"Turn out the lights," a mother calls to her teenage daughter, who is leaving the bathroom yet again with the lights left burning. "Don't you know you're wasting energy?" Oh, groan. Another lecture on energy conservation. Surely we've heard enough in the past three decades about energy to put us all to sleep with the lights blazing.
Energy conservation as a teaching topic might seem as lifeless as a dead battery. But think again. Energy is what makes the world go 'round, both literally and figuratively. From the endless spinning of the planets, to the miraculous transformation of sunlight into plant matter, to the delicate fission of uranium molecules that gives us power for heating, lighting, manufacturing -- energy drives everything about this planet and the life that exists on it.
And the relentless search for energy resources has driven much of human history. Particularly since the industrial revolution, having access to energy resources has been the key to technological development, economic security, and political power. Getting access to - or control over - those resources has underlain many a foreign policy decision. As a result, countries went to war, lives were lost, and centuries of culture and civilization were destroyed.
What if we had all turned out the lights when we left the room for the past several decades? What if we had designed and built buildings to use the least possible energy for heating and lighting? What if we had seriously investigated and developed renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power? What if every country on the planet were self-sufficient in energy because we all paid attention to how much energy we consume? Might there be fewer wars?
The global hunger for energy resources has many consequences other than military conflict. In some parts of the world, such as Canada's North, the search for new energy resources has had an impact on traditional lifestyles and wildlife habitat.
In other parts of the world, it is not having access to energy resources that has caused social strife. The industrialized nations use well over half of total global energy consumption, in spite of having only a fraction of the population. What if those resources were divided equitably? What would Africa look like if African nations had access to the same kind of energy resources that North America depends on daily?
And then there are the environmental consequences of our insatiable energy appetite. We've all watched in horror the footage of seals, seabirds, and other marine life struggling to free themselves from a deadly coating of petroleum leaking from a damaged tanker. Animals aren't the only living things affected by energy-related environmental damage: the federal government estimates that every year in Canada 16,000 people die prematurely from air pollution-related illnesses.
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Perhaps the most frightening consequence of our energy-dependent lifestyle is global climate change. It is now generally accepted within the scientific and political communities that the earth's average temperature is slowly rising as a result of the massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases emitted from the burning of fossil fuels (see Sidebar: Global Climate Change).
Some of the predicted consequences of a global rise in temperature are more severe weather events, more periods of drought, increased flooding and erosion in coastal areas, worsened air pollution, and reduced water quality, to mention just a few. It's pretty scary stuff that gives the concept of energy conservation a lot more urgency.
Energy Efficiency: A Technological Solution
For some years now, government agencies and non-profit groups have been talking about "energy efficiency" as an alternative to the phrase energy conservation. Energy efficiency implies leaner, greener energy use without cutting back on what we do.
In fact, the Government of Canada is asking their greenhouse gas emissions by one tonne or 20% through the One-Tonne Challenge consumer information campaign. …