February 27, 2007
There’s a never-ending discussion on the Internets about Al Gore’s massive consumption of energy while simultaneously traveling the world proclaiming that Earth is in the balance because man is using so danged much energy. The most recent iteration of this kerfuffle was sparked by a release from an obscure think tank that somehow got hold of Gore’s electricity bills and found out that his gigantic mansion uses TWENTY TIMES MORE ELECTRICITY THAN THE AVERAGE HOME!!! (Please imagine much larger font and a siren.)
I’m not familiar enough with the ins-and-outs of Gore’s policy pronouncements to know whether this constitutes “hypocrisy,” or whether his explanation about purchasing carbon offsets absolves him. Frankly, I’m not sure I care.
As a practical matter, I side with the writer Jim Henley, though, in “favor[ing] markets in emissions over hard regulatory targets for individual homes and businesses.”
Regardless of what Al Gore preaches about these matters, the way he lives strikes me as reasonable. He was of the manor born, to be sure, but he has earned a lot of money on his own. He has every right to a ginormous house, a fleet of cars, and to be flown around the world in private planes to speak out against the dangers of global warming. While it’s funny in microcosm, it strikes me as a perfectly defensible trade-off to use a thousand times more energy than the average guy in an effort to influence macro-level energy and environmental policy.
Where Gore and I differ is that my aim is for more people to get to live like Gore. While environmental degradation in general and global warming in particular are real problems, certainly a serious case can be made that they pale in comparison with the ravages of poverty. Further, if millions of people not starving to death isn’t its own reward, UC-Berkeley professor emeritus of energy and resources Jack Hollander explains in The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy, that, contrary to conventional wisdom, as societies become more affluent, they produce less pollution. That’s not particularly surprising, when you think about it, as those whose basic human needs are met have both the inclination and resources to worry about cleaning up their environment.
Increased freedom and prosperity is a wonderful thing. Thankfully, outside of sub-Saharan Africa, it’s where the world is heading.
The key, then, is to figure out how to allow that to continue happening while at the same time ensuring that we have the energy to sustain that trend while coming up with ways to reduce the negative externalities caused by that production. Market-based solutions like cap-and-trade and similar offsets are no doubt part of the answer. Removing the stigma that surrounds nuclear power would also go a long way toward that end. Mostly, though, it’ll take proper incentives to unleash the technological ingenuity to figure out how to produce lots of clean energy.
I have no doubt that this will happen. Jesse Ausubel, the director of Rockefeller University’s Program for the Human Environment, documents the enormous increases in energy efficiency over the years.
“Inefficiency always costs much. Around the year 1000, before the invention of good chimneys, people in cold climates centered their lives around an open fire in the middle of a room with a roof louvered high to carry out the smoke, and most of the heat. Open fireplaces demanded constant replenishing and thus a large woodpile behind every house. A smart stove did not emerge until 1744. Benjamin Franklin’s invention greatly reduced the amount of fuel required and, thus, the size of the woodpile was reduced for those who could afford the stove.”
Free, self-interested individuals and firms are constantly exploring ways to make their lives—and thus, indirectly, ours—better. We have thus managed to largely eradicate hunger and scores of diseases in the West over the course of the last century or so. We’re building cars that are safer, more energy-efficient, less polluting, and last longer than ever before. To be sure, government coercion helped nudge some of that. Mostly, though, it was a response to consumer demand in an arena with substantial competition.
One day, it is to be hoped that all humanity can follow Al Gore’s example.