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Energy and Happiness

Paul Kando

Could it be that happy people use less energy? Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil graphically illustrates the relationship between human development (implying an improved living standard) and energy consumption. To a point, social and economic development and the energy used to sustain it grow in tandem, but beyond a certain degree of development, energy consumption no longer increases. Most advanced countries consume more or less equal amounts of energy per capita. The US, however, consumes more than twice the energy to sustain the same degree of development. In other words, over half the energy we Americans use is wasted.

Absorbing some solar energy the old fashioned way

How can this be? Consider our lack of mass transportation and consequent overreliance on automobiles; our long distance shipping by truck rather than rail; our flying instead of riding high speed rail; our leaky and under-insulated houses. Our corporate-dominated economy extracts an “unlimited” supply of raw materials and fuel from the earth, mass-produces goods, and markets them to consumers who are urged to purchase more of the stuff than they need. Much of what we “consume” soon ends up disposed of as waste. The whole process is replete with “externalities” – unprofitable “byproducts” of the system for which society is expected to take responsibility.

Our economy depends on the limitless, on-demand availability of fossil fuels for energy. It is unsustainable because (a) fossil fuel supplies are limited, and what remains of them is more and more expensive to extract; (b) continued burning of fossil fuels is destroying the Earth’s life-sustaining climate; and (c) much of our spending on energy benefits international corporations rather than our own economy.

The good news is that our social and economic system is a human constructs we can change. Getting off fossil fuels will force a fundamental change in the current economic order. But a renewable energy-based economy can be the beginning of a more equitable, happier society. Here is why: happiness depends on fulfilling human needs, not wants And while wants are limitless, needs can be satisfied. Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef lists nine basic human needs: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom. Of these subsistence and protection require some material means. The rest are satisfied through relationships with others.

Marketing and advertising exaggerate and exploit our wants, even as our needs may go unsatisfied – due to poverty and joblessness for instance – leaving us frustrated and unhappy. More goods and energy is not happiness. Imagine switching away from “on-demand” fossil fuels, counting more on each other than on some energy-dense liquid fuel. Creating a truly democratic society where, by right, people’s needs are met without buying and wasting more. Where, having discovered the difference, we don’t spend endlessly on fossil fuels, but invest instead, one single time in the tools of powering our economy with various forms of free energy from the sun.

A happy society uses less energy. Not because its people are doing without. Their needs having been met, there is no point to consuming more to cater to their wants.