TWO THOUSAND WATTS

13 07 2008

Two thousand watts of electricity.  It’s the equivalent of twenty one-hundred watt lightbulbs.  Imagine those lightbulbs on, all day and all night, for a year.  Sound extravagant?  Actually, it’s not extravagant at all.  According to scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, that’s about the average energy input level that is sustainable for the number of people we have on the planet at this time.

We’re not just talking light bulbs, though.  We’re talking about every energy input involved in daily living–work, food, shelter, and travel.

Plenty of people are living on less.  The Swiss say that the average Bangladeshi is using about three hundred watts, the average Indian a thousand, while China’s average is computed at about fifteen hundred–which includes peasants in mud huts who are living at the Bangladeshi level and rich businessmen who are doing their best to imitate the American way of life–which tops out the charts at an estimated 12,000 watts.  Switzerland, by contrast, uses an average of five thousand watts per person, having crossed the two-thousand watt threshold some time in the early 1960’s.  Life was not so deprived in the early 1960’s, now, was it?

Automobiles and airplane travel are real wattage suckers.  Even if your car is a Prius, driving it 10,000 miles a year will take up about a thousand watts, and one intercontinental airplane flight (round trip, of course!) will run you between five hundred and a thousand, depending on the distance involved.

But cutting wattage is not necessarily about adopting a Spartan lifestyle.  It is also about tweaking technology in ways that save energy.  First of all, about two-thirds of the energy we produce is wasted.  One major waste channel is uncaptured heat; another is power-drop in electric lines. Finding creative uses for heat and going from a centralized to a decentralized power generation and distribution network can cut our energy footprint.  Finding alternatives to automobile transportation–from light rail to electric buses to scooters and bicycles, as well as recreating walking-distance urban neighborhoods, can drop our energy demands further.  Throw in super-insulated homes, solar-powered geothermal heat pumps, and neighborhood gardens, and we get a further reduction.  We can rethink the inside of our homes and find more ways to reduce our energy demands gracefully–from solar cookers and water heaters, to LED lighting (the next wave after compact florescent), to throwing out our television sets and entertaining ourselves and each other.

Then, too, there’s rethinking what we expect from life.  The people of Bangladesh are too close to the edge at three hundred watts, but anthropology shows us over and over again that it is possible to live a very enjoyable life with none of the accoutrements of Western Civilization that we have come to hold so dear.  Making space in the world for people to live simply, gracefully, and close to nature–for a season or a lifetime–will be easier if our energy demands are not so overwhelming.  Not needing to exploit every inch of the natural world for our own benefit will actually make it easier for us to live graciously in a technological culture.

And what will be the cost of this conversion?  At first glance, it may seem overwhelming, but it’s not. Bringing sane technology to the third world and redesigning America and Europe, where so many bad ideas are so entrenched in the infrastructure, will, according to the Swiss, cost about half of what the world is currently spending on weaponry.  (And, just for the record, almost half that expense is America’s.)  Such a conversion effort would reduce world tension and free up most of the rest of the energy expended for so-called defense to be put to more creative purposes.  The alternative–trying to hang on to what we have and the way we live–will, even in the short run, turn out to be much more expensive.  Environmental costs, security costs, food and raw materials costs, are only going to ratchet up under the current paradigm, and when those costs exceed what can be met, the result will be chaos of the nastiest sort.  Let’s opt for a gracious power-down.  There’s still time.

music: Will Kimbrough, Wind Blowing Change

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