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The Great Generational ‘Green Thing’ Debate

Scientist and lawyer duke it out over who is the greener generation.

A lawyer I know, who, I am convinced, likes to rattle my chain from time to time, recently sent me an essay entitled “The Green Thing.” (It’s all over the web, but it looks like it may have originated here.)

It’s about an older lady at a supermarket checkout who, after being scolded by a presumably young cashier that plastic bags aren’t good for the environment, apologizes for her unhipness, noting that “we didn’t have the green thing back in my day.”

And then the irony sets in. In her day:

  • folks recycled their milk and soda bottles,
  • they washed cloth diapers instead of using disposables,
  • they hung the wash out to dry instead of using a dryer,
  • they drank from a water fountain instead of carrying bottles with water from some remote corner of the world,
  • they had only one family car and used public transport,
  • all this and more, but, alas …
  • they didn’t have the green thing.

A charming story, I replied to the lawyer in question, but overly simplistic.

Our Energy Efficiency of Today

The fact is that we’ve become a whole lot better at converting energy into goods and services since the 1950s. As illustrated in the graph below, the amount of energy we use per unit of production (in this case dollars of gross domestic product or GDP) has decreased by more than a factor of two over the past 60 years.

Why? Two main reasons:

  1. We’ve simply become more efficient at using the energy we generate — less waste, more production; and
  2. Our economy is no longer so heavily dominated by energy-intensive manufacturing industries.

Sure, I lectured my poor misguided lawyer, back in the ‘50s they recycled bottles and hung the wash out to dry, but their overall economy was low-tech and energy-inefficient.

Ever the eagle, the lawyer quickly queried back: Does that mean we’re using less energy today than in the ‘50s?

“My poor e-mail pal,” I thought to myself. “First law of lawyers: never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.” With professorial aplomb, I retorted: “Of course not, they’ve both gone up because GDP increases have outpaced the efficiency gains.”

CO2 per unit GDP
(Source: EIA data here and here)

A few minutes later, the lawyer proved his litigatorial mettle by following with a question I hadn’t anticipated: “Doesn’t that suggest that people today, with all their ‘green thing’ ardor, are using more energy on a per capita basis than in the ‘50s?”

Energy use per person! Of course. I missed the point of “The Green Thing.” It’s not about the economy; it’s about the people. We may have become more efficient at using the energy we generate and we may profess a green ethic, but with all our cars and TVs and computers and jets, we could very well be more profligate as individuals than the non-green-enlightened generation before us. (This, by the way, has relevance to several earlier posts. See this one on the 1950s vs the 2000s vis-a-vis energy stats and this one on efficiency rebound.)

But was that true? Are people as individuals using more energy now than before? Well, it depends. The U.S. population is increasing — perhaps much of the increase in energy usage in the country is being driven by population growth instead of individual profligacy.

To find out, I hightailed it over the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s website, and before long I got the answer (see graph below).

Alas, we are more profligate than our ‘50s forebears — and a lot more at that. Energy consumption per person in the United States has increased by about 50 percent since the ‘50s.

Per Capita Energy Consumption in 2007 (Million BTU per Person) United States 340 France 180 Japan 177 Germany 172 United Kingdom 154 Europe 143 World 73 China 60 India 17

At this point, no doubt the attorneys reading this story are smirking, thinking to themselves: legal wizard once again outdoes scientist.

But not so fast, my Perry Mason wannabes.

Notice upon closer inspection of the graph that since the mid-1990s, per capita energy consumption in the United States has been creeping downward … ever so slightly.

As individual Americans, we are consuming less energy!

Could it be that the green movement’s growing influence has changed American behavior? Perhaps we’ve turned a corner and today’s “Green Thing” really is a thing.

I could write back to my lawyer correspondent, triumphant, but I won’t.

He’s too clever; he’d simply point out that despite the downward slope in Americans’ individual energy usage, we are still embarrassingly profligate compared to the citizens of most other nations (see table at right).

My excuse for not emailing him … I just don’t have the energy.