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.

6 Responses to “The History Of The United States Since 1950 As Told By Energy”

  1. Bailey

    This makes me wonder about the Chicago neighborhood where my grandparents grew up in the 20s and 30s. By 1950 all the large 2.5 story houses were carved up into 2-flats and 3-flats (although some had started out as multi-family). It was a product of the Depression, when sharing space with extended families or other tenants was the community’s necessary response to sudden evictions that found your sister’s family and their belongings out on the sidewalk…at least that’s why my family all ended up sharing a 3-flat in the St. Ben’s parish area on the north side. The house remained multi-family through my dad’s childhood in the 50s and mine a couple decades later, and although we sold it in the early 90s, I’m still pretty sure it remained multi-family through the wealth-boom that hit the neighborhood that decade. In fact, most the residences on the block were multi-family, weaving seamlessly with the sprinkle of large single-family houses and the large brick 6- or 8-flats on the corners. We could walk to school, shops, bus lines, the Ravenswood El. Yes, plenty of my extended family members moved to the new and spacious single family subdivisions sprouting up in the suburbs in the 1950s onward, but quite a few of us stayed in that comparatively dense urban neighborhood. And as the demographic shifted from lower-middle to upper-middle class during that time, the density largely remained there (the 2-flats did not revert to SF), and continued to be quite lovely and livable.

    Why is this so difficult to replicate in Seattle? I’d guess the overall net density of that Chicago neighborhood was about 20-25 units per acre, but was just as livable (more so, perhaps) as the 8 du/ac single-family zones that we have here. I know this blog has hashed out the single-family-is-not-sacred argument many times already (;; but this post just makes me think of the 1950s, and that St Ben’s neighborhood, and gets me wondering whether we need another full-fledged depression to push that pattern again. The land-use outcome, in urban neighborhoods at least, wasn’t so bad.

  2. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    The other day we were on the bus with an elderly gentleman. As we rode by our little neighborhood grocery he said, “There used to be so many of those…”

  3. Bailey

    Joshua – But we do still have those neighborhood groceries in Seattle, whereas in Chicago they are pretty much all gone. My Seattle neighborhood has just opened up two new small (less than 2000sqft) grocers in the last couple months, and a third is expanding to about 10,000sqft…much smaller than the big box grocers that have out-competed such grocers in so many other areas. We have a culture here that truly values smaller-scale neighborhood retail…but the only way to really support that scale of walkable retail over the long term (and especially in down markets) is to have moderate residential density to supply the regular foot-traffic.

  4. JB

    “A scaled-back lifestyle more like how people lived in 1950” = a massive drop in the standard of living. Telling people they “must” drastically reduce their standard of living probably isn’t going to get you very far. Especially if you cannot make a compelling case for it. And I do mean a compelling case, not a statistic here and an anecdote there. How about we drop the “You MUST give up your cars and big homes and air travel and double-wide refrigerators” sermonizing and focus on the energy-efficiency and advanced technology angles?

    If your answer is that we cannot avoid catastrophic climate change through efficiency and technology improvements alone, and that we “must” also start living much simpler, smaller-scale lifestyles, then my response is….PROVE IT.

  5. Ellery

    JB – Give it a rest already. There is no shortage of people working on the energy-efficiency and advanced technology angles. Those are critical pieces. Essential, even. Land use and transportation patterns are just other essential pieces — especially in a state that already has clean(er) energy and in which half the GHG emissions stem from the transportation sector.
    Want evidence? Go read Growing Cooler. Still don’t buy it? Then take it up with ULI.

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