Acton Commentary

The Religious Rapture of Shortage


I met a bright young lady at a dinner party recently. This successful businesswoman announced that she welcomed higher electricity prices—it was just the incentive she needed to cut down her power usage. This woman’s decision, however, apparently had little to do with saving money. What she was talking about was morality—doing the right thing, not the economical thing. When asked why conserving electricity is virtuous but spending less on other items is not, she explained that there is an energy shortage, and it is wrong to use more than your fair share.

Notwithstanding the moral questions surrounding concepts like "fair share," the woman’s underlying assumption—that there is an energy shortage—merits some examination.

So are we really suffering from an energy shortage, much the same as Britain was during World War II? Back then, the English depended on American gasoline convoyed across the Atlantic at great peril by brave seamen trying to evade the prowling German submarines. The British government rationed the precious fuel, regulating how many gallons each citizen would be permitted to purchase. Should we be similarly regulated, or should we perhaps do the right thing and regulate ourselves? The moral answer to the first question is "yes" if we really are suffering an energy shortage and "no" if we are only imagining one.

This would not be the first time that we have imagined an energy shortage. Until the early eighteenth century, colonial homes were heated mostly by burning wood. One can almost hear the frantic warnings: Forests are vanishing and the rapidly growing colonies are quickly running out of firewood, so eliminate immigration and ration firewood.

Fortunately, before doing so, the colonies began burning coal imported from England. Later, the first American coal mine was excavated in Virginia in 1745. Writing his Journal of a Tour of the Ohio River in 1770, George Washington noted having seen a coal mine producing "an abundance of it." Ever since the thirteenth century, when King Edward I had imposed the death penalty upon any person using dangerous coal for fuel, rumors about the threat of coal abounded. Word came from France that burning coal caused "strange and serious epidemics of disease." As with anything new and untried, there were dangers, but these were soon overcome, and by 1840 America was deriving energy from a million tons of coal a year.

The founder of the Manchester Guardian newspaper had a son-in-law, William Jevons, who became a famous British economist and professor at University College, London, on account of a paper he published in 1865. It was titled "The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines." He predicted that British prosperity would end within 50 years, when the nation ran out of coal, and he recommended an industrial slowdown in order to conserve what coal was left. Today Britain is still mining coal, with no end in sight.

America used to be utterly dependent on whale oil for lighting our homes after sunset. During the early nineteenth century, energy pundits began warning that since a female whale produces only one calf every two years or so and they were being harvested at an ever-increasing rate, America would soon go dark. These prognosticators recommended turning out all lights no later than 10:00 p.m. in order to conserve what whale oil was left. By 1850 it was clear that they were right about running out of whale oil, but they were wrong about America going dark. In 1859 a railroad conductor named Edwin Drake drilled a well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and struck oil. The age of petroleum had begun! Since the 1970s we have heard much about exhausting the world's petroleum reserves. Just when this will happen has been debated, but nobody doubts that the amount of oil is ultimately limited, just as whale oil was. Should we therefore advise petroleum conservation as they once did with firewood, whale oil, and coal?

The truth is that although we do need energy, we have no need specifically for firewood, whale oil, coal, or petroleum. Each energy source, in its age, suited our special human purpose. Animals seek no external sources of energy. They hunt and gather, always expending less bodily energy in the quest than they gain from consuming the quarry. But we are not animals; we are humans who yearn to liberate ourselves from drudgery and free ourselves for higher moral purpose. As human beings capable of infinite creativity and invention, we need not contemplate energy shortage. It is our limitless human ingenuity that carried us from firewood to coal, and from whale oil to petroleum; and it is our stewardship of God’s resources that has allowed us to continually find new ways of bettering the human condition.

In each step we learned how to extract ever more energy from each pound of matter. Now we have nuclear power—a process that releases almost infinite amounts of energy. Could nuclear power perhaps be for us today what petroleum was to those who foresaw the end of whale oil? We are familiar with fears of "strange and serious epidemics of disease" from nuclear power, but those problems will be overcome.

Soon, perhaps, the well-intentioned and well-heeled will no longer seek spurious moral redemption by conserving energy. They will be able to find more authentic moral purpose while they purchase energy just as they do clothing and coffee today—by consulting their budgets, not populist emotivism.