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Energy, Human Development, Responsibility

Paul Kando

The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and per capita income indicators. Standard of living, if you will. At very low per capita consumption levels, higher use of energy is clearly tied to rising human development, but once energy use reaches around 150 Gigajoules (41,667 kWh) per capita per year, the correlation breaks down. More is not better, observes Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba in a study that shows a number of highly developed countries side by side with the US. All have similar HDI ratings – 0.9 and above. To achieve this, all consume about 41,670 kWh per capita per year – except the US, which consumes more than twice, 91,670 kWh per year. In short, over half the energy we consume is wasted.

Human Development Index versus Energy Use
photo credit: Lawrence Livermore National Lab

Why might this be? Many reasons, certainly including megalopolitan sprawl, the absence of viable public transportation, the resulting auto dependency, energy-inefficient, fossil fuel guzzling houses and other buildings, decrepit infrastructure, trailing in 21st century energy technology, disbelief in science, and absence of a comprehensive energy policy, supportive of individual and local initiatives.

What to do? As any half-way serious student of nature soon discovers, we, living organisms (from microorganisms to Homo sapiens), all manage the energy we need to thrive at the cell level. There are no hierarchic management layers involved. Furthermore, we, living species, are actually collaborative communities of interdependent organisms working together. Our gut, for instance, is full of organisms without which we could not survive. Even trees communicate with one another via collaborative networks of mycorrhiza fungi connected to their root systems.

Is it so far fetched, then, to re-imagine human society as a complex organism, and have it manage its energy needs at the “cell level”, i.e. at the closest level to where the energy is used? In Maine 40% of our energy is used in our houses and other buildings and another 50% by our cars and trucks. The only person that can improve the energy management of my household is me – no one else. I either do it, or it will not get done. Anyone “above” me in our artificial, often dysfunctional hierarchic pecking order –village, town, county, state, federal government – can, at best, only be supportive of my efforts. Or they can fail to be supportive, with the result being painfully obvious from comparing the bloated energy consumption of the US with the likes of Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland or Sweden. Fortunately, however, those above me in the pecking order can, at worst, only fail to be supportive. They cannot stop me from improving the performance of my house and the efficiency of my household.

Ultimately you and I are responsible for the dismal energy waste of these United States. Because we are free to act (or not) at our “cell level”, and because (assuming we still aspire to democracy) we can act as if we were in charge. As for a supportive policy environment, we must demand it or it will not happen.