocalories a day when agricultural man advanced through the use of better tools and domestic animals. Early industrial man almost tripled his daily energy consumption to 70,000 kilocalories a day around 1870. By 1970, we had more than tripled energy use again to 230,000 kilocalories a day.

This tremendous growth in energy consumption over the last 10,000 years has basically enabled people to do more and more work with less and less human energy, freeing people from the physical slavery of the past. As Roger Revelle, Harvard professor of population policy, puts it: “An old saying has it, ‘slavery will persist until the loom weaves itself.’ All ancient civ ilizations, no matter how enlightened or creative, rested on slavery and grinding human labor, because human and animal muscle power were the principal forms of energy available for mechanical work. The discovery of ways to use less expensive sources of energy than human muscles made it possible for men to be free.”

Labor-Saving Devices

To put this point another way, the historical record of growth in energy consumption provides the most splendid record of energy conservation that we have available to us today. This may seem like a contradiction. How can growth in energy consumption be an example of energy conservation? The reason is that growth has been in the consumption of inanimate energy, making it possible to conserve human energy, thus freeing people for creative, intellectual, organizational, and managerial work which only they are capable of doing. This increased freedom, of course, is especially relevant in the case of women who have been relieved of much of the physical drudgery of housework, while simultaneously being provided increased opportunities for jobs and careers which don’t involve heavy physical labor.

What have been the results of this growth in energy consumption? The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria studied this question and found that increasing per capita energy consumption is closely associated with increases in our life spans and reductions in infant mortality. In other words, although many other factors are undoubtedly involved, growing energy consumption has made it possible for more people to survive to adulthood and live longer lives after they do. To put it another way, growing use of energy has created an environment more conducive to the health and well-being of people.

Growing use of energy has also created a safer environment for people. Today, the risk of disabling or fatal accidents is reduced because energy has reduced the need for people to do physical work, thus reducing the greatest occasion for accidents. The National Safety Council reports, for example, that “between 1912 and 1977 accidental deaths per 100,000 population were reduced 41 per cent from 82 to 48.”

Growing energy consumption has also been accompanied by a long-term reduction in the real cost of energy. As more and more energy has been used, its real cost has become lower. This has not been a constant trend. There have been peaks and valleys along the way, just as we are now in a period when real costs are rising rather than falling. But the long range historical trend has been one of falling energy prices in real terms.

Furthermore, the increasing use and falling cost of energy have helped to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Studies show that inequalities of income between rich and poor become less as energy usage increases. Another way of stating this is that it is only in countries with high energy usage that you find a significant middle class.

Economic Development Slows Rate of Population Growth

Socioeconomic advancement, fueled by growth in energy consumption, has also been accompanied by a gradual slowing in the rate of population growth. This is a common and paradoxical occurrence in countries as they economically advance. Even though the advance brings with it expanded longevity and a falling death rate, the birth rate eventually falls even faster, resulting in leveling out of population growth.

Now, for all of these reasons, up until the late Sixties or early Seventies, growth in energy consumption was generally considered to be a “good thing.” However, since this time, this assumption has come under increasing attack by many different groups, including religious groups, who claim that continuing growth in energy consumption is not a “good thing” but a “bad thing.”

For example, it is claimed that increasing use of energy is destroying the natural environment. Amory Lovins of the environmentalist organization, Friends of the Earth, expresses this view when he states that “it would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we might do with it.” Population controller and environmentalist Paul Ehrlich is more blunt about it, stating that to give society cheap, abundant energy would be “the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” The testimony of these observers leads to the conclusion that our problems today consist of having too much rather than too little energy. But these views give no credence at all to the observable reality that growing energy use has not only helped to improve the well-being and health of people but helped to create a more habitable human environment.

It is claimed that the energy resources we currently use-coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power—are finite and are running out, and therefore should no longer be used. But this view flies in the face of the fact that there are sufficient reserves of these energy resources to fuel continuing increases in energy use for centuries to come.

It is claimed that tremendous amounts of energy are wasted and therefore conservation and conservation alone can permit continuing economic advancement without the need for increased energy use. However, this view is based on invalid comparisons with other countries whose energy requirements are different. It also totally neglects the fact that many people in this country—particularly lower-income people—have already reduced their energy use to the bare minimum. Consequently, any further conservation or reduction in energy use will exert real and immediate human hardships.

Many Questions Unanswered

It is also claimed that so-called renewable energy sources such as solar energy, wind power and biomass can provide for any additional increase in energy we may need while eventually replacing our so-called non-renewable energy resources -coal, oil, gas and nuclear power. But no mention is usually made of the fact that the costs of solar energy, wind power and biomass currently are many times those of coal, oil, gas and nuclear power, putting them well beyond the pocketbooks of all but the most affluent Americans.

Finally, it is claimed that energy conservation, plus the use of so-called renewable energy resources such as solar energy, wind power and bio-mass, will result in improved family life, better social relationships, greater political participation and more moral lifestyles. But one has to seriously ask if energy, whose basic function is to do work, is really capable of accomplishing all of these other worthy objectives. Or is this simply a case of attempting to use energy as some kind of “magic wand” to solve basically human problems when in fact the problems, as always, reside not so much in the choice between centralized nuclear power plants and decentralized solar energy facilities but in the human heart?

It is difficult enough to discuss much less come to any kind of conclusion concerning questions such as these when all of the facts on energy are completely known and accepted. But it is literally impossible if basic energy facts are unknown or ignored.

It is therefore highly important to know and understand the basic facts of energy. And the most basic fact about energy is that its primary purpose is to do work. You or I may come up with all kinds of glorious, utopian schemes on how we can use energy to improve our social, economic, political and moral conditions. But the basic ethical question which must be asked first of any energy proposal is: Will it provide sufficient energy to do the work necessary to not only maintain but advance the health, well-being, safety and socioeconomic progress of all people, poor as well as rich? Any answer to this question which does not come up a resounding “YES” represents an irresponsible and unethical toying with the lives and fortunes of people rather than a legitimate and ethical path of future energy development.


April 1981

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December 2014

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