Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Path Insistence: Comparing European and American Attitudes toward Energy

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Path Insistence: Comparing European and American Attitudes toward Energy

Article excerpt

Last year I gave two similar talks about energy at two universities on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean and had two entirely different responses.(1) At each university I made the case that in the 20th century the United States had unnecessarily overconsumed energy, and I argued that this was not a technological but a cultural problem with serious environmental implications. Both audiences agreed there was a problem, but in the discussions that followed, Americans focused on technical solutions, while Europeans focused on the cultural factors that made it difficult for the United States to change.

Americans spoke of wind and solar power, lasers, computers and new car designs; Europeans discussed the layout of roads and cities, patterns of consumption and social welfare. While these responses are by no means a substitute for a systematic survey, I believe they are representative of fundamental differences between how most Europeans and Americans understand energy.

I refer here not to specialists in energy policy but to ordinary voters and consumers, people who do not understand energy in terms of chemistry, mathematical equations or thermodynamics. While economists, scientists and engineers may think in these terms, everyone else relegates energy to the margin of consciousness, only thinking about it briefly when paying the utility bill or buying gasoline. Furthermore, not all consumers view energy in the same way. In Europe, for example, energy has historically been expensive and at times, scarce. Europeans generally have a sense of limits and see the necessity for alternatives. In the United States abundant energy is part of an accepted way of life, and it always seems to be available. This sense of energy abundance is the result of generations of experience. The average American consumer takes for granted the availability of oil, electricity, natural gas and other energy sources.

Compared with people elsewhere, Americans are less self-conscious about how unsustainable a high-energy society is and, historically speaking, less aware of the anomaly of intensive energy use, in part because they have enjoyed this privilege longer than anyone else. It follows that any constraints in the energy supply will be experienced as abnormal and unnatural.(2) Americans have become so "path dependent" that they only become aware of energy during a blackout or gasoline shortage.

Studies of technology commonly refer to path dependency as a problem for firms that become wedded to a particular form of production and move too slowly to adopt new processes. As one recent article on the power industry put it:

   The evolution of the networked energy system is likely to be highly
   path-dependent. That is, system choices we have already made and will make
   over the next several decades will significantly influence the range of
   feasible future options.(3)

The authors were referring to methods of producing and distributing power, but similar generalizations would apply to most industries.(4) While managers today are highly aware of the dangers of path dependency, most consumers are not. Americans have already built their energy choices into the infrastructure of everyday lire, in terms of their transportation, housing, shopping habits and leisure activities. The high-energy path that they take to be natural will hold attractive short-term advantages for perhaps the next two decades, but over the long term this path may lead to severe and almost insoluble environmental problems.

The question for Americans in the next century will be whether they will have the political will and the technological skill to reduce their energy consumption without disrupting their way of life. Until now they have relied primarily on technical improvements to deal with environmental consequences of intensive energy use. For example, they continue to use just as many appliances, but the design of those appliances is more energy-efficient. …

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