Is More Better?
Peak Oil is one of many symptoms of an ecologically full planet. Our genetically embedded drive for `more' coupled with an expanding world population of 6.5 billion suggests a finite limit for growth will eventually be reached, if it hasn't been already.
In discussions about the impacts of Peak Oil, it is sometimes implicitly assumed that we NEED to replace the energy lost from the coming liquid fuels decline with other energy sources in order to maintain our way of life and our happiness. Indeed, it seems that much of the current effort is focused on comparing/discovering the best energy alternatives with respect to EROI, environmental impact and scalability/timing. In addition, demand experts also look at efficiency, carpooling, 4 day workweek, living locally type solutions, etc. In this post, I look at Peak Oil from a broader context: the necessity and purpose of continued increases in demand for energy. What is it all for, if not to make us happy?
Below is one of their better known graphs showing the relationship between GNP per capita and % of population in each country that is `satisfied' or `happy' with their lives.
It can be seen, that at low levels of GNP, happiness is lacking, but once a certain level of GNP is reached, incremental income per capita adds very little to subjective well being.
Ronald Inglehart of World Values Survey verbalized the above graph by stating that after meeting basic needs, lifestyle choices make up the majority of the difference in the GNP spectrum, and lower energy lifestyles do just about as well as high energy lifestyles (indeed, there are at least 10 countries on that graph that score higher on life satisfaction than the USA, and they each produce less GNP).
Since GNP and energy use are correlated, I was curious what the link would be between happiness and per capita energy use. Using the `very happy' percentage from the 1999/2000 wave of international tests from World Values Survey, I compared them to all countries that www.bp.com had primary energy data for (primary energy is a broader measure than just oil) and then divided by 2000 population census. The results are in this graph:
As can be seen, there is little correlation at all between subjective well being and energy use. (The actual r2 is 14%). Of note is the United States uses 39 times the primary energy as the Phillipines yet the percentage of the population that is `very happy' is about equal. While there is a low r2, this does not mean there is not a relationship. The graph shows that all high energy users are happy. But it also shows you don't need high energy to be happy. It could therefore be read as saying that the high users are wasting considerable amounts of energy - ie not needed to be happy.
Vaclav Smil, in his book "Energy at the Crossroads" did similar work on objective measures of wellbeing vs energy consumption. A pattern similar to the above `boomerang' curve is found on comparisons of female longevity, sufficient nutritional food, educational opportunities, freedom etc. The shape is also the same, but inverted, for infant mortality. In general, Smil concludes that a reasonable level of well being on objective measures is achievable between 50 and 70 GJ/per capita, with marginal increases up to 100 GJ per capita. As a comparison, North America is currently at 340 GJ per capita. Again, the large excess consumption is not improving objective wellness.
As evolved animals at the top of the food chain, humans have become adept at acquiring resources, including energy. At some point though, "more energy" apparently does not make us "more happy". Anecdotally, as a former stockbroker, I witnessed first hand that clients worth hundreds of millions were no happier than the entry level clerks, even though being fabulously wealthy represented the `carrot' that people strived for. Similarly, in travels abroad to Ecuador, Zambia, Thailand, etc, I consistently noticed extremely happy people with very low energy usages.
Everyone has wants and needs. The wants can never really be satisfied, irrespective of energy use (look at Donald Trump or Tom Cruise). The needs are what are most important. This is an encouraging point to be aware of in the years leading up to and following Peak Oil. More is not necessarily better. Less is not necessarily worse. Perhaps, through education, marketing and living by example, society can slowly modify the definition of the `carrot', to one requiring less energy but providing equal or greater happiness.