Is Conservation the Cure?


toyota_prius008It seems so obvious. If everyone uses less oil, via sexy hybrid cars, or on the dole public transport, we’ll actually burn less gas, drill fewer seabeds, spill less lube and spew less carbon into the atmosphere. But if you said that, you’ve never met a man named Jevons. For he would tell you one thing: efficiency improvemnts only create more demand for the very fuel you’re trying to conserve.

If conservation is not the answer, what about generating new sources of fuel from crops? The 2005 Renewable Fuel Standard mandates greater biofuel usage over time and provides tax credits for biofuel producers. That ain’t no unfunded mandate. Problem solved. Just one thing. For biodiesel, the Renewable Fuel Standard never gets biodiesel beyond 5% of diesel fuel supply. So now all the sexy new diesels coming on the market (which are about 25% more efficient than their gasoline siblings) won’t accommodate anything more than B5 (5% biodiesel, 95% regular diesel). Never mind that my 1976 diesel Mercedes runs B100 without a problem (though 35 year old cars do encounter problems.) In that sense diesel engine technology has gone backwards, with Congressional approval.

Not that biofuels can save the day. The boondoggle that is ethanol has no words to describe the level of boondogglery. Before the BP spill, our oil driven mega farming practices were already creating hypoxic dead zones in the Gulf, made worse by more acreage farmed for corn ethanol. That we can’t replace oil with biofuels should be obvious. Just 5%, if taken to this country’s total oil usage, is 1 million barrels or 42 million gallons A DAY. On a world wide basis 5% would mean 4 million bbl or 164 million gallons a day. Present day crops consume present day resources. Water, fertilizer, arable land, fuel, etc. Why mega farm biofuels if it is just as unsustainable as oil?

We’ve been sucking up the earth’s milkshake for about a century now, and if we have a century of chocolatey goodness left, that would be generous. Energy dense oil that took hundreds of millions of years to form from an unimaginable stock of biomass and geological forces doesn’t just get replaced by man’s inventive capability. There might be a Star Trek style energy source out there if we just invent hard enough. But we might want to at least consider what life would be like not expending quadrillions of BTUs. Been to a Renaissance fair recently? Thermodynamics are stubborn things.

Dead Gulf Syndrome, oil wars, rising sea levels, Sarah Palin in charge someday. What next on our present course I don’t know. But I might trade in my biodieselin’ ’76 300D for a ’95 S600 V12 gas-o-guzzler. Is the way to make the problem better in the long run to make it worse in the short run? Because we won’t change until we have to. I laud the President for raising some of these thorny issues in his televised address. Maybe we’ll do better with the upcoming climate bill, but our track record brings to mind the words EPIC and FAIL. And based on the national mood in response to the biggest environmental disaster in US history, we’re more about blame than change.

Post Script: The day after after I wrote most of this post, Jeff Rubin posted his weekly blog on oil essentially saying that we’ll have to live with less oil in the future whether we want to or not. As he says better than I did, “Plan B can only be less oil consumption.”


  1. Sue Two says:

    Excellent post (except for the pointless obligatory swipe at Sarah Palin).

    We have GOT to get beyond looking for new ways to keep up our same old wasteful lifestyles. Instead, we need to re-appraise the way we live in this world. We’re going to have to go to a much simpler, less impactful, more self-reliant way of living on this planet. Pretty soon, I don’t think we’ll have a choice.

    My partner and I now grow as much of our own food as possible, keep chickens, harvest and dry the herbs in our yard, are very mindful of the electricity we use, and keep driving to a minimum. Every little thing you do for yourself allows you to feed “the beast” a little less.

  2. Thank you Sue Two for the comment. I am impressed with your approaches to living a less impactful lifestyle. If you’re on Twitter, check out @HappyChickens. He’s a young kid who raises chickens and is tapped into food issues and local growing much like Michael Pollan writes about. I also highly reccomend Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man, that does an excellent job of showing that living a less energy and waste intensive can actually make us happier people.

    On Sarah Palin: I guess I lumped “Sarah Palin in charge someday” in with a bunch of other bad outcomes that we’re experiencing on our present course. That’s because I regard her potential presidency as a potential bad outcome. But that’s not a swipe at her. It is recognizing the fact that the energy policy encapsulated in “drill baby, drill” is still her vision for America’s energy future despite what’s happened in the Gulf. She’s against the climate bill as well. If we under react to the present crisis, the pro drilling crowd will eventually win out and either she will be our President, or someone else who will do the oil industry’s bidding. That situation is what I’m taking a swipe at.

  3. Tom Buckner says:

    Lest we forget: all environmental problems are also population problems. More people means more environmental impact, and if numbers get big enough it doesn’t matter if everyone lives like Gandhi. How many is too many, then? Opinions vary, but right now we’re way past it.

    Here’s one overview. If you disagree with any of these estimates, it will at least be productive to spend some time thinking about why you believe what you believe.