Problem 2 - The Supply-Side Focus

chart of vehicle miles traveled per year in the US

  This post is part of the serialization of the first chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability].

   Massive efforts currently exist to redesign the things we buy to be more efficient: better light bulbs, better cars, better heating and cooling equipment, and cleaner sources of electricity, for example. And by all means, we should be doing these things. But these are all things that the manufacturers must do. In other words, they’re supply-side: they’re accomplished by those who supply us with the things that we use (and consume.)

   Now, try this exercise: (1) Select any product type you like. (2) Use any common measure of sustainability, whether carbon footprint, miles traveled, net energy, etc. (3) Take the best assumptions of competent advocates for increases in efficiency or effectiveness of the product type. (4) Compare the likely increases in efficiency to the best projections of increases in demand. In most cases, you’ll find that the demand will rise faster than the projected improvements in the product. So while the products are getting better, we’re still using more energy and other resources in order to use those products. So we’re going further in the hole all the time.

   Take cars, for example. The chart above shows the miles traveled on US streets and highways beginning in 1960. If you project the trend of the past half-century (business as usual) it follows the red line. How much can the supply side help? For the first time in 32 years, Congress increased the mandatory US fleet efficiency from 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon... to be effective in 2020. Better efficiency clearly helps, but by how much? Driving a car that is 10% more efficient uses the same amount of gas as driving 10% less. The yellow line on the graph shows the effect of the increased efficiency. The dilemma is obvious: even though the increased efficiency makes a big impact, the line is still rising, which means we’ll still be burning more gas. And this chart shows the efficiency increasing at the same rate to 2030, even though the law only requires it until 2020.

   And the problem is, we don’t need to level off where we are now; we need to go much lower. In order to reach a level that most scientists would consider sustainable, we need to follow something close to the green line, and any knowledgeable engineer in the automotive industry will tell you that the green line simply isn’t happening. That line represents the equivalent of reducing US driving to a trillion miles a year by 2030 (approximately the level in 1968) while the actual distance traveled in 2030 will actually be closer to 6 trillion miles (which happens to be almost the same distance that light can travel in one year.) To burn gas equal to the green line while driving as much as we’ll likely be driving, the average fuel efficiency in 2030 would have to be around 150 miles per gallon. Does anyone believe there’s any chance whatsoever of this happening?

   And that’s only part of the problem. It’s scary enough just looking at projections for the United States, but when you consider that there are over two billion people in China and India that are now moving from highly sustainable agrarian cultures to an industrial economy much like ours in the 1950s and 1960s, it’s obvious that our supply-side focus cannot be a winning strategy. Everything only gets worse when we depend mainly upon a supply-side strategy. To be clear, we must supply better stuff, but that alone won’t do the job... it doesn’t even come close.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 10:05 PM

Bill Buchanan

Re-entered... originally posted January 27, 2009


I disagree with you a bit on this one.

1) Under this structure the focus should be miles traveled, not miles driven. Preventing architects from flying to attend distant conferences or view foreign cities should be as high a priority as preventing others from driving to the beach, the mountains, or a concert.

2) That was just a wry way of introducing this point: I think it is misguided to make reducing freedom a goal. Rather focus on the problem - carbon - while also seeking to increase the ability of all to experience the world.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 10:12 PM

Steve Mouzon

Re-entered... originally posted January 30, 2009


   You bring up some interesting points... but before responding to them, I should say that the point of this post is to show that if we focus only on things that others supply to us, then things are going to get worse, not better. We've got to also focus on our own actions if we want things to get better.

   With that said, you're exactly right that the worst thing we could do right now is to make "sustainability" synonymous with "reducing freedom." If we do that, then the majority of people will resist to the bitter end... which is that point in time when seriously bad stuff starts to happen and the reduction of freedom is something that we don't have a choice about.

   Think about it this way: ask 20 friends how many miles they drive each year. Then, ask them each to tell you, out of all those miles, how many they drive because they want to, and how many they drive because they have to. I suspect that most people will tell you they drive a lot more miles because they have to rather than because they want to.

   Doing something because we have to reduces our freedom, because we don't have a choice. Doing something because we want to is one good definition of freedom. Living in a place where you can get to all the daily necessities of life by walking, biking, or driving gives you much more freedom than living in a place where your only choice is driving. Does this make sense?

   Let's please continue this conversation, because this is an extremely important issue.

   Thanks! ~Steve


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020