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Conservation Nation?

By Steven Milloy
July 17, 2008

President Bush almost got it right this week when he declined to call on Americans to conserve energy. Sadly, he still seems to think that conservation is a win-win proposition. Worse, so do both major presidential candidates.

A reporter asked President Bush, "... understanding [that energy supplies are] tight and the debate over energy... has gone on for years and will continue... into the next administration... one thing nobody debates is that if Americans use less energy the current supply/demand equation would improve. Why have you not sort of called on Americans to drive less and to turn down the thermostat?"

President Bush responded, "They're smart enough to figure out whether they're going to drive less or not... it's interesting what the price of gasoline has done, is it caused people to drive less. That's why they want smaller cars, they want to conserve. But the consumer is plenty bright... The marketplace works. Secondly, we have worked with Congress to change CAFE standards, and had a mandatory alternative fuel requirement... One way to correct the imbalance is to save, is to conserve... I talked about good conservation. And people can figure out whether they need to drive more or less; they can balance their own checkbooks."

"But you don't see the need to ask? You don't see the value of your calling for a campaign?" the reporter persisted.

"I think people ought to conserve and be wise about how they use gasoline and energy... and there's some easy steps people can take. You know, if they're not in their home, they don't keep their air-conditioning running... but... it's a little presumptuous on my part to dictate to consumers how they live their lives..."

While muddled thinking thrives on both sides of this exchange -- the current crisis is about $4-plus gasoline, not electricity, and while President Bush says he won’t tell Americans to conserve, he still boasts of mandatory fuel efficiency standards -- it should tee-up the issue of conservation for debate. The reporter positioned conservation as an indisputable virtue. But is it? Is conservation good public policy?

For individuals, conservation is better described as a "necessity" rather than a "virtue." People use less gasoline not because they want to or because it makes them feel good or so that someone else can use more, but because prices have spiked and they've been forced to drive less or drive smaller cars. Need is not virtue.

Conservation also isn't necessarily a virtue for those consumers who are unfazed by $4 gasoline, but nevertheless vainly choose to conserve to achieve some imagined "greater purpose" -- like "saving the planet" or "reducing our dependence on foreign oil." This is, in fact, where conservation becomes, if anything, an anti-virtue.

In our modern society, using less gasoline means doing less -- and most importantly, it means spending less. It means fewer shopping trips, less eating out, fewer pleasure trips, and less employment in those businesses that you drive to. It means fewer cars, pleasure boats and airplanes -- and fewer jobs in the industries that manufacture those goods. Using less gasoline means engaging in less economic activity.

If you don't remember the 1970s and very early 1980s -- the last time conservation was all the rage -- consider that every economic slowdown of the last 35 years -- that is, the recessions of 1973-1975, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, and 1990-1991 -- has been associated with, if not caused by, a decline in oil consumption. Whenever oil consumption increased, GDP did, too. The same goes for total energy consumption.

Additionally, conservation policies have undesirable side effects. Higher fuel efficiency standards result in lighter, more dangerous cars. Air tight, energy efficient buildings -- like the ones constructed during the 1970s -- produced a host of indoor air quality problems like "sick building syndrome" and asthma-causing cockroach allergens in public housing.

But if we keep burning more and more gasoline, won't we run out or become even more dependent on foreign oil? That can only happen if we continue to permit the Greens to dictate national energy policy.

Not only does the U.S. have vast reserves of oil offshore and on public lands, our Western state oil shale holds twice the oil as the Mideast. Although Canadian oil counts as "foreign oil," our neighbor to the north is the Saudi Arabia of oil from tar sands. There is plenty of oil at home and nearby that we can access to fuel vital economic growth -- but the Greens won't let us. But shouldn’t we conserve our oil resources for future generations? Well, as Barack Obama might say -- that is, if he could break away from the maximum security prison of Green-think -- "We are the generation that we’ve been waiting for."

First, if the Greens won't let us use our oil now, why would they in the future? Won't they always tell people to conserve or to wait for some fantasy alternative fuel or magical car battery? Next, future generations are very likely to have improved energy technologies that are less, or even not at all dependent on oil.

Finally, if you think that conservation will lead to less oil being used worldwide, think again. China, India and other rapidly developing countries plan to use all the oil they can get. If we don't buy Canadian tar sands oil, India will buy it to fuel their $2,500 Tata cars. If we don't drill off the coast of Florida, others will, like the foreign oil companies working with Cuba right now.

Despite its self-defeating nature, both Sens. Obama and McCain are all for mass conservation. Sen. McCain calls it a "critical national goal." Sen. Obama wants to give incentives for it.

These two ought to remember the sweater-wearing Jimmy Carter and think twice about a promoting a national policy of malaise.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and DemandDebate.com. He is a junk science expert, and advocate of free enterprise and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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