25 and 5 are the numbers you often hear when people express the percent of the world’s energy consumed by the United States compared to its share of world population. Those numbers pop up again when discussing the related percentages of total resources used and, coincidentally(?)the percentage of the world’s prison population. Delving into the numbers with more precision it becomes clear that the numbers are rough estimates. “The Story of Stuff” puts our resource usage at 30%, Wikipedia puts our percentage of world population at 4.45%, and total energy use is placed at between 19% and 24% depending on the source.
A much more difficult to locate number is the percentage of primary energy production, which for the United States stands at 14.6%. As the question is asked, or avoided; “What can be done in the United States to maintain our quality of life in the face of dwindling fossil energy?” the answer may very well be present in those numbers and some comparisons to other parts of the world, or at least one other part of the world: Europe.
Leaving aside for one moment the fact that reality doesn’t care if you like it or not, most Americans, and even most of the pundits with whom I agree equate reduced energy usage with a reduction in general quality of life as measured in wealth. There are a number of things to unpack here up front. Critics of the “American Way of Life”, of which I number myself, see a change of lifestyle which is less consumption oriented as not only not altogether a bad thing, but as a good thing in and of itself. Be that as it may, for most people “Quality of Life” = “Wealth”, and “Wealth” is measured by the resources over which a person has control.
What I propose here is looking coolly and rationally at some numbers related to population, and energy usage and production while at the same time I make some observations regarding quality of life which, while by their very nature are subjective, may respond to the question of maintaining it.
Even taking the lowest number relative to our share of world energy usage, 19%, in the United States we consume between four and five times “our share” of world energy: 19/4.45 = 4.3. We also produce energy at 3x the rate of the world as a whole: 14.6/4.45 = 3.3. In Europe they have roughly 11% of the world population and consume 20% of the world’s energy. Do you see where I’m going with this? Europeans consume energy at a much greater rate than the world’s population as a whole but they consume at much less than the American rate, making them virtual energy misers compared to us: 20/11= 1.8. Notice that their rate of energy usage falls not only below the American rate of usage, but also well below the American rate of production, so much so in fact that it is almost 50% below the American rate of “over-production”.
What this means is that, theoretically, United States energy production could drop by nearly half and the energy would be available to live at more or less a European level of quality of life. The great obstacle to this, of course, is the way in which we have arrayed ourselves across the terrain. The great disparity which exists in energy usage between Europe and the United States is in transportation at the personal level, i.e. greater dependence on private automobiles necessitated by our sprawling development pattern and the larger size of our domiciles which then require more energy to heat and cool.
Traveling 10 miles to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk does not improve the flavor of the milk, and spending an hour to get to work does not make us more productive once we’ve arrived, on those things I think rational people can agree. Living in smaller homes, even apartments, and at greater densities however is not as straightforward. While many Americans prefer living in urban situations and are willing to pay a premium to do so, most Americans with the wherewithal to choose have opted for a suburban “spread out” lifestyle. To many this way of life is synonymous with “The American Dream” and in the words of the aptly named Dick, Cheney it is not negotiable. As Leigh Gallagher points out in her new book “The End of the Suburbs” (p 65) however, “The American Dream” not only predates suburbanization as a mass movement, at its core it has no connection to it and, given the nature of our energy conundrum, it is now antithetical to it.
We can live (and leave to our children) a better, richer life, the original core of the American Dream, if we embrace an American version of European urbanism. I have seen and written about the disconnect which exists between what is generally viewed as “economic prosperity” and quality of life in Europe. In one of my favorite cities in Spain the average worker’s salary is €13,040 a year, and there is a high unemployment rate, but the community is vibrant, mobile, and secure. People walk down beautiful streets with friends, chat at outdoor cafes, play sports, watch fútbol at bars, and shop for fresh local produce at public markets. Europeans report higher life satisfaction, and live longer lives, along with having more free time than their American counterparts, and it is “neat” that young Americans are embracing this lifestyle in greater numbers than ever, what seems clear is that, like it or not, it is the only means by which we can continue to be prosperous.
Current energy usage in the United States at the household and per capita level should give us a good indication both of the places which are most capable of providing this less energy intensive lifestyle and the reasons for their greater efficiency. The Pacific Northwest and the Northeast are the leaders in household and per capita energy miserliness. The Northeast due to its greater population densities, the Northwest somewhat for that, but mostly due to its moderate climate requiring little in the way of household heating and cooling.
This chart shows the regional differences in household energy use:
We cannot increase in size the Pacific moderate climate region, in fact we may be doing the opposite. The good news is that we have space for millions upon millions of Americans in places where the infrastructure has already been built to facilitate a more efficient way of life. The very cities and towns which have suffered the greatest population drain in the post World War II era are the ones which now have the capacity to receive an influx of people and the design to do so in an energy efficient manner. Peer reviewed data provided by Mathew Kahn of UCLA not only confirms that northeastern and urban lifestyles reduce gasoline usage, but his work on urban vibrancy and energy use demonstrates that there is beyond simply that a positive feedback loop to be tied into which hints that energy efficiency will not just improve, but rather it will improve at an increasing rate as re urbanization takes hold.
Further good news exists in the fact that these places are in the parts of the United States where water is most plentiful. This water produces sustainable energy as it falls from high terrain to sea level, creates transportation corridors in the form of rivers and lakes, irrigates crops, and provides drinking water to populations. The water cycle is one of the simplest ways to tap in to solar energy.
How can civilization survive in North America in an energy scarce future? Urbanism.