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Will Conservation Save Us?

May 8, 2001

Tags The Environment

With the disappearance of the "energy crisis" in the early 1980s—an event that coincided with the ending of price and allocation controls on the oil industry—many of us had hoped that the voices of "conservation" and "alternative energy" would have been stilled.  

Unfortunately, we have had no such luck, and in the wake of yet more government-caused energy problems, the political classes and their media allies are once again beating the drums of government-enforced "conservation."  Their words are as fraudulent today as they were two decades ago.

One thing one can say for sure is that whenever the government causes a crisis, Congress and the president of the United States will almost surely give even more power and authority to the agency that is most responsible for the calamity.  For example, the inflation of the 1970s and the subsequent roller-coaster ride of boom and bust was clearly the doing of the Federal Reserve System.  In 1980, however, instead of attempting to strip the Fed of its powers to inflate money, Congress passed the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act, which gave the Fed even more authority over money and banking.

During the 1970s, it was not only the Fed that was committing economic sins. The Department of Energy and its predecessors were single-handedly strangling oil and natural gas production and distribution in this country.  While decontrol of oil in 1981 took some powers away from the DOE, the agency and all its bureaucrats remained—despite the threats of Ronald Reagan and other conservatives to eliminate this monstrosity.

The greatest anti-energy organization, however, is not the DOE, but rather the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  In the last twenty years, it has slowly but surely smothered the American economy in two ways.  First, it has stood in the way of the production of electricity and fuel, and second, it has attempted to force false conservation efforts upon all of us.

How the EPA and its political and environmentalist allies have slowed energy production to a near halt has been well documented on this page.  From standing in the way of building new electric power plants to stopping the search for new sources of oil and natural gas, the EPA has effectively done what no enemy has ever been able to accomplish: undermine the economy from within.

However, by stopping or drastically slowing energy production, the EPA has created a back-door mechanism for the state to control our lives even more, in the form of mandatory conservation methods.  Please remember that, time after time, we have shortages of energy and other commodities like water precisely because of government intervention.  Like the boy who murders his parents and then pleads for leniency because he is now an orphan, the government causes energy shortages, then demands that new conservation requirements be forced upon us.

The anti-energy crowd is fond of foisting state-mandated conservation upon people in the name of "preventing wastefulness."  Their typical attitude is explained in a recent Chattanooga Times editorial, entitled "Captain of Wasteful Consumption."

Such a wasteful, consumption-oriented tilt in national energy use amounts to a gluttonous, misguided energy strategy. But it fits the Bush–Cheney mold. Mr. Cheney pointedly dismissed the conservation option the other day by deploring the 1970s-era thinking that the nation could conserve its way out of an energy crisis.

In reality, Washington has barely tapped conservation. Utilities nationwide have cut back on energy conservation programs. Proven photo-voltaic, or solar-cell, systems are largely ignored in the sunny Southwest; so are wind-driven turbines in the windy mountains and coastal regions. Energy efficiency in plants and commercial and institutional facilities is again being downplayed. And even utilities are balking at the idea of multibillion-dollar investments in nuclear plants, which Mr. Cheney regards as so safe.

The U.S., in fact, is notoriously energy-inefficient in comparison with other industrial nations which have an equally high standard of living, and there is much to be done in energy efficiency and conservation. The nation must add new electric plants as demand rises, but neglecting conservation and rushing to fuel mindless consumption would amount to short-sighted, and unsustainable, public policy with enormous long-term costs for our children.

One hardly knows where to begin in answering what amounts to an elitist attitude by statists who would seek to "save" all of us from ourselves and our "mindless consumption."  First, much of what the editorial writer champions as viable alternative energy either is still in its infancy or cannot come close to meeting demands for fuel and electricity.  Second, the writer assumes that individuals simply consume energy without paying attention to its price. Third, the writer demands that the state either manufacture or force private producers to make products that fit his view of "conservation."

A recent congressional hearing on the spike in gasoline prices is a case in point.  Senator Barbara Boxer of California yields to no one in her support of environmental regulations, including the regulations that require reformulation of gasoline during warmer months—the very thing that has caused the increase in gasoline prices.  Yet, there she was at the hearing, railing against gasoline prices and accusing oil companies of criminal wrongdoing.  A large number of her colleagues provided the "amen corner" cheering section.

High prices for gasoline obviously mean that people either will drive less or give up something else in order to drive the same number of miles as they did before.  The act of conservation is simply giving up something instead of consuming it.  It is hardly "mindless" activity.  What high prices do is to force each of us to make choices that most fit our needs.

The political classes and environmentalists do not want us making our own choices, however. What they want are artificially low gasoline prices combined with mandatory conservation measures ordered by the state.  Such measures are aimed not at "conserving" resources per se, but instead are attempts to control the lives of individuals.

Of course, one might ask, how can one be against energy efficiency?  To paraphrase Henry Hazlitt in his classic Economics in One Lesson, attempts to force manufacturers to create "energy efficient" appliances, automobiles, and the like must be seen in their entirety, not in isolation.  For example, everything else being equal, I would rather have an appliance that uses less electricity as opposed to more.  

That is hardly the only choice I must make, however.  Recent regulations for washing machines that have been adopted by the Bush administration will require manufacturers to construct expensive machines that will not clean clothes as effectively as present-day washing machines and that are much more expensive than current models.

Yes, the statist might answer, but these new machines save water.  If water is priced according to its relative scarcity, however, then each person who uses a washing machine can make the decision on how much water to use.  Some may choose to use less—and pay less for water—while others may decide that the added cost is worth it.  In this situation, unlike that dictated by the state, individuals will choose how much water to use in a way that will not cause water shortages, supposedly the goal the statists have had in mind in the first place.

In short, the rush to force conservation upon Americans is not an exercise of saving us from ourselves.  Rather, it is an attempt by the political classes to further control our lives by denying us choices and criminalizing choices that we would ordinarily make in a free market.


  William Anderson (send him mail) currently teaches economics at North Greenville College but will move to Frostburg State University for Fall 2001. See Anderson's outstanding Daily Article Archive.

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