You can get a lot of political mileage addressing our energy challenges by demanding greater fuel efficiency, as President Obama is doing of automakers. But efficiency alone will only continue speeding us to a pileup.
If we want to free ourselves from dependence on foreign oil, chuck the title of biggest per capita producer of greenhouse gases and prepare for the decline of fossil fuels, our goal must be conservation, not efficiency.
And as economist Herman Daly says, put conservation first, and efficiency follows.
Efficiency merely frees capital, whether financial or material, to make consumption easier. Conservation recognizes the world as finite and nurtures capital for the long haul. One is a license to spend, the other a limit.
With a car squeezing out double the fuel economy of an old one, you won't necessarily drive twice as far. But in buying less fuel, you keep the price down for its use elsewhere. Your hybrid is a feel-good false savior.
Economist William Stanley Jevons saw through efficiency 144 years ago. In "The Coal Question," he examined British iron and steel history. To make charcoal for smelting, the industry first cut England's forests. Improved efficiency fed expansion and took Ireland's trees, and then to know-how with a more efficient fuel, coal.
But coal could not be grown again. And Jevons asked, "Are we wise in allowing the commerce of this country to rise beyond the point at which we can long maintain it?"
A full-fledged revolution of efficiency used ever more of coal's irreplaceable energy. The steam engine, invented to clear water from coal mines around 1700, had by 1930 increased efficiency some 50-fold, says energy scholar Vaclav Smil. And so steam made with fossil fuel came to power trains and nations. It still makes most of our electricity.
It wasn't as efficient for vehicles. But it led to yet more energy and material, including oil and the internal combustion engine, which beat steam efficiency on the road by 10-fold. And even though petroleum surpassed coal as our No. 1 fuel, use of both has continued to climb.
Mining, manufacturing, transportation and the industries invented since Jevons' time have become vastly more efficient. But Smil calculates that global per capita energy consumption is 20 times higher. This devouring is magnified by fivefold population growth, made possible by crop yields up sixfold, brought largely by agricultural energy use up 80-fold.
By the whole measure, then, we live far less efficiently than ever. And there is no reason to expect reversal by even greater machine efficiency.
If this trip were on energy that could be renewed and also not toast the globe, we might stay in the fast lane, top down, accelerating with each efficiency gain. But almost all of our modernity runs on fuels that are running out and threaten us with crippling climate change. This includes the making of fertilizer that Smil sees fueling 40 percent of humanity's food calories.
Wind, solar and biomass, all essentially sun energy of the moment, cannot match the sheer power and compact portability of fossil fuels, energy amassed over millions of years and now half spent in a few human generations. While supplies drop even as the developing world speeds to match the affluent world's energy-dependent lifestyle, we face profound societal change regardless of what happens to climate.
The question is what we do about it. In "Collapse," Jared Diamond concludes that societies running out of crucial resources must do two things to survive: Plan long term and be willing to reconsider core values.
One plan for our dire strait is "cap and trade." Government issues tradable permits to pollute, but sets a national limit that is gradually reduced. This is how Obama hopes to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and a further 80 percent by 2050.
Another possibility is a rising tax on fossil fuels. Government could invest the revenue in renewable energy and conservation. Or we could return the money to individuals through income tax cuts and let the market map the detour around costly fossil energy.
And core values? We might pursue a new R&D promoted in talks by a colleague of mine: responsibility and discipline.