Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Weightier Analogy

Americans, we are being told, are energy addicts. Even George Bush has declared that Americans are addicted to oil. With the surge of interest in energy resulting from high gasoline prices, the energy addiction analogy is all over the newspapers, television, and Internet.

Analogies are important. They help us make sense of a complex world. By framing issues in familiar ways, they tell us what is wrong and how we might go about fixing them. However, this is where we need to be careful. Because analogies shape how we think about problems, we need to be sure their suggested solutions will actually work.

At first glance, the energy-dependence-as-drug-addiction analogy makes sense.  It evokes a sense of crisis. It also implies irrational dependence. Just as drug addicts know the dangers of using yet feel unable to stop, we continue to pump gas into SUVs, overcool shopping malls, and leave the lights on, even though we know we shouldn’t.

The analogy breaks down, however, when we try to solve the problem. The solution to drug addiction is to kick drugs completely, but this won’t work for energy. Human life depends on it. Without a minimum amount of energy for heating, cooking, and growing food, we’d all be dead. Instead, we need an analogy that distinguishes between uses of energy that are essential and those that are wasteful.

A better analogy is that Americans are “energy obese.” It’s as if Americans are consuming the energy equivalent of an 8,000-calorie diet every day. Our energy bingeing is leading to all kinds of problems, such as high grocery bills (economic problems), less food for others (geopolitical tensions), and damaged bodies (environmental pollution). But, now that we are used to 8,000 calories a day, we have trouble imagining how to live with less.

The solution for an energy-obese nation is not going cold turkey: it’s starting a healthy and sustainable diet. What would this mean?

First, we need to get rid of the excessive energy we consume every day. No more energy junk food-—goodbye large SUVs, air-conditioned stores that leave their doors open and inefficient appliances. Just as a doctor would tell us to grab an apple in the afternoon instead of a donut, we need to take advantage of all the energy-saving activities we can, such as replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescents and turning down the thermostat in the wintertime. And we’ll need to exercise. We can replace some of our demand for fossil fuel with muscle power by biking to work, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and walking to the store. This may have the extra benefit of reducing both physical and energy love handles.

Learning to live without all these extra calories will not be easy. It may require the political equivalent of stomach stapling. We’ll need laws that encourage energy-efficient behaviors and align the price of fossil fuels with the costs of global warming and foreign wars. Strategies could include placing caps on carbon emissions, developing renewable energy resources and enhancing public transportation systems. Such measures would be difficult and expensive.  However, in the richest nation in the world, we have the resources to do this.

Second, we need to figure out a sustainable supply of energy that would provide people with the energy equivalent of a 2,000-calorie diet. As in nutrition, not all calories are alike. Right now, almost all our calories come from fossil fuels, which are the energy equivalents of trans fats. Only 7 percent of our energy comes from healthy and sustainable renewable energy sources. We need to change this ratio by planting and eating more energy vegetables (wind), whole grains (solar) and fresh fruit (hydropower). As with food, we should get as much of our energy from local sources as possible. We can do this by
increasing government support for research into emerging technologies, providing incentives for renewable energy entrepreneurs and making conscious decisions to live with less.

Although calling Americans “energy obese” doesn’t suggest the same sense of crisis as “energy addicted,” it better captures how we should treat the problem. We don’t need a detox program; we need a healthier relationship with energy consumption. A new energy diet is just what the doctor ordered.