Are we richer if we make perceived convenience the priority?

Update: I received some thoughtful questions and comments. I answer them at the end.

Meredith Angwin and Rod Adams posted discussions about those who suggest that we all need to reduce waste in our lives ignore the world’s poor, who have very little energy. We all agree—InterAcademy Council makes this their first point in Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future. This is also the first point in my policy presentations. However, I objected to some of what I heard implied: because at low levels of energy use, more energy is associated with longer, healthier lives, the same correlation holds at high levels (indeed, in the US I have read concerns that life expectancy will begin to drop as we use our muscles even less). And that we have little obligation to consider the implications of our choices.

Meredith responded thoughtfully in Prosperity for Rich Folks, advocating for our right to waste, because these choices may make our lives easier. It is my sense that most Americans agree with Meredith, that it is OK to put our perceived convenience ahead of all our considerations.

To be clear, there is much on which we agree beyond our strong support for nuclear power. Aging infrastructure needs to be replaced, and states/countries that ignore energy drive energy production or/and manufacturing elsewhere. Much can be accomplished by paying attention to efficiency. The point of disagreement is whether we are better off, as individuals or a society, if we place an emphasis on smaller cars, etc, and turning stuff off, opting for alternatives to driving and flying, etc.

It is normal for people to begin with unstated assumptions and then agree or disagree without checking those assumptions. Let me check here: many including Meredith and Rod believe essentially that there is enough energy for everyone, though making good choices is important. Others believe that we will run out of energy soon, and still others believe that even if there is enough energy, living more simply helps us or/and the universe. Yes/no?

I would not have begun this discussion before 1995 (when I began paying attention to energy and climate change) with a strong preference for any of those assumptions. I did not replace my car when it broke in 1991 and have lived almost two decades without a car for a variety of reasons, but concern for the environment only became important later. Much more important to me initially were cost, health, and reducing overscheduling. Over time, other advantages emerged, such as the sheer pleasure of being on a bicycle (I had always walked a lot). I did not know then, and do not know now, how many people are like me, happier without a car, or with reduced access through a carshare program, but I doubt that I am unique.

Certainly I don’t feel deprived. Cyclists live longer lives, and quite possibly healthier lives, even including the cohort with the highest death rate, very young males. We don’t have to spend so many hours working to support and maintain a 1+ ton monster. And I never enjoyed driving in the way I enjoy cycling. I have reduced fossil fuel use in a number of other ways in my life, and don’t feel deprived. I suspect that a number of us with adequate access to energy can buy better, use less, and feel as or more satisfied. It is easier to continue doing whatever we have been doing, but that doesn’t necessarily make us happier.

Happy cyclist
Happy cyclist

road rage
Giving up the car and producing endorphins is also good.

We begin with assumptions about whether there is enough energy, but how well do these gibe with analyses coming from science and policy experts re climate change? Some believe that there is enough energy, eg, if we replace almost all fossil fuel electricity with nuclear, and replace fossil fuels used for heating (natural gas, fuel oil, propane) with nuclear electricity, and go to nuclear-powered electric cars. Therefore, I hear, the use of energy is OK (this line of argument generally ignores flying). If policy experts reached this same conclusion, then I would not have major objections to those who waste (there are those that do, for a variety of reasons). Unfortunately, I have seen no major report out of the peer-review community that shows us eliminating fossil fuel use in electricity by 2050, even without electrifying all cars. Even if biofuels become greenhouse gas (GHG) neutral, we will be allocating much of ever-more precious land and water to its cultivation, and are likely to create other problems.

There may be enough energy for 2050, in the sense that policy experts assume that people will farm too much to make biomass for fuel and power, and burn too much fossil fuel (and release too much GHG) rather than make meaningful personal reductions. While some worry about peak oil, those in policy see the problem more that we will run out of atmosphere. John Holdren, science adviser to Obama, is among these:

We are running out of environment, in the sense of the capacity of the atmosphere and waters and biota of the Earth to absorb, without intolerable consequences, the impacts of mobilizing energy in the quantities and in the ways characterizing today’s energy use and that which is ahead in the “business as usual” future.

There is scientific consensus that we produce too much greenhouse gas, and that massive reductions in GHG emissions are needed. So even if we with more than enough energy did live better, longer, healthier lives, there is more to consider—sometimes it is better for us to host a party, other times to replace the roof, if we can imagine addressing GHG as an important capital expenditure. The recommendation of experts cluster around 50 – 80% reduction in GHG emissions from 2004 levels to 2050, requiring a per capita reduction of perhaps 65 – 85%, and higher than that in the developed world, and even then there will be more problems than we would like. These would affect us as well as the poor. On the one hand, scientists studying climate change would prefer an immediate disappearance of GHG emissions, and on the other, policy experts for the most part don’t see a 50 – 80% reduction as achievable, at least not easily. Even if successful, climate change will be destructive, but lack of success has a set of very scary predictions associated with it, such as large areas on every continent becoming dustbowl (pdf) this century.

Nobel Prize winner in economics, George Akerlof spoke at a climate change symposium in Berkeley, saying that we ask the wrong questions when we question whether it is convenient to change our behavior, convenient to pay a higher cost to lower GHG emissions. We don’t walk into someone’s house, eat their dinner, and then ask whether it is convenient to stop eating their dinner. Since we emit more than our share of emissions, the question shouldn’t be whether it is convenient to stop emitting someone else’s share.

The ethical dimension may be simple to Professor Akerlof, but dealing with ourselves and others can be tricky. And painful. With health care, we’d love to say yes to everyone. Following your bliss? Another yes to everyone. Unfortunately, there is not enough money to treat every medical condition, and there is not enough time to follow every path. Life requires choices, and we do not all get all we want. We prioritize, clarify how important is our own convenience, and our obligations.

No matter what people’s underlying assumption (there is more than enough, there is not enough), almost everyone has the same response to this discussion, “Don’t guilt trip me.” Guilt has not been a strong motivator for me. Some of us are motivated by the desire to understand what is right and act on that understanding. It would be nice if we lived in a world where the cost of our behavior was reflected in the price, so decisions would be easier to make, and that would be a blessing. Unfortunately, it is only as we become willing to pay attention as individuals that society will accommodate that understanding to increase the price of behavior destructive to society. Making good choices around climate change will be easier once we have a critical mass of us consider behavior change.

Most of us feel richer if we feel good about what we do for others. Studies even show that we are often happier giving someone else money than receiving the same amount. Our choices can be gifts to ourselves and others of a world more beautiful and nurturing, not a means of depriving ourselves. If we see our behavior this way, we will likely find other gifts in the choices we make.

Update: Paraphrased comments and questions

Q: Isn’t it true that technology change will yield greater GHG reductions per unit effort?

A: That’s my assumption. If 100 people could choose to put work into changing their behavior and that of others, or put the same work into promoting nuclear power, or mandating higher fuel economy, the latter is likely to result in greater GHG emissions. This is even more true if the people involved would be seen by the public as not the same old same old, but people who changed their mind, and if the nuclear work is in places like California, where new nuclear power plants are not permitted, rather than Georgia, where construction has already begun on a Gen III+ plant.

However, technology change is not sufficient. Technology in the absence of a cost for GHG even more so.

Q: Is it more important in your mind to pay attention to the inner experience?

A: First, I am clear in my mind that it is important to provide increased energy to many.

Absolutely not. I chose to go carless for a variety of reasons, and chose to avoid flying once for the environment. After that experiment, I decided that I preferred the train to flying, and so now avoid flying both for my own pleasure and the environment.

If I were to choose what is important for your soul, in the absence of climate change there would be a number of items much higher on my list than some version of living simply. With climate change, there is an important goal, to lower GHG emissions. Some people can make a small number of small changes in one day and dramatically lower GHG emissions with no sense of loss. Others need to add attentiveness to behavior for a while but will also experience no sense of loss. For some, the choices may even work better. Others may want to add GHG cost to the decision-making process—one person asked me about the GHG emissions in reaching vacation spots A and B. I provided that information, and assume that it was just part of the decision-making. A relatively small number of people, I suspect, live lives so perfect that all changes will lead to a sense of privation. Based on what people said when reducing their electricity use 10% in CA in response to the electricity crisis (I didn’t really do much, all I did was…) people in the energy-rich world could reduce GHG emissions at least 10% over the next year fairly easily.

That said, we don’t easily make choices that are good for us. I heard this story secondhand from the days when people had one TV, and TV repair took a week: people picking up the TV reported themselves as happier, the family was getting along better and talking more, and yet always picked up the TV. Another moral of the story is that we cannot expect voluntary behavior change to replace good political and societal choices.

Q: Are you really not talking about living without electricity, etc?

A: If people want to go live in a cave, fine. I use electricity and heat my house and cook and vacation. I am not advocating that anyone live without these, rather that we live with a little more intention and attention. Also, to me the question is climate change and the answer is lower GHG emissions. If you want to sew your own clothes, you’ll enjoy it and I definitely want to see and admire your achievements, but if it doesn’t reduce GHG emissions, it’s not part of the answer to climate change.

Q: What is simple living? I hear so many versions, and so many sound awful.

A: I don’t believe that I use this phrase often. For me simple living is making choices that free me and center me—making fewer, more important choices. This meaning is not universal.

Akerlof’s ethics pose a challenge to us. However, we can get there in a very different manner. Suppose we have always eaten whatever we want, whenever we want. Now for a year, we opt to change our behavior, and see how we feel at the end of the year. We may find that going for walks helps deal with anxiety that can lead to overeating, and has other benefits. We may find that we like ourselves better. We may find that walking becomes easier over time, as we walk more and eat less. We may find that the entire year has been a terrible experience, and we will never, ever do this again. Note: those of us who eat considerably more than we need really do get that this solution is for us, not for those who are starving, or who have close to normal weights.

Similarly, we could set a goal of reducing our GHG emissions 10% this year, and see how we feel at the end of the year. Take the train one way instead of flying. Drive less. Use less energy in the house. It probably won’t take much work, but you do need an accurate GHG scale. If I set a goal to reduce my GHG emissions 10% this year, and act on it, how will I feel during the year, how will I feel after 12 months? These are open-ended question; answers will vary. For many, the answers will include greater pleasure in some new choices compared to previous ones, and feeling better about ourselves, happier with who we are. Others will hate some or all of it. Success at the end of the year could lead to a new set point, or it could lead to a new question for the following year. Most important is a willingness to try this once.

I never experimented when I resented the experiment. The time I chose to take the train from the west to the east coast instead of flying, I felt an obligation to try, I was curious about how I would react, and I felt free to hate the experience and take the train no more. I used the time on the train to ask others why they took the train. I was surprised that I preferred the train over flying: being rested when I arrived rather than always rushing. Just sitting and looking at the US.

Q: What makes behavior change important, given that we are going to accomplish so little?

A: There are a number of reasons.

Economists have a model of the rational actor, but people make rational decisions better when they are changing their behavior. People who think about climate change and how they could respond are more likely to buy more efficient bulbs, appliances, etc.

Also consider society’s experience with smoking. The number of smokers and our exposure to secondhand smoke decreased as public health warnings, legislation, and behavior change among some in the public (from not smoking themselves to insisting that the spouse not smoke near the kids) worked together over a number of decades.

Perhaps most important: even though a good share of the public knows climate change is crucial to address last week, too few of us care enough to vote or work on it, or reconsider old ways of thinking on policy issues. Many of us can only acknowledge the dangers from climate change if we have found a way to begin to address it. Most people know that buying green products doesn’t do much, but that changing behavior can. Real numbers, real progress over time, for enough people, and more become willing to make climate change a priority.

Interestingly, it is my sense that those who are strongest advocates of changing behavior would benefit more from learning why nuclear power is an attractive solution and advocating for it. Those who might benefit most from changing behavior are those who don’t consider it/fear it. As more of us face our fears, society will begin to face its fears about addressing climate change.

4 Responses to “Are we richer if we make perceived convenience the priority?”

  1. Rod Adams says:


    Thought provoking post. Though I fall into the camp of people who believe that there is plenty of energy to go around because of my understanding of the vast potential of nuclear energy, I also do what I can to simplify my life and to reduce frivolous polluting emissions.

    I love riding my bike, but have rarely managed to live close enough to my place of employment to use it as my main means of transportation. Besides – I have never managed to learn to ride in a leisurely fashion. If I decided to try riding to work there had better be a place to show or my colleagues will have nothing to do with me. I also love driving along lesser traveled roads – my wife and I just took a trip that included an amazing day on the Blue Ridge Parkway. That experience would be impossible to replicate on a bicycle.

    I agree with putting a price on emissions. I like to call it a dumping fee – just because the waste products of burning fossil fuels are gaseous, that should not allow them to be dumped into our common atmosphere for free. People and businesses are pretty good about taking action when there is a cost to be avoided if they take that action.

    I also believe that the peer reviewed studies and predictions on the rate at which nuclear could take markets might be significant underestimates. Think about it this way – if a peer reviewed study was conducted in 1990 to determine how long it would take for cellular telephones and Skype to take market share from land line telephones, what do you think it would have said?

    Actinide fission is vastly superior to fossil fuel combustion on many objective measures. It does not have to be limited to electric power production; my experience in nuclear was on a transportation application on board a submarine.

    I can envision nuclear power trains with little difficulty – the easiest way would be to power the same kind of electric trains already in operation with nuclear plants and to vastly expand the amount of electrified track in operation. However, it might even be possible to produce electric trains with nuclear power plants on board – there is no real technical barrier that would prevent such an application.

    Trucks, cars and airplanes are more difficult, but like you, I actually prefer trains and ships to airplanes for personal travel. With modern communication systems, it is easier to provide them with full connectivity so even business travelers might not feel that the extra time on the transport is wasted. As far as I am concerned, flying became a mere burden at least 10 years ago. (I guess if I could afford business or first class I would not feel the same way, but a coach seat is like traveling in a sardine can with too high a potential for being packed next to a fellow sardine who could use that year of extra walking and fewer meals that you recommend.)

  2. Karen Street says:

    Rod, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    I personally feel safest reporting what peer-review analysis says about nuclear power potential, though I also feel comfortable reporting that for the last several years, predictions for both the low and high build for nuclear power have been increasing. If I report more than that, I worry that what I say goes beyond Truth to Hopes and Dreams. Whatever my predilection, I don’t want it affecting my ability to listen, and so I mostly report not just peer reviewed reports, but the uber reports from the peer review community.

    My main question is about your assumption that there is plenty of energy to go around. I have the same question for you as for people who are invested in running out of energy tomorrow: can you find major reports from the peer review community to justify your statements?

    Is there a source that you trust to catch glitches in your thinking that confirms that there is enough energy for us all to do as we wish, even if we make good choices (such as limiting waste)?

    In the expert community, from what I read and hear, assumptions are shifting to the belief that it’s (essentially) impossible to reduce GHG emissions 80% by 2050, 94% per capita, and more in the rich countries. (Since the reduction is not for year 2050 compared to year 2005, but cumulative reductions, delays today require steeper reductions tomorrow.)

    It seems to me important to confront our fears including our fears that our rules for how we live our lives, as well as which policies and technologies we support and oppose, may not fit the new requirements for our world. You have part of the answer (nuclear power) and others have other parts of the answer, including living with less, but claims that others’ solutions are not needed because mine are sufficient are not driven by the rational side of our nature, I would guess. Recognizing our fears, addressing them, is part of what we need to do to address climate change.

    Good luck getting a shower put in at work, or at a nearby site.

  3. Rod Adams says:


    What I can tell you is that I have read good, detailed estimates of the total quantity of uranium and thorium that is likely to be recoverable with moderate costs and I know a bit about the measured inventories of used nuclear fuel and “depleted” uranium that is stored at certain sites around the country. Though the technology that is currently in use has a limited ability to consume the vast majority of uranium and thorium, there have been a number of demonstration reactors that used different technology to do a better job of using the available resources.

    Today’s reactors only consume about 0.5% of the available energy in natural uranium and essentially do not use any thorium at all. The better technology systems that have been demonstrated at a pretty large scale (tens to hundreds of megawatts per machine) are able to improve that by a factor of 10-20 and have shown the very real potential of improving it by a factor of 150 or more. (Obviously, the absolute limit is a factor of 200 improvement from 0.5% to 100% consumption.)

    With the known resource quantity and potential improvement in fuel utilization, that is enough to support my contention that there is plenty of energy to go around. The total resource quantity is many hundreds of times more than the total resource quantity of hydrocarbons – both already used and still remaining.

  4. Karen Street says:

    Rod, again, I don’t see us running out of energy so much as producing great pollution. Because that is what the major science reports say.

    Re being all nuclear, Lamar Alexander sees us adding 100 nuclear power plants by 2030. Nuclear Energy Institute appreciates the thought but doesn’t believe this is possible. Do you believe that NEI and Alexander are too conservative? Even if we do add 100 plants, only about 40% of 2030 electricity, or less (even though average plant size would be larger in 2030), would be nuclear, leaving close to half fossil fuel. That is too much, for those of who will be alive mid-century, or know people who will be alive mid-century. Or do you see this another way?

    Nuclear cannot supply the majority of US electricity within 2 decades, nor can it supply the majority of electricity assuming we have moved a lot of transportation to electricity. Actually, the experts in the community that depend on peer review are not yet confident that batteries will be ready to replace current methods by 2050, let alone 2030. Let alone the problem of flying. The question is less one of running out of fuels for cars (and airplanes) though, and more of what damage we do by using so much fossil fuel, biofuel, and batteries.

    Again, when we waste electricity, we reduce the share that comes from nuclear and other low-greenhouse gas emitting forms of electricity, because these can be ramped up only so fast. When we drive, we use fossil fuels or biofuels, which have their own problems with land use, water, and GHG emissions. Again, the question is not is there enough energy for electricity in 2100, the questions are how much GHG do we emit today, and in 2030, and in 2050, and what are the land use and water implications of our choices.

    According to cultural theory of risk (, as I understand it, the egalitarian culture’s unprocessed worldview is that Big Business has failings and government can’t be trusted to regulate it and nuclear power is bad. The individualist’s unprocessed worldview is that government is trying to take away from me by over-regulating, taxing, and imposing energy efficiency standards (some egalitarians feel the same, that it’s better to educate 7 billion people to make good choices rather than mandating efficiency). People in both cultures don’t trust the government to be looking out for me, and don’t want to change how we live, even something simple such as turning off lights in empty rooms. People in these two cultures use different words to explain themselves.

    I am not saying that you need to change how you live. My point is that one addressing climate change is challenging because the public has so many fears about being asked to change how we live, about learning that we were wrong on technology or policy, that we pretty much ignore the issue. As more of the public confronts fears on changed behavior, nuclear power, taxes, etc, we will become open to addressing climate change. Until then, people will continue to advocate for solutions that they supported before hearing about climate change, and the results will be ugly.