The Wall Street Journal recently had a special section on energy, in which it quoted Vaclav Smil saying, “You people [Americans] consume about 320 gigajoules of energy per capita. Japan and the rich countries in the EU are about 170. I ask people: Is life so unbearable in Florence, Lyon or Munich that you couldn’t live there at 170?”
This, of course, is a phony question, that the gullible will respond to by claiming Americans are wasteful, and that Americans should cut their use of oil, natural gas and electricity.
What Smil, and people like him, conveniently overlook is that America has a higher standard of living, largely because it uses more energy … and that there are fundamental, geographic and historic reasons why Americans use more energy than those living in Europe or Japan.
Geographically, the United States grew into the North American continent where land was plentiful. Space became an asset. Colonists moved west, where they could find land for farming and for creating a new life for their families. The abundant riches in forests, minerals and open land were a magnate for people to take advantage of the space afforded by the North American continent.
The ready availability of land resulted in the development of geographically dispersed communities and farms, where roads were built to connect these distant rural areas to larger towns and cities. Space resulted in Americans placing a high value on home ownership, with the dream of owning a piece of land. It also resulted in American mobility, with respect to transportation and the willingness to work anywhere there was an opportunity. A dispersed population resulted in Americans adopting cars for transportation, for use when commuting and when traveling to other areas of the country.
Geographically, the United States is subjected to wide variations in temperatures, requiring the use of energy for cooling in hot summers and heating in cold winters.
The EU has a moderate climate, where the number of households with air-conditioning is small, perhaps as few as 5%. In the United States, 74% of American households have air-conditioning1.
Europe was, and is different. Historically, ownership of land was by ruling families, with families and rulers traceable to the Dark Ages. As a result, government has become the owner of land and mineral rights, with people concentrated in cities.
With the formation of the nation state, traceable to the treaty of Westphalia, Europe evolved into individual countries; with some being very small, such as Denmark, but where most are of modest size, such as Germany, comparable in area to that of New York State and Pennsylvania combined.
Each European country developed independently, creating separate railroads and other infrastructure. This resulted in a rail network that now stretches across the entire EU. The close proximity between where people live and work resulted in Europeans being inclined to commute by rail and bicycle, rather than by automobile.
The opposite is true in the United States, where railroads now primarily provide for the movement of goods, rather than people.
Because land was cheap, American homes are larger than in Europe, thereby requiring more energy for heating and cooling than in the EU.
Ownership of appliances is far greater in the United States than in the EU.
For example, 53% of American households own a dishwasher, while the average in the EU is around 30%.
Similarly, while 82% of American households own a clothes drier, the average in the EU is around 20%.
Data for other appliances, such as microwaves, is similar.
All of these factors result in Americans using more energy.
There is no reason to be ashamed of how much energy Americans use.
Vaclav Smil, the Wall Street Journal and radical environmentalists can wring their hands over America’s energy usage, but Americans use energy wisely and effectively, creating one of the highest standards of living of any developed country2.
- This data, and the data on ownership of appliances, is from Carbon Gauntlet, a Kindle book.
- GDP of the United States is approximately $52,800. GDP of the EU is approximately $34,500. Three, small, EU countries have a GDP higher than the United States.
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