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The Hidden Realities of America’s Sustainability 911

In 2001, an event occurred which indelibly and irrevocably seared the number “911” into the American national consciousness. This incident was, of course, the infamous September 11 attacks. As was the case in 2001, most Americans are not cognizant of an even greater threat to their way of life and to those of future generations. But there is hope. Like their brave fellow citizens, the astronauts that prevailed in the Apollo 13 ordeal, Americans need to embrace an important mantra.

Failure in not an option.

The United States of America is once again in crisis. This crisis has been one that has been years in the making. It is a resource and economic crisis of epic proportions that somehow eludes recognition by even the most insightful individuals that reside on either side of the climate debate.

We Americans consume energy at a rate that is egregiously higher than the rest of the world and this is our Sustainability 911 in progress.

Like it or not, one cannot make credible counter-arguments to a resource and economic crisis of the sort that the US is facing. There are no more vast stores of untapped resources just waiting to be found and exploited “out yonder” to save the USA in the face of blistering global competition that is just over the horizon. Furthermore, the many who are vocal on sustainability and the environment seem to be unaware, ignorant, dismissive, or “all of the above” regarding the fact that the US global resource and economic position is rapidly deteriorating. It is just not about the environment, but also crucial for fixing the national resource situation which directly impacts US economic posture. Forget old economy, fossil resources. The game is up. Segueing to a more efficient and renewable energy economy is not just a green option, but an economic one also.

It is important to note that renewable resources should now be viewed as a viable resource choice to maintain economic integrity.

Using more renewable resources also helps the environment, the effort to arrest climate change, and buttress US economic posture.

Energy consumption is America’s most egregious sustainability flaw and, if not addressed with a sense of urgency, will arguably be its greatest national failure. The country is not just addicted to oil. It is addicted to all things that are consumable. The punk rock band, The Dead Kennedys, railed against gluttonous consumerism with their album and song, "Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death." This is a play-on-words from the speech of the American Revolutionary Era politician, Patrick Henry, who uttered the famous phrase, “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death!.” The Dead Kennedys’ updated version of Henry’s speech mockingly suggests that today’s Americans have elevated consumerism over liberty.

Gluttonous consumerism is modern America’s tyrant replacing the British Empire that was the bane for the 13 original US colonies almost 250 years ago.

A Precarious Resource Situation – US Energy Consumption

Basic economics, particularly supply and demand challenges, will rear its ugly head in the world economy in most industries, but the energy industry will be particularly hit hard. In October, 2015, the middle class of China eclipsed that of the US. This information is even more sobering as it also  predicted that by 2030 China will surpass the US in purchasing power.

It’s the golden rule gone global. He who has the gold makes the rules and, in 2030, the US will be on the short end of the stick.

It is no secret that in terms of resource consumption that the US is near the top in the world for major countries in all categories on a per capita per day basis. US energy use is particularly both notorious and alarming. Consider the graph below.. Dr. Earl Cook (Cook, E., “The Flow of Energy in an Industrial Society”, Scientific American, September, 1971) made an analysis of per capita energy requirements for various technological levels of civilization. Per capita or per person energy requirements are the total amount of energy for food, transportation, and other support features that a person consumes at a specific level of technological sophistication.

The graph shown was developed using Cook’s information (Rozich, A., Other Inconvenient Truths Beyond Global Warming, Super Nexus Press, West Chester, PA, 2015). Primitive man only needed about 2,000 dietary calories per capita per day which corresponds to 2,000 Kcal per capita per day. Increased technological sophistication of human societies raises energy consumption at increasing rates as shown in the figure.

What is particularly alarming with this figure is that it shows that the US consumption per capita energy consumption rates are:

  • Over 100,000 kcal per capita per day higher than EU countries;
  • Over 150,000 kcal per capita per day higher than China; and
  • Almost 175,000 kcal per capita per day higher than India.

It is hard to argue that the US is so technologically sophisticated that it must utilize double the energy consumption rate of EU countries. When all the pundits and sustainability seers have opined all other reasons for these glaring disparities between the US and other economies, perhaps we must consider the sad reality that the Dead Kennedys have it right – gluttonous consumerism.

While the US dithers with its resource and economic dilemmas, the “global No. 1 and 2 economies-in-waiting”, China and India, can grow their middle classes while keeping their energy consumption rates in check. A plausible future scenario is that these Asian economies transition to larger middle classes with “right-sized” energy consumption rates. Additionally, they will have accomplished this goal while surpassing the US in global purchasing power. The advent of much large middle classes in Asia also results in much larger purchasing power that can be used by China and India to buy energy assets in the world market. This can enable them to outbid the US for energy supplies. Even worse, forcing the US into a bidding war it cannot afford given the current situation with American national debt.

The Need for a Resource Focus and the Flight of Apollo 13

Consider the voyage of Apollo 13 which, as Matt McGeehan noted, is a parable for global societal, environmental, and business sustainability. This epic spaceflight is famous and the saga was made into a major motion picture, Apollo 13, in 1995. Things did not go as planned on this mission, but as so often happens, the greatness lies with both the journey, the endeavor, and the resilient acumen that is brought to bear to overcome adversity. The story could be a microcosm of Spaceship America.

A small, overcrowded, and resource-challenged habitat has malfunctioned due to human error which puts the occupants in harm's way with potentially disastrous consequences.

The survival of the crew was given less than a 50% chance by a senior mission control official. Both Spaceship America and Apollo 13 exhibit resource management challenges that tax their emotional, intellectual, and resource limits. Consider the added irony that the craft even had its own CO2 problem which had to be addressed with a broad concerted and collegial effort involving all the stakeholders. Together, the crew and ground control collectively and cleverly re-tooled existing systems to solve the problem. Meanwhile, the astronauts did their collective best to maintain decorum and cognitively avoid acknowledging the unthinkable regarding their odds for survival. The perseverance and deft use of their resources by the entire flight team included performing numerous tasks that were different from those envisioned by the original plan.

To survive their journey, the Apollo crew had to abide by a strict regimen of energy consumption. Similarly, the US as a whole should agree to adopt a target rate of energy consumption which is significantly less than the current rate of 200,000 kcal per capita per day.

Using Europe as an example, it is suggested that a national target of 100,000 kcal per capita per day for energy consumption rate is feasible.

It should be noted that there will be no one “silver bullet”. Instead, the country can be smart about its portfolio of energy options by increasingly deploying renewable and more efficient systems while gradually retiring outdated and less efficient technologies.

What Can I Do - Practice Efficiency and Buy Renewables!

The US, China, and India are not the only ones that can flex buying power. Who has more buying power than Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, or Donald Trump? You – the American Citizen. The challenge before us concerns what US citizens do to change the course for US energy consumption specifically and for all resources in general. The country needs to get a direction that is driven by prudent utilization instead of one flawed with impetuous resource exploitation that marginalizes future economic and environmental sustainability as well as societal functionality for future generations.

The less America is artificially held hostage by excessive energy consumption, the better. Europe manages well at a consumption rate of 100,000 kcal per capita per day so the US should be able to thrive at similar levels.

A committed sustainable citizenship can take action that not only helps address the US energy crisis but that benefits themselves, also. A recent report by McKinsey noted that certain basic measures including getting consumers engaged represents a key portion of a path to increased energy efficiency utilization resulting that could US energy demand by 23% which would reduce US energy consumption to about 160,000 kcal per capita per day. Further cuts can be realized with other technological systems such as the deployment of electric vehicles also referred to as "EVs" which become more affordable and begin to represent a genuine consumer option for transportation. It is likely that a reduction in the level of rampant consumerism can quell excessive energy consumption along with the implementation of more efficient technologies to enable the country to get closer to a lower energy consumption rate.

Remember! It does not matter how little you do provided it is something no matter how small the result. As the former, great US President Theodore Roosevelt would say, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” TR was the country’s first conservationist president whose efforts arguably help start a movement that gave birth to today’s environmental and sustainability efforts. We all can abide by his counsel being cognizant of the choices and actions that the citizenry can implement together. These concerted actions will speak louder volumes and produce greater results then any politically-manicured, media-spun verbiage that emanates from either side of the aisle.







Alan Rozich's picture

Thank Alan for the Post!

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on November 14, 2018

I never heard of the punk rock "Dead Kennedys." But the Beatles had a "Piggies" song in 1968 that resonates with your perfect theme.

Honestly, I doubt we can feed the world much past 2030. Certainly, energy is important. But if you know how to increase food production for your predicted India and China middle classes, you deserve several Nobel prizes.

Personally, I think we are already seeing a collapse in rational response to sustainability threats. I never imagined such a political hatefest replacing policy debate. Not an "Apollo 13" moment.

Still, thanks for the article.

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