The Negawatt

The “negawatt” is a symptom of the insanity of the environmentalist movement. Indisputable is the fact that energy production has enhanced and prolonged our lives in countless ways. Modern transportation allows us to move ourselves and goods around our towns, nation, and world. Electricity powers our household appliances, factories, offices, lights, computers, medical equipment, and on and on. But the environmentalist movement wishes to subvert human well-being to “unblemished” nature. While many environmentalists reluctantly acquiesce to the use of “alternative” forms of energy, which today almost always costs more, environmentalists most forcefully push for energy reduction. As two environmentalists recently explained for The Denver Post:

Investing in energy efficiency is a better deal for consumers and the environment. As Gov. Bill Ritter has stated, “The cheapest watt of electricity is the watt that isn’t consumed at all. It’s called the negawatt.”

In other words, we are supposed to spend our time and resources, not expanding our production of energy, but contracting it. Rather than produce, we are supposed to reduce. Rather than seek out ways to provide more watts of energy, we are to actively use less. We are to measure our success not by the megawatt by by the “negawatt.”

Obviously, people in a free market continually strive to produce more and better products for lower costs, which means finding more efficient means of production. If a factory’s owners can produce the same amount of goods in the same amount of time by spending less on energy, then, other things being equal, those owners will freely and happily make the change. If consumers can purchase a lightbulb that works at least as well but costs less to operate without causing other problems, producers will be able to persuade consumers to act in their own interests. Politicians need not hold a gun to people’s heads or otherwise threaten force to get people to do things that are efficient in the full sense of the term, which accounts for preferences and time as well as energy use. Economic efficiency often entails energy efficiency, which properly means that an expanding pool of energy becomes available for other uses.

Yet the environmentalists exuberantly call for the threat and use of physical force to change people’s behaviors. They call for “renewable” energy mandates (but for bans on nuclear power), mandates for bulbs that some people don’t like and fear are toxic, forced wealth transfers for corn gas, and so on. Environmentalists measure “efficiency” in terms of restricting human use of natural resources, and they generally ignore the most important natural resources: human life and time.

As a release from the Ayn Rand Institute points out, environmentalists are becoming more brazen in their demands to impose economic controls:

Many people are calling for drastic political action to cope with climate change. But the authors of a new book, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, go much further, claiming that global warming can be effectively dealt with only by “an authoritarian form of government.”

Environmentalists argue that humans are the primary cause of global warming and, absent a wide-scale political take-over of the economy, global warming will advance until it causes catastrophic problems. Yet the degree of human involvement in warming and the magnitude of future problems are matters of politically-motivated guess work. To reach their alarmist conclusions, environmentalists pretend to predict not only the weather but the stock market — for a century into the future.

Even assuming the environmentalist case about carbon dioxide and the future consequences of global warming, the further assumption — that this problem requires expansive political force in the economy — is hardly warranted. Indeed, it is only an unfettered free market that could ably handle the potential problems of warming while ensuring the maximum advancement of human life.

Consider just two recent news reports. Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that “the technology needed for collecting and storing [sunlight] is about to emerge as the field of solar energy is going to advance exponentially” over the coming decades. If this is true, then the best thing the government could to is to return to its proper function of protecting property rights and freedom of production. Maybe solar energy won’t turn out to be the best way to go. Maybe it will be some sort of nuclear power, or even something not yet invented. But threatening to send in the storm troopers to non-authorized production plants and throw people in jail for declining to subsidize the projects favored by special-interest groups is hardly the way to go, though it is the way favored by the typical environmentalist.

Other scientists think that they can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If global warming actually worsened over the coming decades and actually started to cause the sorts of wide-scale catastrophes that environmentalists scream about, then many people would be quite willing to spend a bit extra on fuel or even voluntarily contribute to carbon-dioxide removal factories.

But the simple fact is that today’s politicians do not know what the future climate holds or what the best response to any change would be. Nor are their political aspirations typically in consonance with such lofty concerns. What is certain is that subjecting people to political force wastes resources (in the full, economic sense of the term) and prevents people from applying the full force of their minds to the problem of improving methods of production and adapting to changing circumstances of all varieties.