Back in 1978, the year for which I have the most readily available figures on such things, a United Nations report listed the United States as consuming 115,540 kilowatt-hours of energy per person per year. At the same time, each person in the tiny central African nation of Burundi was using up just 120. My guess is that in 1989, the average American is still consuming about a thousand times as much energy as the average Burundian.
Is that something we should feel guilty about? Does Burundi use less energy because America uses too much? Is world energy a fixed pie, with America greedily hogging more than its quota at the expense of the Burundis of the planet? Would Burundi be better off if America impoverished itself?
These are questions that came to mind when I read a recent statement in a newspaper by a man who claims to be a conservationist. Referring to the United States, he was quoted as saying, "When 7 percent of the world's population uses 40 percent of its energy, that's a disgrace." He thinks "greed" is the explanation.
Energy, by the way, isn't the only thing of which America consumes more than its share of world population. We also eat more than 7% of the world's potato chips and broccoli. We enjoy more than 7 percent of the world's indoor plumbing, hearing aids and baseballs. We operate more than 7 percent of the world's autos, buses, trucks, minivans, tractors, hang gliders, tricycles and skateboards. We read more than 7 percent of all lectures and speeches. And maybe we even put up with more than our share of nonsense too.
Apparently, it never occurred to the man that America consumes more because it produces more. That's right--more than 7 percent of the world's potato chips, baseballs, skateboards, and countless other things. If we didn't first produce, we wouldn't have it to consume or to trade for what we really wanted. How can such an elementary point, such a basic principle of life and economics, be lost on anyone who doesn't have to sign his name with an "X"?
It is not a disgrace that Americans consume 40 percent of the world's energy, if in fact that's the correct number. Rather, it is a tribute to our ingenuity, creativity, productivity, our talent for putting God-given abilities to work. If we restricted our energy consumption to just 7 percent of the total supply, our lives would be shorter, less healthy and a lot more painful. There would be fewer of us, and not just by choice.
Moreover, the rest of the world would be worse off too: Nobody prospers when his neighbors, mentors or trading partners self-destruct. If anything is a disgrace, it's whatever causes Burundi to produce and consume so abysmally little of just about everything. I doubt that "greed" has anything to do with it.
Are things like clean highways, conservation, recycling, less waste and more efficient use of resources worthwhile? Of course they are.
But that doesn't mean we have to treat bits of garbage as priceless treasures. It doesn't mean that spending a dollar to save a dime makes sense. It doesn't mean that the planet, the surface of which we've only begun to scratch, is about to run out of resources. It doesn't mean that our capacity to create, innovate and think our way to new heights of technology and achievement has suddenly come to an end. And it certainly doesn't mean that we should hang our heads in shame because we have shown the world how to go from Model T's to space shuttles in less time than most peoples have taken to get from dirt paths to gravel roads.
The world's problems are plentiful enough without anyone making it his duty to manufacture more. America consuming more than 7 percent of any particular moment's available energy is one of the biggest non-problems anybody could possibly waste his time on.