Our growing addiction to energy: what could be the remedy?

— Anh NGUYEN

In our previous article on different energy sources, we examine the advantages and disadvantages of the most common energy sources of humanity to date, including fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), nuclear energy, and renewable energy (hydro, wind & solar power). 

It cannot be stressed enough – that there is no silver-bullet solution, not on a global scale nor country-level or community level, the one clean energy that will solve it all. Any energy source will have an impact, we only have fewer bad options. 

On top of that, choosing the right energy source in a certain context is not enough either. This must be coupled with moderate energy consumption. One cannot simply say “My electricity is nuclear-fueled, it’s cheap, it’s cleaner than fossil fuels, I’m going to heat my place up to 25°C during winter so that I can wear my t-shirt”. 

But then, what does it mean “to moderate energy consumption”?

Not a simple question, especially when it is almost impossible to name one activity in our lives without the use of large-scale produced energy.

I’m writing this article on my computer, which needs the energy to charge, to get connected to the internet and to fuel my Google search and 15+ open tabs, not to mention the huge amount of energy to produce this computer itself, from mining rare metals to transforming it during the production process, and the energy and resources used to market, sell and buy it. 

I’m drinking my coffee which comes from the other half of the world, is transformed and transported by maritime then road transport, packaged with plastics made from petroleum, another huge industrial process, stored & sold in a supermarket, lands at the coffee machine run by nuclear electricity in France, and finally put in a cup which again requires the extraction of clay, the heating up to 1000°C+, the transportation from the factory to the store, etc. 

When we start thinking about it, almost every action or object in our daily life requires energy. There exists not yet a universally applied definition of “moderate level of energy consumption”, and slogans such as “reduce your consumption” or “saying no to overconsumption” are still voluntary-based, with no details on reducing by how many percent or down to how much. 

Moreover, these sayings are just an effort to shift the responsibility to the customers’ end, instead of pointing fingers at industries and producers, whose essence of their mission and existence is financial growth and this is simply not aligned with the reduction of consumption. 

A growing addiction: They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no no no

Humans are heavily dependent on energy to fuel our needs. In the past, our forefathers yielded energies from animals, man-made structures using wind or water mills, or burning woods, to name a few, to meet their basic needs of eating, dressing, sheltering, moving around, producing tools, etc.

Medieval farming technology transforms Europe with a peasant and a cow
Photo from a very interesting article called “Medieval farming technology transforms Europe”. Source: The Great Course Daily.

But with our growing needs of modern society, those energy sources are no longer enough for production and consumption. Not enough horses for our favourite Netflix series. Nor our favourite jeans.

A jeans is not a jeans. It’s made with enormous amount of energy. Source: Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.
A jeans is not a jeans. It’s made with an enormous amount of energy. Source: Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.

When it comes to production, we are talking about a series of transformations – heating, cooling, fusion, evaporation, crystallisation, combustion, reduction, distillation, movement, extraction, cutting, crushing, grinding, etc – to change the properties of materials and matters.

And these changes – in temperatures, states, chemical compositions, speed, forms, and so forth – require the mobilization of energy. The more processed products you create, the more energy you have to mobilize.

Industrial societies strive to meet more and more needs with transformed objects in production chains, which requires energy at each stage of transformation, which makes us end up with this startling graph of our own addiction to energy:

A growing addiction to energy of humanity, from 1975 to 2010
“Bop to the top, don’t ever stop”. Source

Energy transition has been a buzzword in recent times, and we all have hopes that efforts are being made to produce our jeans or to fuel our Netflix binge-watching sessions in a cleaner way. 

Yet, as long as 84% of global energy sources are still fossil fuels, we still have a long way to go. 

Global primary energy consumption by source, based on the BP Statistical Review released in 2020.
Global primary energy consumption by source, based on the BP Statistical Review released in 2020. Source

Are you not entertained?

Let’s walk back to our ordinary lives. What are the needs and wants that we can make changes to so that we can reduce our energy consumption?

To refrain from buying new clothes and shoes and bags every month, even if it’s in the “Conscious” collections? To take trains instead of domestic flights? To reduce the consumption of coffee and avocados coming from across the planet? To say no to a cheap sushi meal with factory-farmed salmons? 

Sure enough, these actions from each individual will eventually add up to something bigger. Anyhow, it takes conscious efforts to make these commitments, constantly. Especially when our current lifestyle requires a huge amount of energy, not only to maintain a functioning life but beyond, to be entertained, both from a collective and individual level.

Changes in energy consumption in U.S home - as electrical appliances & devices are taking up a bigger part
Changes in energy consumption in the U.S home – as electrical appliances & devices are taking up a bigger part. Source: U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA)

After all, this is a personal choice that each individual will make in a given context. If my boulangerie is about 1,5 km away from my place, will I take my car or will I just walk? Do I need to store certain things in the fridge or maybe there exist simpler ways to keep food fresh without using electricity? Will streaming videos for 10 hours non-stop add more “fulfillment degrees” to my day rather than walking in the woods for 5 hours?

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, we see a surge of people who tried out new hobbies such as cooking, baking, farming, knitting, drawing, writing, playing a musical instrument, and sewing to name a few. To perform these manual & creative activities, one has to use their hands, or their whole body altogether while not locking their eyes on a screen, but to actively use their own energy to create something new or to perfect several gestures.

It is just a forgotten but beneficial way to entertain ourselves. Hopefully, these newly learned skills will lead us all to a simpler, more fulfilling, less energy-demanding lifestyle.


If you want to read further on this topic:

Different sources of energy: which one is less “bad”?

To combat food waste: let’s take a look at our fridge

Less waste, less energy: better ways to heat places in a temperate climate

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