Junk Science: Conservation Nation?

President Bush almost got it right this week when he declined to
call on Americans to conserve energy. Sadly, he still seems to think
that conservation is a win-win proposition; worse, so do both major
presidential candidates.

A reporter, saying the energy debate will continue into the next
administration, told President Bush that "one thing nobody debates is
that if Americans use less energy the current supply/demand equation
would improve. Why have you not sort of called on Americans to drive
less and to turn down the thermostat?"

Bush responded: "They’re smart enough to figure out whether they’re
going to drive less or not … it’s interesting what the price of
gasoline has done, is it caused people to drive less. That’s why they
want smaller cars, they want to conserve. But the consumer is plenty
bright. … The marketplace works.

"Secondly, we have worked with Congress to change CAFE standards and
had a mandatory alternative fuel requirement," he continued. "One way
to correct the imbalance is to save, is to conserve. … I talked about
good conservation. And people can figure out whether they need to drive
more or less; they can balance their own checkbooks."

"But you don’t see the need to ask? You don’t see the value of your calling for a campaign?" the reporter persisted.

"I think people ought to conserve and be wise about how they use
gasoline and energy … and there’s some easy steps people can take. You
know, if they’re not in their home, they don’t keep their
air-conditioning running," Bush said, adding that "it’s a little
presumptuous on my part to dictate to consumers how they live their

While muddled thinking thrives on both sides of this exchange — the
current crisis is about $4-plus gasoline, not electricity, and while
Bush says he won’t tell Americans to conserve, he still boasts of
mandatory fuel efficiency standards ­— it should tee up the issue of
conservation for debate.

The reporter positioned conservation as an indisputable virtue. But is it? Is conservation good public policy?

For individuals, conservation is better described as a "necessity"
rather than a "virtue." People use less gasoline not because they want
to or because it makes them feel good or so that someone else can use
more, but because prices have spiked and they’ve been forced to drive
less or drive smaller cars. Need is not virtue.

Conservation also isn’t necessarily a virtue for those consumers who
are unfazed by $4 gasoline, but nevertheless vainly choose to conserve
to achieve some imagined "greater purpose," such as "saving the planet"
or "reducing our dependence on foreign oil." This is, in fact, where
conservation becomes, if anything, an anti-virtue.

In our modern society, using less gasoline means doing less and,
most importantly, it means spending less. It means fewer shopping
trips, less eating out, fewer pleasure trips and less employment in
those businesses to where you drive.

It means fewer cars, pleasure boats and airplanes, and fewer jobs in
the industries that manufacture those goods. Using less gasoline means
engaging in less economic activity.

If you don’t remember the 1970s and very early 1980s, the last time
conservation was all the rage, consider that every economic slowdown of
the last 35 years, that is, the recessions of 1973-1975, 1979-1980,
1981-1982 and 1990-1991, has been associated with, if not caused by, a
decline in oil consumption.

Whenever oil consumption increased, GDP did, too. The same goes for total energy consumption.

Additionally, conservation policies have undesirable side effects.
Higher fuel efficiency standards result in lighter, more dangerous
cars. Airtight, energy-efficient buildings — like the ones constructed
during the 1970s — produced a host of indoor air quality problems such
as "sick building syndrome" and asthma-causing cockroach allergens in
public housing.

But if we keep burning more and more gasoline, won’t we run out or
become even more dependent on foreign oil? That can only happen if we
continue to permit the greens to dictate national energy policy.

Not only does the United States have vast reserves of oil offshore
and on public lands, our Western state oil shale holds twice the oil as
the Mideast. Although Canadian oil counts as "foreign oil," our
neighbor to the north is the Saudi Arabia of oil from tar sands.

There is plenty of oil at home and nearby that we can access to fuel vital economic growth — but the greens won’t let us.

But shouldn’t we conserve our oil resources for future generations?

Well, as Barack Obama might say — that is, if he could break away
from the maximum security prison of green-think — "We are the
generation that we’ve been waiting for."

First, if the greens won’t let us use our oil now, why would they in
the future? Won’t they always tell people to conserve or to wait for
some fantasy alternative fuel or magical car battery?

Next, future generations are very likely to have improved energy technologies that are less or not at all dependent on oil.

Finally, if you think conservation will lead to less oil being used
worldwide, think again. China, India and other rapidly developing
countries plan to use all the oil they can get. If we don’t buy
Canadian tar sands oil, India will buy it to fuel their $2,500 Tata

If we don’t drill off the coast of Florida, others will, like the foreign oil companies working with Cuba.

Despite the self-defeating nature of conservation, both Sens. Obama
and McCain are all for it. McCain calls it a "critical national goal."
Obama wants to give incentives for it.

These two ought to remember the sweater-wearing Jimmy Carter and think twice about promoting a national policy of malaise.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and DemandDebate.com. He is a junk science expert, advocate of free enterprise and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.