Butter and Jam

Guinean students, with no electricity at home, study under street lights in the Conakry airport parking lot in June, 2007. Any girls? (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)
Guinean students, with no electricity at home, study under street lights in the Conakry airport parking lot in June, 2007. (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)

Knowing how much energy you use on an hour/daily/weekly basis would be one thing. As it is, we’re greatly ignorant of even this, and the idea that if we began unpacking what exactly is a kWh and what it takes to produce one, maybe, just maybe we could re-construct that perception – who knows, maybe even based on how fast a little whirl-y-gig on top your house would have to spin just wash your clothes or grind your coffee beans. Maybe we would decide a little whirl-y-gig just wouldn’t do the trick and other measures would be more effective, in tandem with using less or developing ways to use sunlight or building different kinds of houses or… you get the idea. While it may be hard to retro-fit our world – we should consider trying to retro-fit our habits based on everything required to support them. That would actually be much more difficult, though probably only at first.

Trying to understand how much energy you use on an hourly/daily/weekly basis in terms of how much people elsewhere in the world use at all, per the photo above, is a route to a wholly different transformation. Really, it has little to do with the first. We would have a hard enough time justifying our energy use in the first instance; there is very little chance we could do so at in the second. Alas this is the issue, and this is one of the reasons why there are climate change denialists.

So should we (the haves) pay more for our energy than those who haveless? This anecdote from Copenhagen paints a nice picture of our unwillingness:

That was the only talk about poverty for the night. But that’s not the discouraging part. This is: One of the moderators, CNBC anchor Louisa Bojeson, asked the crowd to raise their hands if they were willing to pay 10 percent more for their home’s electricity if it came from a carbon-free source. Two thirds of them, give or take, raised a hand. Would they pay 20 percent more? Fewer than half kept a hand raised. Would they pay 50 percent more? All but a minority, perhaps ten percent, dropped their hands.

These are the royalty of our age—well-compensated, well-heeled corporate leaders, the owners of at least some of the private jets that landed in Copenhagen last week. Home electricity bills, even for mansions, constitute a minuscule portion of their salaries. If they’re not willing to voluntarily pay more for the common good…

There are a number of conclusions you might draw. Maybe the business leaders were defending the right of consumers to choose the lowest price in a free market. Maybe they don’t like raising their hands. Maybe this shows clean-energy choices must be economically appealing—green has to be cheaper than brown if it’s going to catch on. Maybe it means leadership must come from politicians, or social movements. It wasn’t an encouraging moment.

Though perhaps a revealing one.

photo from Revkin’s blog.