How can we live the ‘good life’ without killing the planet? My last post on energy and empire got me thinking about this question. We know that human welfare improves as we use more resources. But it’s suicidal for all of humanity to pursue this path. If the whole world lived like Americans, we’d triple our carbon emissions.1 So that’s not an option (not a sane one, at least).
How, then, can we improve human well-being without consuming more resources? Many people have an opinion on this question. But instead of giving you my opinion, I’ll look at the evidence. Let’s see what countries actually do to improve human welfare without using more energy.
I’m going to measure well-being using life expectancy (from birth). It may seem like a crude measure, but the more I think about it, life expectancy is probably the best measure of welfare we have. First, people universally want to be healthy. And there’s no better way to measure health than to see how long people live. Second, ‘health’ is holistic — it’s affected by your whole life experience. Health tends to worsen when you’re stressed, unhappy, and otherwise malcontent. I think it’s reasonable, then, to use life expectancy to measure human welfare in a holistic sense.
So how can we increase life expectancy? The route we’ve taken for the last two centuries is to consume more energy. Make no mistake, this works. As Figure 1 shows, using more energy (per person) reliably increases life expectancy. The black line is the trend across all the data. Countries that start at agrarian levels of energy use (about 20 GJ per person) can expect to gain, on average, about 20 years of life expectancy as they industrialize.
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