Who Uses the Most Energy?

I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for some time and it was brought back to the front burner by the recent fuel and heating gas shortage here in South Africa that I mentioned earlier.

One of the most noticeable difference Americans who move or visit here will notice is the amount of people milling around in South Africa’s streets. Many American cities seem deserted by comparison, because everyone is either indoors or in a car. You just don’t see people. Here, tons of people are out and about on any given day, either because they need to get somewhere and don’t have their own transport, because they’re trying to sell something, or perhaps because they have a tiny house that doesn’t lend itself to spending any  more time than necessary in it. If you go into a township like Alexandra, the crowds are even  more unbelievable, because everything is so packed together in the first place.

South African streets are always busy

Where am I going with this? Well – a person walking along the street pretty much uses very little energy. I sometimes shudder at the thought that more prosperity here – much needed – will lead to more cars clogging Joburg’s streets. Heating or cooling a huge mansion (whether you even sit in it or not), on the other hand, uses a ton of energy. The same goes for driving a (probably not very fuel-efficient) car all by yourself. I admit I didn’t go too deep with my research, but most of the numbers you will find paint the same picture: Americans are among the biggest energy consumers in the world. And not even by a small margin. I found a good chart on the World Populations Balance website (an organization informing on the dangers of overpopulation) that shows that the United States has 5% of the world’s population but uses 20% of its energy. Just think about that for a moment.

Sure, most of what keeps the rest of the world from catching up is poverty, not virtue. But there are other factors as well. One is voluntary (more or less) conservation. When you’re afraid your gas bottle is nearing empty and the suppliers have no stock, you will use less of it (I’m sitting in a coat typing this). When gasoline is expensive like here (about double the price in the U.S. but still cheaper than Europe) or when it simply runs out, you will drive your car less and call people to organize carpools (except you should know South Africans call them lift clubs and will stare at you in wonder if you ask about a carpool). When electricity is expensive (from personal experience, electricity prices in the U.S. were by far the lowest among all the countries we’ve lived in) or at risk of being cut off during peak hours, you will go through your house to turn off the lights, you will hang your laundry to dry, and you will think about how  many rooms you really need to heat. In fact, you will have built a house that is exposed towards the sun to capture heat in the winter and with plenty of windows to cool in the summer. When water is expensive, you will carefully watch your sprinkler system (or let the lawn go brown) and limit shower time.

I’m not saying that it’s desirable to have all these inconveniences happen to you. But they do teach you how easy it is to use less, if you just put your mind to it. Something most people (me included) are too complacent to do unless there is no other way or the price is too high. Many technological advances to increase energy efficiency are not impossible, but they have a price. A price most people are willing to pay when the price of energy goes up. Wouldn’t it be better for those prices to go up now and the resulting tax revenue to be funneled back into research of alternate energy forms and efficiency improvements, rather than waiting for oil prices to go up anyway? As no doubt they will. In fact, if you calculate the impact on the environment and the cost of several resource-related wars, they already have.

Why is it so hard to explain this relationship to the average consumer? Actually, it’s not just hard, it’s political suicide in the American political landscape. Maybe all 18-year-old Americans should spend a mandatory year abroad, and this might change.