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Poisoned sandwiches and energy

Imagine that you eat a sandwich for every meal. But there’s poison in the sandwich. A decent amount. Let’s say the LD50 of this poison is 100mg, and there’s 10mg in the sandwich. The poison makes you pretty sick each day, and eventually it will probably kill you.


If you want to reduce how much poison you swallow, you have two options. You could eat less food: cut your sandwich in half and you get half the poison. Alternatively, you could eliminate the poison from the sandwich. The second strategy will usually make more sense.


This is the basic choice with respect to energy use and carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide is the poison and energy is the sandwich. We are constantly being told to turn off lights, drive less, and (if you work for certain companies) create technology that is more energy-efficient. This should not be our primary frame of mind when eliminating emissions. It will never get us the final result we want, simply because you can’t efficiency yourself to zero emissions. You can’t literally stop consuming energy, just like you can’t stop eating meals.


The only viable strategy is to remove carbon dioxide emissions at the source. We need to get to the point where there are virtually no emissions associated with energy use. That means ensuring >90% of electricity comes from solar, nuclear, geothermal, and wind, and ensuring electric transportation is rapidly adopted, among many other things. Technology and policy are actually pretty far on the way to achieving this, and despite the sticky notion that the transition isn’t affordable, the energy transition is likely to be economically beneficial overall.


Of course this shifts direct responsibility away from average citizens, onto those who can make a difference quickly enough: lawmakers and executives.


The notion that pollution is about personal purity and individual consumers---as opposed to simple regulations and a handful of choices made by powerful organizations---was famously promoted by the polluting industries themselves. The crying Indian commercial is an important early propaganda piece, and many other sophisticated examples exist. Maybe this frame of thinking would have prevailed regardless of the billions of propaganda dollars from industry, but it’s notable that those who had the biggest levers for solving the crisis spent enormous money and effort to deflect blame. Hence, much of society tells themselves that they need to shame those around them into consuming less, instead of passing laws that remove the poison from the energy sector at the source.


In one big way, this sandwich analogy is insufficient. Whereas poison meals are poisonous only for you, carbon dioxide emissions are damaging to all of civilization. You could eliminate sandwich consumption by 50%, and maybe that would be enough to save you. But persuading enough individual humans to reduce energy consumption by even 50%? Not a chance. You’re talking about convincing billions of people to change their habits, as opposed to convincing only thousands of powerful politicians and executives to implement (relatively simple) structural economic changes.


Even an unusually successful consumer-centric propaganda campaign would probably not solve the problem. Consider this. There are many orgs and initiatives and media pieces that promote reductions in energy use. And yet American per-capita energy use has stayed flat for decades. Granted, this does mean we’ve been using less per unit of GDP. But don’t hold your breath on reducing society-wide energy consumption in time to prevent climate disaster, which is coming within ten to twenty years.


Many people will say that surely we need both. Clean technology and radical behavioral change. But I’m not so sure about that. First of all, as mentioned, the record of reducing personal energy consumption is embarrassingly terrible. And second, these technological changes tend to be exponential (in the literal mathematical sense). So you might think that reducing global energy demand by 10% would make a massive difference, but the fact is that that 10% might quickly be eaten up by an exponential clean energy curve anyway. The key is to move along the exponential curve as rapidly as possible.


Climate change is not really a consumer behavior problem. It is a macroeconomics, technology, supply chain, and regulations problem. It is counter-productive to focus on reducing sandwich consumption when the only solution is to remove the poison from the equation, after which we can eat as much as we like. Don’t turn off your lights if you don’t want to--it simply won’t make much of a difference. Instead, figure out ways you can help move the whole system to near-zero carbon.


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