The History Of The United States Since 1950 As Told By Energy

It was pretty much just biggerer and biggerer up until the early 1970s when everything changed. Since then, the plot has thickened, as it were. A few highlights:

  • Buh-bye industry.
  • Hello more and more driving.
  • We got better at home energy efficiency but we also chose bigger homes and filled them more stuff that uses energy — a zero sum gain.
  • Er, I skimmed the part about commercial buildings so I’ll hazard a guess that operational efficiency gains were overwhelmed by more energy intensive office equipment (i.e. computers), and also possibly by more building per capita.

Total U.S. per capita energy consumption in 1950 was one third lower than it was in 2007. Same goes for greenhouse gas emissions, give or take, since the two are roughly proportional.

Over the past three decades or so, the general trend has been to do more with less, but all told there has been more more and less less, so that net energy use has risen.

Any reality-based assessment of the state of the planet indicates that we must tackle lifestyle in addition to efficiency. The combination of continued advances in efficiency with a scaled-back lifestyle more like how people lived in 1950 has the potential to get us where we need to be to avoid catastrophic climate change.

This might mean living in a smaller home in a neighborhood where you can walk to a market or a bus stop. Or perhaps it might also mean spending less time in a car and owning fewer home entertainment systems and flying less. You know, like the way they suffered so horribly back in those dismal 1950s.