Charles Komanoff


Komanoff Letter in American Prospect

[note: an abridged version of this letter was published on March 11, 2002]

January 30, 2002 (revised March 25, 2002)

The Editor
The American Prospect
5 Broad Street
Boston, MA 02109

To The Editor:

On Sept. 11, our chronic energy crisis went critical. According to Amory B. Lovins and L Hunter Lovins's two-part article (Jan. 28 and Feb. 11), the solution is simple, apolitical and painless: "policy tweaking" can turn gas-guzzling America into energy-efficient nirvana. "Superwindows" and "hypercars" can undo Saudi dependence, stop global warming, banish nuclear reactors and save our dwindling wilderness -- without raising fuel taxes.

This notion -- that U.S. society can keep energy cheap and nevertheless become vastly more energy-efficient -- is the Lovinses' central thesis, yet they fail to support it. By their own admission, the 15% fall in oil use in 1979-85 -- the only significant such drop in 30 years -- "was spurred by high and rising energy prices." Though the Lovinses also cite 1996-99, when energy consumption increased only one-fourth as much as something they call "the economy," that's actually a counter-example since oil usage, the nub of the energy problem, grew 6% during that time. The need now, of course, is to reduce oil use, not just relative to some metric of economic activity, but absolutely.

Similarly, while it is heartening that California used 5% less electricity last year (the 14% reduction cited by the Lovinses was peak usage for one month), most of the savings came not through efficiency but from old-fashioned conservation -- reduced lighting and air-conditioning -- induced by crisis conditions and higher prices.

Even granting that a handful of factories and municipalities may have saved energy without higher fuel prices, this proves only that exceptional cases do occur. Every so often, a charismatic principal can turn around a failing inner-city school despite 35 kids per class. But duplicating that success in thousands of schools has proven elusive, absent structural reforms like smaller classes. Similarly, there is no way to promote energy efficiency on a mass scale as long as both gasoline and driving are systematically subsidized.

Amory Lovins first gained prominence in the 1970s, a period of rising energy prices, as the justly celebrated wizard of a movement that sought to not only save the environment but democratize the energy sector as well. But in the long retreat since those heady days, his program, and that of the mainstream "green" groups, has devolved to inviting the public to sit back and watch while policy wonks engineer energy-efficiency, one "end-use" at a time.

This strategy of "armchair conservation" has won a few real victories, e.g., more efficient refrigerators. But its piecemeal nature and apolitical coloration have permitted at least an equal number of much bigger disasters, such as the tens of millions of absurdly outsized sport utility vehicles that now account for a million barrels a day of excess gasoline consumption.

To really solve our energy crisis -- to actually reduce usage rather than just have it grow slower than the fictitious entity called GDP -- will require charging a social price for energy via much higher fuel taxes (rebated pro rata for progressivity). A popular movement to achieve this may be hard to imagine, but that is a more plausible proposition, particularly after Sept. 11, than the Lovinses' chimerical prescription.


Charles Komanoff