Cynics, Martyrs and the Importance of Energy Conservation

by Peter Penner

Mr. Penner is a research engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 12, 1980, pp. 285 ff.. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Our inability to conserve energy is likely to destroy the earth’s ecosystem. As the future of food, energy supplies, capital goods and mineral ores grow increasingly scarce, the idea of taking resources by military force will be on the minds of many nations. What kind of world do we want to leave to our children’s children?

Since 1973, most of us have heard so much about "the energy crisis" that the phrase has lost all meaning. We have lived through a steady stream of energy price increases, presidential proclamations, severe-weather energy shortages and raging debate on the various energy-supply technologies. Life remains tolerable and changes slowly for most Americans, and huge numbers of people are skeptical or at least inactive. "Why should I care about energy?" they ask. "What can one person do in the shadow of gigantic energy corporations, impersonal public utilities, a hopelessly uncoordinated government and a populace that doesn’t seem to care?"

There are volumes of information available on what a household, a person, a business, or a legislator can do to reduce personal or national energy consumption. Most of these conservation steps could be implemented immediately or very soon. If anything is lacking, it is a commitment to conservation that goes beyond shortsighted moneysaving reasons to include long-term changes in the way we use energy. In other words, in the long run, why should an individual person care about energy?

Altruism and Energy Conservation

There are two sorts of reasons why energy conservation is so important right now. Those of the first category all relate to a notion of human responsibility toward current and future generations of humankind and to the ecosystem in general. Such reasons certainly reflect a classical Western view of the social contract, and those who don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves can skip this section and go on to the next. Those who skip will not stand alone; there is no clear consensus among scholars as to whether human beings possess any innate or biological altruism. If there is a natural sense of altruism, it is undoubtedly linked to some long-range sense of danger to the species and the Aristotelian instinct of self-preservation. In the absence of definitive data, for us to assert that humans do care about others or to make a pragmatic decision to care is little more than an act of faith. For those of us willing to take this step, the value of energy conservation can easily be understood.

Let me cite three major altruistic reasons to conserve energy. The first of these is that if we don’t do so, we are likely to destroy the earth’s ecosystem. Though this thesis is not very difficult to imagine or understand, it is a hard thing to prove. In the past decade, however, several reasonable analyses of world environmental futures have emerged, and they show a definite likelihood of environmental collapse sometime in the next hundred years. The most famous of these predictions was made in The Limits to Growth, published by the Club of Rome in 1974.

The Club’s researchers built an immense computer model of the world economy and let it advance through time along our present course of exponential energy growth. The result shows a prediction of world population peaking in about 2030.

After this time, the crude death rate exceeds the crude birth rate, so the population declines. Food per capita rises steadily throughout the twentieth century . . . but it declines sharply after 2015. Industrial output per capita reaches a maximum value of 375 dollars per person-year in 2015. The index of persistent pollution reaches a peak of 11 times the 1970 level of pollution in the year 2035. The behavior mode exhibited by the reference run is overshoot and decline. Population and capital grow past their sustainable physical limits and then return to a pre-industrial level of development. Growth is halted in this run through the effects of nonrenewable resource depletion [emphasis added].

The Club of Rome has since updated its findings without substantially altering its main conclusion.

With the use of very different methods of prediction, similar conclusions on world collapse have been reached by Willis Harmon’s group at the Stanford Research Institute. Harmon does not rely on complicated computer models such as the Club of Rome’s World 3. Instead he uses rough calculations and nonnumerical cybernetic analyses of social and technical trends. His results show a spectrum of possible world situations in the year 2000 ranging from "Manifest Destiny" to collapse. All of the successful future paths he finds require what he calls a "war on ecological problems." For all practical purposes, this means the implementation of worldwide energy conservation and renewable energy technologies.

Often cynics like to argue that the world is too complex a thing to model, even on a computer, and that something can always come along to save us. Yet if our energy consumption keeps increasing, there is nothing that can mitigate the adverse environmental impacts. We can argue all day as to whether the exact facts and figures in these predictions of doom are correct, but the fact is, ecosystems can be destroyed; Lake Erie is dead and supports no life. Anyone who thinks that the same thing can’t happen to the world ecosystems is working under a delusion.

The Roots of World Tension

The second altruistic reason emerges from a realistic assessment of the first. The Club of Rome report shows a future in which food, energy supplies, capital goods and mineral ores grow increasingly scarce. In such a situation, any economist can tell you, international competition for these resources will be fierce and tensions strong. The idea of taking resources by military force will be on the minds of many nations. By that time, nuclear power plants will be spread throughout the world, and it is predicted that more than 35 countries will possess nuclear weapons (as opposed to seven now). Ask yourself what the chances are that a country’s environmental problems might lead to catastrophe without also creating international military repercussions, possibly starting as an internal rebellion among a citizenry tired of its resource hardships, for which it blames the existing government.

All of this is not just idle speculation. In the oil embargo of 1973 concrete plans were considered for the invasion of OPEC countries to secure the oil the U.S. was thought to need. Harper’s magazine (May 1975) featured the article "Seizing Arab Oil: The Case for U.S. Intervention." The cover shows U.S. paratroopers descending on Saudi oil fields, and the article concludes that "assuming fairly extensive but unsystematic sabotage, pre-invasion output levels could be resumed in one to two months so long as certain essential items are sealifted with the first Marine convoys and plenty of skilled manpower is flown in." As fighting rages in Afghanistan and the world’s eyes remain fixed on the supply of Mideastern oil, there is talk like this once again in high political circles. Yet the anti-draft movement is also growing, and although everyone acknowledges that oil would be the reason for a U.S. war in the Middle East, no one seems interested in fighting it. What surer way do we have of reducing these pressures than decreasing our reliance on energy use in general and on oil in particular?

In this perspective, energy conservation plays the role of decreasing world energy demand, decreasing the need for both nuclear power (and its attendant problems) and scarce mineral resources. Such a development cuts at the roots of our most fertile source of world tension. It is especially important for the United States, now the energy glutton of the world, consuming 30 per cent of annual world energy despite having only 6 per cent of the total population. If we can decrease our energy use, we can set an example for the rest of the world to follow; if we don’t, we leave it with little choice. Our goal should be to establish a comfortable, stable economic system that conserves as much energy as possible and gets the rest from renewable energy sources such as the sun and wind.

Our Children’s Children

The final altruistic reason to conserve energy is this: What kind of world do we want to leave to our children’s children? If we continue to use energy at our present rate, all oil and natural gas will be gone by the year 2010 in the U.S. and by 2040 everywhere else. If electricity use continues to double every nine years, huge amounts of power will have to come from 500 years’ worth of coal supplies and lots of nuclear power plants -- by this time possibly breeder or fusion plants.

The use of coal will mean that huge areas of Montana, Wyoming, Illinois and other states will be strip-mined. Even with antipollution devices, total air pollution emissions are predicted to triple to 30 million tons per year, bringing with them large increases in air-related sicknesses such as lung cancer. Huge amounts of land and water would be required for these plants -- at present rates, by 2177 every usable patch of land in the country would contain a 1,000-megawatt power plant, according to Malcolm Peterson of the Committee on Environmental Information.

Other but perhaps more serious problems devolve on any future generations that must rely on nuclear power. These include adequate uranium supply (probably necessitating immense uranium strip mines in Tennessee), almost inconceivable reactor and waste-transport accidents, low-level radiation effects from normal plant operations, and the burden of guarding both radioactive waste and outdated but radioactive nuclear plants for thousands of years. On top of all this, all electric power generation produces heat, and too much generation will raise the earth’s temperature, possibly enough to cause partial melting of the polar ice caps and wreak havoc on the world’s ecosphere.

Even our present rate of energy consumption is not sustainable in the long term, so it is a matter of decreasing per-capita energy use as soon as possible. Never again will generations of people use as much energy as we do with so little productivity and so much waste. The longer we wait to begin conservation, the less energy will be available to future generations, and the worse off the environment will be.

Self-Preservation and Self-Interest

We now come to several arguments for energy conservation that require no lofty goals or moral analyses. Each one of these reasons benefits the individual over the course of a lifetime, and one need not consider the fact that one is also doing society a big favor.

The most obvious reason in this category boils down to the simple fact that saving energy saves money. This is a common appeal made by private industry and government. The two main government publications on energy conservation for the average citizen are called Save Energy, Save Money and Up the Chimney or in the Bank. One solar-heating design firm has taken the motto "Profit from the Sun." Because energy is nonrecyclable and in short supply, it will continue to be one of the most expensive resources around. But it is not difficult or unusual to save 20 or 40 per cent of one’s heating and cooling bill with very little effort. This can be a very sizable amount of money, and it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of money savings available to the low-energy household.

In connection with saving money, it is appropriate to mention a phenomenon called the "respending effect." Presumably if a person saves a bit of money by reducing energy costs, he or she will either spend the money on something else or put it in the bank. If it is spent on something that uses up as much or more energy per dollar as the original reduction, nothing has been gained in the energy budget at large (though this person may now own a more desirable mix of goods and services than before). Only respending money on an activity less energy-intensive than the one reduced will result in a net energy saving for the economy. Those who are truly serious about living the low-energy life divert their spending from consumer activities to direct investment in the tools they require to change and then maintain their life style: land, bicycles, pressure cookers, solar and windpower equipment, a garden, bus rides, etc.

A more immediate gratification available to a community of energy conservers is better health and a more pleasant local environment. Many of the harmful and unpleasant effects of both nuclear and coal-fired power plants are temporary and can show signs of improvement after only a few years if the plants are shut down. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that in the ten years since it implemented water pollution guidelines for Lake Michigan, the quality of lake water has actually improved. Radiologist Leonard Sternglass cites a study of a research reactor located about 100 yards from where I work in Urbana, Illinois. According to Sternglass, when this reactor went into operation, infant mortality in my county increased 300 per cent and deaths from congenital malformation increased sixfold. When the reactor was shut down (temporarily), both rates dropped to about double the original level. During this same period in a more distant Illinois county, both of these death rates declined steadily.

In 1972 the city of Uppsala, Sweden, revamped its central city, eliminating automobiles and improving bus, bicycle and pedestrian routes. Aside from the resultant energy savings, the city experienced a decrease in dust and carbon monoxide, a factor-of-two reduction in noise levels, a 46 per cent lower traffic-accident risk, and even faster average travel times since buses ran more frequently.

I do not mean to give the impression that energy-conservation benefits accrue only to groups, or that they consist only in the removal of undesirable factors. Though many people equate energy conservation with personal hardship -- and the truth is that it often means sacrificing a little of one’s precious time -- there can be definite health benefits from, say, riding a bicycle or staying off the elevator and taking the stairs instead.

Older but Not Better

The final self-centered reason for energy conservation may seem a little hard to grasp. It is related to a phenomenon that can exist only in a post-industrial Western society far beyond the point of supplying necessities alone. If we have indeed produced everything we need to survive and even prosper, then what exactly is all this additional energy supplying us? To put it another way, energy use per capita is now about twice what it was in 1950. What new ways of increasing energy demand have we employed since 1950, and what benefits have they brought us?

Some products introduced in the past 20 years are quite excellent. On the other hand, a huge portion of the growth in energy use is due to an increase in travel speeds, more heavily processed and franchised foods, bigger cars with lower gas mileage, larger houses with excessive energy use, plastic and throwaway packaging, and the replacement of many jobs with big machines. For the most part, these are negative additions to American life. We must begin to ask ourselves whether these additions to the gross national product are economic benefits or unwanted burdens.

The point here is that the much-vaunted quality of life and pace of life are not automatic givens in our lives. We have a right to judge them and to decide that they ought to change one way or another. Just because America is 20 years older doesn’t mean it’s 20 years better, and many people think that lots of things were better in 1950 than now.

One Man’s Hands

A friend of mine went shopping with me one day and was surprised when I struggled with an armload of groceries rather than take a paper bag from the store. "Do you really think that your not taking a bag is worth all that trouble?" my friend asked. "Do you really think you’ll cause any real political or environmental change from your action?"

I raise this question because, even for those who are convinced that energy conservation is a good thing, it often seems a lonely and pointless activity in present-day America.

There is an obvious parallel here to any sort of movement that seeks to influence external reality on the basis of internal belief. Aside from the basic moral rightness of doing what one believes is right regardless of. its calculated political effectiveness, there is a genuine value and influence in setting an example. The exemplary manner 6f living displayed by Gandhi captured the lasting imagination of the entire Indian subcontinent. In amoral, non-organized America, any person practicing (and not just espousing) a moral view stands out like a beacon, and willingly or not becomes an example to others. Recently, I chanced upon a book on meditation by the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hahn. His name for what I would call environmental awareness is "mindfulness," and in discussing the application of his principles he states the responsibility of the individual quite clearly:

In a family, if there is one person who practices mindfulness, the entire family will be more mindful. Because of the presence of one member who lives in mindfulness, the entire family is reminded to live in mindfulness. If in one class, one student lives in mindfulness. the entire class is influenced.

In peace-serving communities, we must follow the same principle. Don’t worry if those around you aren’t doing their best. Just worry about how to make yourself worthy. Doing your best is the surest way to remind those around you to do their best. But to be worthy requires the continuing practice of mindfulness. That is a certainty. Only by practicing mind-fulness will we not lose ourselves but acquire a bright joy and peace. Only by practicing mindfulness will we be able to look at everyone else with the open mind and eyes of love.

Ours is a culture that all too often worships wastefulness and fosters greed. To a large extent we have to find our own source of strength and inspiration for conservation. Those of us who can find such strength and belief must stand against the tide of exponential growth. If we don’t, no one will, and there will be no historic force for true change. Individual energy conservation is not a substitute for effective citizen participation in civic affairs, for industrial energy conservation or revamped government energy policies. It is a small, almost invisible action, one that has effect only in the very long term. But it is also the deepest form of change -- a change in the very being of the most fundamental building block of society: the individual. We must ourselves become examples of the men and women of the future. Only by showing others that we can be healthy and happy within a low-energy, stable-future life can we convince them to relinquish their unhealthy, unstable, high-energy existence.