LETTERS TO THE EDITOR - Efficiency doesn't slow consumption


Zoey Rogers (Perspective section column -- "New fuel standards will reduce reliance on oil," Union-Bulletin on Sunday) misapprehends the effect of efficiency on consumption.

Previous (1975) fuel standards were followed by a 100 percent increase in miles driven.

David Owen describes our behavior lucidly in "Annals of Environmentalism: The Efficiency Dilemma --If our machines use less energy, will we just use them more?" (The New Yorker, Dec. 20 and 27, 2010), concluding the problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption.

William Stanley Jevons in "The Coal Question" (1865) concluded that it is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

Our experience with refrigeration makes this manifest. Compared to the average 1975 refrigerator, today's is 20 percent larger, cost 60 percent less and consumes 75 percent less energy. A larger refrigerator, a second refrigerator and/or a stand-alone freezer, and an icemaker and mini-fridge for beverages in the family room bar have replaced the single, smaller household refrigerator of 1975.

Service stations that once had a single soft drink machine now have refrigerated sections larger than the grocery stores of my youth, which in turn have grown much larger. Hotel rooms now often have mini-fridges.

The 20 percent of homes that had air conditioning (refrigeration technology) in 1960 has increased to over 80 percent. Between 1993 and 2005, while the efficiency of home air-conditioning equipment increased by 28 percent per household, energy consumption for air conditioning increased by 37 percent.

Ms. Rogers shows how increased efficiency leads to greater consumption. Her fuel-efficient car lets her get home for the holidays, make an occasional Costco run to Tri-Cities, take a trip out to Palouse Falls or going skiing in the Blue Mountains. The lower cost per mile provided by Ms. Rogers' fuel-efficient car lets her afford these activities increasing her consumption.

Mr. Owen also notes, coincidentally or not, the growth of American refrigeration volume has been roughly paralleled by the growth of American body-mass-index. As increased fuel efficiency allows us to drive more miles, will we continue to become less physically fit?

Our reliance on oil will be reduced when it becomes significantly more expensive to drive a mile. Of course if it were significantly more expensive to drive a mile, efficiency improvements would follow naturally without legislation.

Jim Robles
Walla Walla


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