Do we consume too much energy?

A common response to the climate crisis is to argue for restrictions on individuals’ energy use. As a result some environmental activists have supported initiatives like congestion charges or carbon rationing and even welcomed recent increases in petrol prices, since they might result in people being forced to use less petrol.

The overwhelming bulk of energy used by our societies comes from burning fossil fuels—so simply reducing our use of them would help reduce carbon emissions.

The problem with such solutions is that they target individual consumption. Yet the bulk of energy use is at the production end, by companies that produce and transport goods such as cars or televisions or that build roads and buildings. Manufacturing and construction are the second largest users of energy in Australia, after transport (which includes commercial freight). Together they account for almost 70 per cent of energy use.

Even if individuals choose to consume less, they cannot change wasteful manufacturing practices. Many companies structure inbuilt obsolescence into their products, so that they will wear out early, or be superseded in a few years by a new product. Computers are an obvious example—because ever more complicated operating systems and other software require faster processing we are forced to buy a new computer every few years.

Collective solutions

Similarly, placing the burden on individuals to reduce car use does not address the real problems.

For example, many cities have been built with the assumption that everyone will own a car.

The suburb of Glenmore Park in Sydney, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, was built with roads too narrow for buses to use because no thought was given to the need for public transport.

Blaming individual consumption therefore does not target where the real solution lies: In forcing governments to deal with problems like inadequate public transport options and poor urban planning.

Government is also best placed to lead the shift to new methods of energy production from renewable sources.

Clean energy would make reducing energy use less important, because it would not be producing carbon emissions. The scale of the changes needed here are radical. But there is no technological reason why all of our energy needs could not be provided by renewable energy sources now.

Wind power alone could provide 20 per cent of our energy needs immediately—yet governments, who are tied up with the corporations building new coal fired power stations, have done little to expand its use.

Winning over the majority

Contrary to the claims of pundits like Clive Hamilton, most ordinary working class Australians are not rolling in affluence. Cost of living increases over the last decade have wiped out any gains from rising incomes. This was an important factor in Kevin Rudd’s election victory in 2007, where he promised to “ease the squeeze” on working families.

Australia has one of the least affordable housing markets in the developed world. Prices of household necessities like food have risen much faster than inflation in recent years.

Demands for sacrifice ignore the huge class divisions in society. As we head into a recession, there will be deep anger as working class people are told to make sacrifices by governments and employers to protect corporate profits. Already people are being told to give up wage rises, and often accept pay cuts.

Ordinary people do not control the decisions about how production or cities are organised. They miss out on most of the benefits when the economy is booming but are made to pay the price when recession hits.

It is people from wealthier backgrounds who can easily afford to make changes to their patterns of energy consumption. For ordinary working class people, the cost of installing solar panels or buying energy efficient appliances is either prohibitive or a burden that well-intentioned people can ill afford in the current economic climate.

The only force the climate movement has against governments and the corporations is the power to mobilise the majority of ordinary working class people. We need to be able to both win over public opinion to support the radical changes needed and to convince those people to demonstrate and take action to make these changes happen.

by James Supple


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