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Path Insistence: Comparing European and American Attitudes Toward Energy.

Last year I gave two similar talks about energy at two universities on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean and had two entirely different responses.(1) At each university I made the case that in the 20th century the United States had unnecessarily overconsumed energy, and I argued that this was not a technological but a cultural problem with serious environmental implications. Both audiences agreed there was a problem, but in the discussions that followed, Americans focused on technical solutions, while Europeans focused on the cultural factors that made it difficult for the United States to change.

Americans spoke of wind and solar power, lasers, computers and new car designs; Europeans discussed the layout of roads and cities, patterns of consumption and social welfare. While these responses are by no means a substitute for a systematic survey, I believe they are representative of fundamental differences between how most Europeans and Americans understand energy.

I refer here not to specialists in energy policy but to ordinary voters and consumers, people who do not understand energy in terms of chemistry, mathematical equations or thermodynamics. While economists, scientists and engineers may think in these terms, everyone else relegates energy to the margin of consciousness, only thinking about it briefly when paying the utility bill or buying gasoline. Furthermore, not all consumers view energy in the same way. In Europe, for example, energy has historically been expensive and at times, scarce. Europeans generally have a sense of limits and see the necessity for alternatives. In the United States abundant energy is part of an accepted way of life, and it always seems to be available. This sense of energy abundance is the result of generations of experience. The average American consumer takes for granted the availability of oil, electricity, natural gas and other energy sources.

Compared with people elsewhere, Americans are less self-conscious about how unsustainable a high-energy society is and, historically speaking, less aware of the anomaly of intensive energy use, in part because they have enjoyed this privilege longer than anyone else. It follows that any constraints in the energy supply will be experienced as abnormal and unnatural.(2) Americans have become so "path dependent" that they only become aware of energy during a blackout or gasoline shortage.

Studies of technology commonly refer to path dependency as a problem for firms that become wedded to a particular form of production and move too slowly to adopt new processes. As one recent article on the power industry put it:
 The evolution of the networked energy system is likely to be highly
 path-dependent. That is, system choices we have already made and will make
 over the next several decades will significantly influence the range of
 feasible future options.(3)

The authors were referring to methods of producing and distributing power, but similar generalizations would apply to most industries.(4) While managers today are highly aware of the dangers of path dependency, most consumers are not. Americans have already built their energy choices into the infrastructure of everyday lire, in terms of their transportation, housing, shopping habits and leisure activities. The high-energy path that they take to be natural will hold attractive short-term advantages for perhaps the next two decades, but over the long term this path may lead to severe and almost insoluble environmental problems.

The question for Americans in the next century will be whether they will have the political will and the technological skill to reduce their energy consumption without disrupting their way of life. Until now they have relied primarily on technical improvements to deal with environmental consequences of intensive energy use. For example, they continue to use just as many appliances, but the design of those appliances is more energy-efficient. Americans drive more than ever, but their vehicles are fitted with pollution-control devices. Such technical improvements have meant that the middle class has not needed to reduce their consumption patterns. The lifestyle based on the automobile is all that most Americans born after 1920 can recall, for already by the end of that decade there was one car for every six people.

Yet the United States has been industrialized and suburbanized for a much shorter time than most people realize, with their high-energy society based on fossil fuels invented only in the last 120 years. During the nation's first two centuries, muscle and water power provided most of the energy. Unlike the Netherlands, windmills were not common, and unlike England, steam engines could scarcely be found anywhere before 1800. At the time of the American Revolution there were only three steam engines in the colonies, all pumping water. In 1840 wood supplied much more heat than coal, and more than 60,000 mills driven by water wheels provided far more energy than the nation's approximately 1,200 stationary steam engines.(5) In absolute terms, steam first began to provide the majority of American manufacturing power only in about 1875. Even as late as 1915 most farm work was still performed by human and animal force. At that time, only one American home in ten had electricity or a telephone.(6)

While for much of its early history the United States relied on muscle and water power for energy and wood for fuel, in the second half of the 19th century the country rapidly began to adopt steam power, followed soon after by electricity, the internal combustion engine and natural gas.(7) The history of energy use in America did not lag behind Britain or other nations, nor did it follow the same pattern at a different pace. Rather, the United States developed according to a distinctive pattern in which wood was always plentiful; water power was more important for a longer time than in most nations; steam engines were intensively exploited only after 1850; and both the internal combustion engine and electrification were adopted more quickly and more wholeheartedly than elsewhere. During the 20th century the nation developed into the highest energy-consuming country in history. In short, neither the pattern of U.S. energy development nor the scale of its use closely parallels any other nation's experience.

The United States has consumed more energy per capita than any other society in human history, and it remains the world's leading energy consumer. The United Nations Environmental Programme recently found that in 1950 per capita consumption for North America (Canada and the United States) was more than four times that in Europe and more than seven times the world average. In 1990 a North American was using twice as much energy as a European and 10 times as much as the average Latin American. A North American family of four consumed as much as an African village of 107. The United Nations Environmental Programme estimates that by 2015 these inequalities will worsen to the point that the average American family will demand as much energy as 127 Africans or 42 Latin Americans.(8)

These contrasts between the developed and developing world should not suggest, however, that the problem of energy overconsumption in the United States can be explained away by a higher standard of living or a more advanced use of technology Many Europeans enjoy the same quality of life as Americans while using half the per capita energy For example, in 1989 per capita energy consumption in West Germany was 5,391 kilograms (coal equivalent) at a time when U.S. per capita consumption was 10,124 kilograms.(9) This sharp difference in energy use did not, however, reflect a lower standard of living. In the same year German workers averaged 24 percent more in hourly compensation than American workers.(10) Compared with American households in 1990, 88 percent of West German families owned their own washing machines versus 76 percent of American families, while 97 percent of West German families owned a television set versus 93 percent of American families. But only 17 percent of Germans owned an electric clothes dryer--a high-energy product--compared to 51 percent of Americans. Likewise, West Germans chose to drive more energy-efficient cars and more commonly used railroads and other forms of public transportation.(11) Meanwhile, to extend the comparison with West Germany in another direction, East Germany used considerably more energy per capita--7,631 kilograms--but nevertheless achieved a much lower standard of living by almost any measure.(12)

As these comparisons suggest, higher energy use does not correlate directly with a higher standard of living. The problem of America's high energy use is profoundly cultural, by which I mean it has to do with patterns of material life, habits, values and expectations--patterns formed over 150 years. Since technological systems are path dependent, it is useful to look at how and why ordinary Americans have become so wedded to such a high-energy path.


Too often, energy history is understood primarily as a question of developing supply, and much of the literature focuses on such topics as techniques used to build dams and mills, or processes to extract fossil fuels or to improve steam engine efficiency. However, one can also look at energy history in terms of demand. Consumers have often been the driving force behind the expansion of energy use. If one looks at the rapid increase in American energy demand from the middle of the 19th century until the present, one is struck by how this increase parallels the growth of the middle class, the rise of cities and the development of strong consumer demand. Through these years one fact stands out: Americans have almost never been short of energy. Unlike Europe, where in many areas wood was already scarce by the Renaissance, the United States had an abundance of wood that competed with coal, an abundance of water power that was still being developed when steam became dominant and an abundance of coal and natural gas that competed with oil.

America's intensive energy use accelerated rapidly for roughly a century from the Civil War until the early 1970s. While coal was the dominant fossil fuel as late as 1930, it was rapidly displaced by oil and natural gas, which together accounted for 73 percent of fossil fuel use by 1960. By 1998 the situation had changed little: gas and oil supplied 72.8 percent of total energy use, compared to 22 percent for coal, with the rest divided between nuclear and renewable energy. Regardless of the fuel, much of it went to produce electricity. Residential and commercial demand for electricity was so persistent that utility providers had to double their power plant capacity every decade from 1912 until 1972.(13) By the end of the 1990s American private consumers used 36 percent of the nation's energy in their homes and were responsible for much of the 26 percent used in transportation. By contrast, industry accounted for only 38 percent of all power usage, and much of this energy served the consumer's demand for automobiles, appliances, frozen food, shopping and entertainment.

In Europe the figures for 1992 were significantly different, as industry used only 29 percent of all power--having reduced its demand through improved efficiency between 1974 and 1992. In contrast, energy for transportation had been growing at a rapid rate of 3 percent per year to 31 percent during the same years (1974 to 1992), reflecting the growing European preference for automobiles, particularly in Southern Europe, which had lagged behind Germany and France. Finally, energy use in the domestic and tertiary sector accounted for 41 percent of total energy use in Europe. Even more than in the United States, consumers account for the largest use of energy. The much lower European overall energy demand is directly tied to its patterns of consumption.(14)

Given an abundance of competing energy sources in the U.S. market, the consumer faces fewer limits than in most of the world. This became particularly apparent during the energy shortages of the 1970s. As President Nixon's Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton explained to an Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) meeting:
 Americans ... have long been accustomed to abundance. Scarcity of natural
 resources and scarcity of land have not been factors to contend with. That
 we no longer have the luxury of unbounded clean land, air, and water, nor
 of the fuels that we blindly depend upon to give us pleasures in life, is a
 concept difficult for our general public to grasp.(15)

In the 1970s few understood that the middle-class American way of life might have been a contributing factor to the energy crisis. To Americans it seemed that the shortages had been artificially created by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) alone. In fact, during the 1960s the U.S. government kept gasoline prices low, discouraging both savings and new exploration as the result of rapidly rising oil imports. By the early 1970s the world as a whole had little excess capacity for oil production, and Americans had inadequate reserves to meet the crisis when it came. In retrospect, American families' high-energy lifestyle was a central part of the problem, because of their almost exclusive reliance on automobiles for transportation and the preference for individual houses rather than apartments--houses that were poorly insulated and supplied with individual heating rather than more efficient centralized systems.(16)

Most Americans are likely to recall that the United States suffered severe energy shortages during the 1970s, forcing them to cut back. In fact, while there were indeed some temporary shortages of gasoline and fuel oil, overall energy use actually increased during that decade. For example, national electricity consumption increased by 50 percent, a considerable rise for a people convinced they were suffering a shortage. Some of the increase was due to air conditioning, which was still a luxury for many people in the 1960s but became widespread in the 1970s. As Fortune magazine presciently observed in 1969:
 The American likes his home brilliantly lit, of course, and he has a
 passion for gadgets that freeze, defrost, mix, blend, toast, roast, iron,
 sew, wash, dry, open his garage door, trim his hedge, entertain him with
 sounds and pictures, heat his house in winter, and--above all--cool it in

By 1982, just after the end of the "energy crisis," over 60 percent of all homes had some form of air conditioning, half of these central systems for cooling the entire house. This reflects high-market penetration considering that this technology is not needed in areas of the United States such as the Pacific Northwest, locations at higher elevations and many coastal communities. In part, air conditioning itself was a response to the intensive electrification of the house, as every light bulb and motor gave off heat. The historian Gail Cooper recently observed, "Air conditioning is needed to address not only the traditional sources of heat in housework but an ever increasing energy consumption."(18)

As for automobiles, although their average speed was six miles per hour slower by 1979 than it had been in 1972, the number of cars had increased dramatically Total gasoline consumption and the total number of miles driven had increased 20 percent. Between 1969 and 1980 Americans developed the habit of making more shopping trips--with the distance traveled on these trips increased by 20 percent--in order to reach the large enclosed malls that were spreading across the nation. These developments were not restricted to the white middle class. Middle class African-Americans also chose to adopt the high-energy lifestyle of the suburbs, doubling their suburban population during the economic slowdown of the 1970s.(19)

Furthermore, while it might seem that an energy crisis should lead people to return to public transportation, in fact, during the 1970s, public transportation declined to a mere 2.5 percent of all journeys, virtually all made by school children.(20) Thirteen percent of railroad track actually disappeared. Coal shipments increased, but trains carried no more freight in 1980 than they did in 1970.(21) In short, Americans refused to adjust their behavior more than absolutely necessary during what they perceived as a crisis. The trends toward increasing suburbanization, larger houses, more appliances, more air conditioning and increased dependence on the automobile all continued, with as few concessions as possible during energy shortages. To put it another way, American consumers proved to be insistently path dependent. While there was a great deal of public discussion and many publications about "small is beautiful" and alternative energy, society as a whole did not prove to be very flexible.(22) Subsequent analysis showed that "Conservation programs by various agencies have had a great impact on consumer awareness of energy problems but only a small effect on actual energy use...."(23) Paradoxically, the poor, who consumed comparatively little energy, had to adjust their driving habits and home heating patterns far more than the middle class, even though the affluent were those most loudly decrying excess consumption and rallying around the issue of confronting the energy crisis.(24)


Americans absorbed each successive energy form not only into machines but also into their self-awareness. In popular speech the "human race horse" became the "human locomotive" and then the "human dynamo." The popular adoption of metaphors in which wires, currents and machines replaced muscle power marked a fundamental change in consciousness that occurred with the expanding use of energy. By the 1930s the American consumer conceived of the ideal self as energized: "high voltage" and "high-octane." Successful people were "powerhouses" and good musicians gave "electrifying performances." American speech became saturated with suggestive expressions that together seemed to say that energy enlivened personality, quickened intelligence and promoted growth. In the comics, a "bright idea" was symbolized by a light bulb. Alternately, energy shortages were translated into negative qualities. A stupid person was "not hitting on all cylinders" or might be called a "dim bulb." A confused person had gotten his or her "wires crossed" and suffered a "mental short circuit." A tired person needed to "recharge his batteries." Collectively, such expressions have reinforced a high-energy culture.

Furthermore, high-energy path dependency was based on kinetic experience, particularly with the automobile. Possessing a new way to move through the world created new perceptions, literally expanding the horizon and the sense of personal power. The act of driving stimulated the driver in new ways, suffusing the sense of self. These changes were dynamic and perceptual, expanding the potential for experience. Thus the psychological investment in the automobile, well-begun in the 1920s, was more than a symbolic flaunting of wealth.(25)

In other words, car ownership has long meant far more than transportation for practical purposes. While it was certainly true that Americans increasingly drove their cars to diners, drive-in banks, miniature golf courses and other businesses that stimulated and catered to their consumer desires, by the end of the 1920s driving had already developed into a new form of visual browsing. Like the Parisian flaneur on the boulevard, the characteristic figure in the American landscape became the driver, who, like the flaneur, was detached, isolated, wrapped in his own thoughts and aimlessly moving.(26) Likewise, the visual excess of giant roadside signs and electrical displays functioned as far more than advertisement, becoming a spectacle, a series of vivid patterns, a pulsing rhythm marking urban space. Cruising "the strip" became an end in itself.

As with the automobile, the high-energy consumer is embedded in technological structures. Most obvious is the detached suburban home filled with ever more appliances and connected to an energy-intensive system of services, including telephone, radio, television, computer and finally the Internet. Less obvious but just as important are the worldwide systems of transportation that make it possible to stock an average of 30,000 different items in the typical U.S. supermarket,(27) or the domed, climate-controlled sports stadiums with their artificial lighting and enormous electronic scoreboards and instant-replay screens.

To such consumers, access to energy now seems an inalienable American right, a kind of entitlement, for the individual is literally empowered by these new power sources. While for policymakers energy may be a technical, economic or ecological question, for the average voter it has become inseparable from a sense of physical well-being. Indeed, path dependent is too weak a term, for it describes an institutional tendency to retain a working technical system rather than to rapidly shift to an innovation. In contrast, when it comes to energy, the American consumer is "path insistent," his/her behavior based not on an economic calculus but rather on the habits of a lifetime, reinforced by high-energy metaphors of the self and by the satisfying tacit experiences of auto-mobility and life in energy-intensive homes, factories, offices, shopping centers and leisure sites.(28)

For years these metaphors and experiences were further reinforced by social science theories which directly equated higher energy levels with higher levels of civilization. In the 1940s and 1950s, leading anthropologist Leslie White claimed that "culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased," and that "the degree of civilization of any epoch, people, or group of peoples, is measured by the ability to utilize energy for human advancement or needs."(29) White posited four central stages in human history: hunting and gathering, agriculture, steam-power industry and the atomic age. His evolutionary typology most valued cultures that controlled the most power. Indeed, he adopted a position close to technological determinism: "Social systems are functions of technologies; and philosophies express technological forces and reflect social systems. The technological factor is therefore the determinant of a cultural system as a whole."(30)

The Cold War version of this idea was the contrast between energy use in the former Soviet Union and the United States. The drab streets of Moscow, almost void of cars, were widely understood to be inferior to the American city, with its brilliantly lighted skyscrapers, huge electric advertisements and surging traffic. Capitalist energy abundance was likewise expressed in family appliances. The famous "kitchen debate" between Richard Nixon and Nikita Kruschev over the relative merits of communism and capitalism could not have been held in a more appropriate location. Confronting each other at a fair pavilion and looking at a new automatic washing machine, Nixon proclaimed the American consumer's broad choice between the styles of many manufacturers, while his Russian host replied that such a range of options was not a sensible approach. Later, viewing an automated kitchen, putatively of the future, Kruschev sneered, "These are gadgets we will never adopt."(31) They were not arguing directly about energy, of course, but implicit in the entire American exhibit was a limitless supply of electricity. Indeed, throughout this period atomic power was touted as a permanent source of electricity that would be "too cheap to meter." Today, of course, the Soviet Union has disappeared, atomic energy costs more than most other forms of power, and American social scientists no longer argue that the degree of a nation's civilization is measured by how much energy it controls. But in popular culture this idea no doubt persists, reinforcing the unspoken assumption that energy abundance is somehow the "natural" American condition, as opposed to "underdeveloped" parts of the world.


In contrast, Europeans have very different assumptions about energy, which may prepare them far better for the coming millennium. These assumptions emerge from their quite different historical experiences--primarily recurring shortages and a slower rhythm of technological change. While Americans throughout their short history have enjoyed energy abundance, over millennia Europeans have often confronted scarcity. For example, trees covered much of Britain and the continent in early Roman times, but gradual deforestation limited the supply of wood. In England the mining of coal began not to fuel the industrial revolution but to heat houses. Steam engines were developed early to pump out mines and to power British factories. In contrast to North America, where far more water power was developed after 1830,(32) in Europe by 1830 good undeveloped sites for water mills were hard to find. If coal was abundant in much of Europe and fueled early industrialization, oil and natural gas had to be imported into all European countries until exploitation of the North Sea fields only a generation ago. To minimize trade deficits and dependence on foreign energy, European states have long relied on high gasoline taxes to hold down demand and to encourage consumers to purchase fuel-efficient vehicles.

Furthermore, where the United States began its romance with the automobile before the First World War, at a time when most of its oil was not only cheap and abundant but domestically produced, widespread European adoption of the car came two generations later. At the end of the 1920s there was roughly one car for every five Americans, with 78 percent of the cars in the world located in the United States. By comparison, at the same time there was only one car for every 30 people in both France and Great Britain, and only one for every 102 Germans.(33) Between 1920 and the 1950s the automobile became a part of the American environment, which was extensively reshaped to its requirements. In contrast, during these same years Europeans continued to industrialize and to urbanize without greatly increasing their use of automobiles or changing their natural environment.

As their later adoption of the automobile suggests, Europeans have experienced a much different rhythm of technological change than Americans. At the time of the first colonization of North America, Europe had already developed urban centers characterized by narrow streets and a densely packed population. To a considerable degree, this structure survived at the core of most European cities, in contrast to most American large cities, which developed only in the 19th century and after. In the United States railway corporations contributed to the development of many cities along their lines. In Europe older settlement patterns persisted and the railway was built to serve an already existing urban society.

If we turn to another major energy sector, electricity, one finds again that the European pattern of development has been much different than that of the United States. In part because of the generally denser population distribution, universal service was easier to implement. Aside from this demographic factor, Europeans more commonly defined electricity as a state service rather than as a private business, and home lighting was widely dispersed because it seemed fair to do so. It must be admitted, however, that the cost of this service was generally higher than in the United States. As with gasoline, high prices discouraged Europeans from consuming excessive levels. In different terms, what are considered normal levels of illumination in Danish homes seem dim to American visitors. Many a temporary resident complains that the owners must have removed most of the floor lamps. In fact, Scandinavians prefer a living room that is dim by American standards, finding it cozy to have only small pools of light and a few candles.

Likewise, it may well be that because Europeans have lived in densely populated cities for centuries, they are more willing to live in apartments, row houses and duplexes, which are more heat efficient than a single family house. In contrast to wealthy Americans, wealthy Scandinavians, Germans or Spaniards often choose such shared housing arrangements. The higher the income of an American, the more likely it is that he or she will live away from the urban core. Indeed, in a 1986 Gallup poll that asked where Americans would ideally want to live, only 13 percent said they preferred the city, compared to 25 percent who preferred the suburbs. More than 60 percent wanted to be outside the metropolis altogether. Of this 60 percent, 36 percent said they preferred small towns while 25 percent recommended the countryside.(34) In making such choices, the automobile is axiomatic.

By way of contrast, in Europe bicycles remained a primary mode of urban transport two generations longer than in the United States. After 1900 cycling had barely become widespread in America before being overtaken by the automobile. As late as the 1950s and early 1960s, it was common to see in Amsterdam and Copenhagen vast crowds of people cycling to work, far outnumbering the automobiles on the street. With the oil shortages of the early 1970s, many Europeans reverted easily enough to their bicycles, which were quite adequate for getting around their densely populated cities. In contrast, American cities not only lacked bicycle lanes, but they were also built on another scale altogether, so that home, work and market were too far apart for most walkers and cyclists. If Europeans still quite literally had several transportation paths open to them, Americans were path dependent and could not respond flexibly. Should another fuel shortage arise in a generation, they will be even less able to adjust than in the 1970s. The U.S. infrastructure is quite literally set in concrete, and the consumer's psychological commitment to the comforts of high energy are just as fixed.


The low cost of oil at the end of the 1990s, combined with the current push to deregulate the electricity industry, exacerbates this situation. Typically, American car buyers do not readily think about gas mileage as they switch to inefficient sports utility vehicles and pickup trucks, which together make up more than half the U.S. automobile market today. Moreover, American voters seem relatively unconcerned about the environmental impact of their continued high-energy use. Of course no political candidate will make speeches in favor of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, nor will they champion global warming. Political rhetoric always supports clean air and water and a good life for the next generation. But most consumer behavior in the United States to date continues to be based on the implicit belief in long-term energy abundance, suggesting that high-energy use and the desire for a clean environment can be reconciled.

Given the energy abundance at the end of the millennium, we can expect that in the next two decades the American consumer will become even more accustomed to the current path. In early 1999 crude oil prices briefly dropped below $10 per barrel before moving upward again, partly in response to OPEC's voluntary cutbacks. Natural gas and coal also remain cheap and plentiful, while the electricity industry is in the throes of deregulation. For the short term, the problem is not one of supply but rather one of environmental effects.

Chief among these effects is global warming caused by carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2]) emissions. While there is some debate about how rapidly the earth is heating up, there seems little doubt that it is taking place. The greenhouse effect will raise summer temperatures and make some farming areas arid and useless. Ice is already thinning in the Arctic, and Antarctica is slowly shrinking. As the sea rises in the coming decades, low-lying nations and many islands will need to spend huge sums to protect their coastlines. As the largest per capita energy consumer in the world, the United States is under pressure to cut back on [CO.sub.2] emissions. At the Kyoto summit in 1997, European governments argued for national limits, or quotas, on [CO.sub.2]. In contrast, the United States argued that pollution could be controlled best by creating a marketplace for ownership of quotas. In this scenario, a country could purchase pollution rights from another nation that was not using them, or it could balance its own pollution by spending money elsewhere to clean up a less costly problem abroad. When a compromise agreement was worked out, the U.S. Senate resoundingly refused to ratify it, seeing it as a threat to business interests.

This was not a new disagreement between Europe and the United States. At the

1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the European Union argued for stabilization of total [[CO.sub.2]] emissions at 1990 levels. In contrast, the United States resisted fixed targets and refused to agree to specific timetables, but argued instead for an "all sources, all sink" approach under which countries might receive credit for actions already taken to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide or actions to increase carbon sinks or reservoirs, for example through reforestation or afforestation.(35) At each summit, U.S. negotiators wanted to deal with pollution and global warming as a marketing problem.

The United States found, however, that most other industrialized nations-- notably those of the European Union--were opposed to the idea of a pollution market, in which a nation could purchase the rights to reductions made elsewhere or plant more trees to fulfill its obligations. The Netherlands, for example, with its large population packed into a small space, much of it below sea level, is deeply concerned about the danger posed by a rising ocean. Germany, which has seen widespread destruction to its forests because of acid rain, also opposes the American approach. Because of these and other environmental concerns, European governments took the notion of ecological limits quite seriously. From their point of view, it seemed a peculiarly American thing to perceive carbon dioxide emissions as a tradeable commodity. Yet this perception is quite in keeping with the way Americans have long viewed energy--not as a service, not as a public good, not as a limited resource but rather as an abundant product to be bought and sold in the market.

Implicit in this conception of energy is what one might call the American narrative of abundance.(36) It emerged during the Industrial Revolution, as the power of human beings, draft animals and simple water mills was superseded by new energy sources. The continual availability of energy assured profits, progress and personal success. The assumption that energy is naturally abundant is especially suited to the American laissez-faire ideology, in which the self-reliant individual has only to make use of his own energies in order to rise in the world. The idea of a market for [CO.sub.2] emissions is one more expression of this fundamental U.S. concept, transforming the concern about global warming from a paradigm of limited resources into a business opportunity for growth.

In contrast, Europe and much of the rest of the world continue to emphasize mandatory cutbacks of emissions and the creation of a fixed maximum. This is another way of saying that for Europeans energy use is not a measure of culture or progress, and that the market does not appear to be an invisible hand that can be relied upon to prevent long-term ecological problems. Europeans are far more ready to accept scenarios based on the premise that limits are imminent and scarcity is a danger, neither of which fit congenially within the American perception of energy.

Instead, most Americans continue to believe that there are technological solutions to energy problems. There are historical examples that suggest there is some truth to this view. For instance, electricity production has become increasingly efficient. In 1930 the average Con Edison residential customer used 404 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of electricity a year. The average bill totaled $29.23 a year, at a rate of $7.03 cents per kwh. By 1956 the average New Yorker's consumption had almost quadrupled to 1,536 kwh, but the cost had only doubled to $61.09. In the nation as a whole, consumers averaged almost twice as much, 2,969 kwh in 1956, but they paid only $77.19 for it.(37) Electricity became cheaper because engineers found ways to extract more from a ton of coal or barrel of oil. By the 1970s it was more difficult--though not impossible--to achieve further production efficiencies. On the horizon, however, are superconductor technologies that could make possible higher-efficiency power generation and transmission, low-cost renewable energy technology and improved fuel-cell technology for converting natural gas or hydrogen into electricity.(38)

When corporations become path dependent and fail to promote innovations, they lose market share to more nimble competitors, and risk bankruptcy. In contrast, when path-insistent consumers demand a particular product regardless of its cost, they generally enjoy their preferences as long as supplies last. When the product is a certain kind of food or brand of clothing, insistence does not cause a problem, since not all buyers want the same things. But when the product is inextricably implicated in a whole way of life, as with the case of energy, path insistence has entirely different long-term implications. In the marketplace for housing, transportation and conveniences, American consumers have for the most part ignored long-term environmental problems such as global warming and given short shrift to the energy needs of the rest of the world, while insisting on their consumption and pollution practices.

But does it matter that the United States consumes more energy than any other nation? There are at least four additional arguments that say it does, aside from scientific evidence from studies that point to global warming and other consequences of overconsumption. The aesthetic environmental argument emphasizes the ugly results of the destruction of natural landscapes by oil exploration, strip mining for coal, acid rain and air pollution. This environmental degradation harms human health and, in the strong form of this argument, threatens human survival.(39) Second, the egalitarian argument stresses the equality of all peoples, including those in other nations as well as future generations, who will suffer if Americans consume the majority of the world's energy, fail to recycle and deplete resources.(40) Third, the leadership argument points to U.S. responsibility as the world's most powerful nation, to set an example of moderation modeled on sustainability, rather than buying the lion's share of resources and flaunting a high-energy lifestyle.

None of these arguments are likely to move those who believe in the self-regulating power of the free market, however. From such a perspective, if aesthetics, equality and global energy leadership become more important to American consumers and voters, then these values will enter into the economic calculus of their energy use. To this, a fourth argument replies that high U.S. energy use already puts the nation at a disadvantage compared to most other economies.(41) Overconsumption decreases the ability of Americans to respond flexibly to large swings in energy prices, and it pushes up the cost of everyday life, as measured in the energy used to reach comparable levels of income, health and general well-being. High consumption of cheap energy strengthens the American economy in the short term, but over time these same infusions will make that economy inflexible and inefficient when compared to the lean and agile international competition.

In their broad outlines, these four arguments are not inconsistent with one another. Together they make a powerful case for rethinking how Americans should approach energy during the next millennium, in the hopes that the United States can preserve its natural environment, conserve resources for future generations, serve as an international model of sustainable development and protect its ability to compete in the global market. Yet no such restructuring of energy policy can be effective without a change in the priorities of path-insistent consumers. Overconsumption is a cultural problem that clever technologies can, at best, postpone until Americans either embrace or are compelled to adopt, a new energy agenda.

TABLE 1 Per Capita Primary Energy Consumption 1950 to 2015 (in gigajoules)
 1950 1990 2015

Africa 6 12 13
Asia & Pacific 4 23 45
Europe 54 164 215
Latin America 12 321 39
North America 225 321 414
West Asia 6 57 64
World 30 61 76

Source: United Nations Environmental Programme, Global Environmental Outlook (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1997).

(1) The first conference was at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (November 1997) and the second at Lancaster University (March 1998). The contrast developed here is also based on frequent contact with audiences in Europe and the United States.

(2) The generalizations in this paragraph and elsewhere in this article are primarily based on David E. Nye, Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), and to a lesser extent on David E. Nye, Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

(3) M. Granger Morgan and Susan F. Tierney, "Research Support for the Power Industry," Issues in Science and Technology, 15, no. 1 (Fall 1998) p. 81.

(4) See James M. Utterback, Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation (Boston: Harvard Business School, 1994).

(5) These steam engines averaged only 20 horsepower. Louis C. Hunter, Steam Power (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 1985) pp. 75-84.

(6) David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social History of a New Technology, 1880-1940 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990) p. 260; and Claude S. Fischer, America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992) pp. 54-55.

(7) On steam power, see Hunter. On electricity, see Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983). On coal, oil and gas, see John G. Clark, Energy and the Federal Government: Fossil Fuel Policies, 1900-1946 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1987); and Duane Chapman, Energy Resources and Energy Corporations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983).

(8) United Nations Environmental Programme, Global Environmental Outlook (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1997) p. 218.

(9) U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1992 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992) Table 1397.

(10) ibid., Table 1392.

(11) ibid., Table 1378.

(12) ibid., Table 1397.

(13) Comparative statistics on fossil fuels for 1960 from Arthur J. Goldberg, Technological Change and Productivity in the Bituminous Coal Industry, 1920-1960 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 1961) Bulletin 1305 p. 103. Statistics for 1998 derived from U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998) Table 948.

Use of Electric Energy Selected Years (millions of kilowatt hours)
Year Total Residential Commercial

1912 25,000 910 4,076
1922 61,816 3,916 7,180
1932 100,353 11,875 12,106
1942 235,475 29,187 27,123
1952 472,071 93,545 63,935
1962 947,018 226,430 145,276
1970 163,173 1,453,015 295,057

Industrial demand is omitted from this table, but it is roughly equal to the total minus the residential and commercial use. Ben Wattenberg, Statistical History of the United States (Washington, DC: Basic Books, 1976).

(14) Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1998 Table 951. For European statistics, see J. P. Joulia, "Energy Policy: A Green Paper on Essential Subject," European Commission, Directorate-General XVII (September 1997), at en/comm/dg17/24jou-en.htm (1 June 1998).

(15) ibid., pp. 5-6.

(16) The Nixon Administration had underestimated the seriousness of the problem. Its Task Force on Oil Imports reported in February of 1970 that by 1980, U.S. oil imports would reach the level of 5 million barrels a day. In fact, this level was already exceeded only three years later in 1973.

(17) Jeremy Main, "A Peak Load of Trouble for the Utilities," Fortune, 39, no. 11 (November 1969)p. 118.

(18) Gail Cooper, Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) p. 175.

(19) At the same time, the proportion of African Americans in the inner city declined slightly and dropped rapidly in rural areas. Kenneth Fox, Metropolitan America: Urban Life and Urban Policy in the United States, 1940-1980 (London: Macmillan, 1985) p. 233.

(20) Martin Wachs and Margaret Crawford, eds., The Car and the City (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1992) pp. 40-44.

(21) Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1992, Table 1034.

(22) For a discussion of alternative energies in the 1970s, see Nye, Consuming Power, pp. 223-228. Among the vast literature on the subject, the following are particularly valuable: Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth (London: Pan Books, 1972); Amory Lovins, "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken," Foreign Affairs, 55, no. 4 (October 1976); Hugh Nash, ed., The Energy Controversy: Soft Path Questions and Answers (Washington, DC: Friends of the Earth, 1979); and Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy, A New World View (New York: Bantam Books, 1981).

(23) Ruby Roy Dholakia et al. "From Social Psychology to Political Economy: A Model of Energy Use Behavior," in Consumer Behavior and Energy Policy, ed. Peter Ester et al. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Elsevier, 1984) p. 54.

(24) ibid., p. 48.

(25) Don Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990) p. 74.

(26) Kathleen Hulser developed these ideas in a paper at the American Studies Association meeting in Kansas City, Kansas in 1996.

(27) Alan During, How Much Is Enough? (New York: Norton, 1992) p. 82.

(28) J. B. Jackson, "The Abstract World of the Hot-Rodder," in Changing Rural Landscapes, ed. Ervin H. and Margaret J. Zube (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977) pp. 146-147.

(29) Leslie A. White, The Science of Culture (New York: Grove Press, 1949) p. 368.

(30) ibid., p. 366. See also William Fred Cottrell, Energy and Society: The Relation Between Energy, Social Change, and Economic Development (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970).

(31) For further discussion, see Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) pp. 275-278.

(32) See Nye, Consuming Power, pp. 81-82.

(33) Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992) pp. 208-209.

(34) Polls cited in Daniel J. Elazar, Building Cities in America (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Press, 1987). See also "A Rural Landscape but an Urban Boom," New York Times, 8 August 1988, p. 1.

(35) Stanley P. Johnson, The Earth Summit: The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Graham & Trotman/Martinus Nijhoff, 1993) pp. 57-58.

(36) I am currently writing a book on American energy narratives under contract with MIT Press.

(37) "Con-Edison: A Study in Power," typescript, Louis H. Roddis, Jr. papers (Box 1, Special Collections, 1971-1976) Duke University Library, p. 6.

(38) Morgan and Tierney, p. 82.

(39) For example, see Anita Gordon and David Suzuki, It's A Matter of Survival (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univesity Press, 199 I). For the literary version of this argument, see Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995); Henry Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), and the classic work by Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965).

(40) For an argument of this kind, see Joel E. Cohen, How Many People Can the

Earth Support? (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995) especially ch. 15.

(41) For a related argument about the vulnerability of the U.S. economy under its current energy regime, see Lovins. On the controversy he aroused, see Nash.

David E. Nye is a professor of American Studies at Odense University in Denmark. He has taught in the United States, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark, and has lectured widely in Europe on American history and culture. The 15 books he has edited or written include Electrifying America, which received the Dexter Prize and the Abel Wolman Award, and American Technological Sublime. He published Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies and Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture in 1998. He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University, the University of Leeds and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the fall of 1999 he is teaching at Churchill College in Cambridge, England. He holds a Ph.D and M.A. from the University of Minnesota and a B.A. from Amherst College.
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Author:Nye, David E.
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Date:Sep 22, 1999
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