Opinion - October 3, 2022

Sobriety, Efficiency and Common Sense

- Photo by Arthur Lambillotte

Written by Bertrand Piccard 4 min read

The current energy crisis, with its obsession around finding new providers of natural gas, reminds me of the response of the aviation manufacturers to my solar aircraft: “Impossible, because the sun would have to provide more energy.” It’s always about frantic production and quantity.

If we accomplished anything with the Solar Impulse, it’s that we built an aircraft so efficient that it was able to use only what the sun provided.

Well before the Ukraine war, we knew that the world had to free itself from fossil fuels, but the survival of humanity in the face of climate change seems to weigh less heavily on us than the fear of a winter energy shortfall. We should have asserted our energy independence long ago by using renewable resources and   reducing energy waste to protect the environment. And suddenly it’s too late. It’s like the story of the Zen master answering his disciple asking about the best time to plant a tree: “100 years ago”...

Now that we are faced with reductions in fossil fuel and skyrocketing prices, the concept of “sobriety” (“sobriete”) – espoused by a small circle engaged in promoting policies of degrowth – has now been adopted by governments. Citizens are encouraged to reduce heat, lighting, and the speed of their vehicles. However, they are asked to cut back while continuing to live in thermal sieves with inefficient heating, driving cars that waste 75% of their fuel. In other words, people must use less but without any benefit. It’s not simply about consuming less, it’s about consuming intelligently.

Saving energy is indeed a priority. However, as “sobriety” is often associated with the idea of deprivation, I prefer to use “efficiency.” Here, the goal is simple: to do more with far less. This doesn’t mean being against sobriety but rather being realistic by enabling a transition to new solutions.

Sobriety entails reducing consumption through a change in behavior. Efficiency is a result of technological improvements that enable resource savings and a superior outcome, with lower consumption.

Efficiency brings about a reduction while offering a benefit, whereas sobriety brings reduction, but with a sacrifice. We need both in parallel, but let’s be frank: in order to convince those who oppose ecological measures, and to motivate the industrial and economic worlds, the term efficiency doesn’t have the association with deprivation. Efficiency provides direct returns, with new industrial advantages. 

Beyond insulation in the built environment, efficiency must be expanded to industrial equipment, waste heat at factories and data centers, power grids, unrecycled waste, and food waste resulting from early expiration dates. This is what we should have been resolving since we began talking about climate change: a modernization of all our systems in order to save enormous quantities of resources that we waste between production and consumption. In a country like Switzerland or Belgium, the replacement of incandescent bulbs by LEDs, and of electric heat by heat pumps, would allow the closure of 2 nuclear power plants, or the redirection of that power to compensate for the shortage of Russian gas. 

Between sobriety and efficiency, we also need to demonstrate common sense, and this is what we should expect from our elected officials. But since we missed the boat on efficiency and are now talking about sobriety, we have pushed the burden back on the citizens by making them forget what politicians should have done to begin with.

It’s true that today sobriety offers the advantage of some immediate results, whereas efficiency won’t bear fruit until after years of modernization work.

And efficiency has bad press in some circles because of the famous rebound effect: the savings we obtain would make it possible to acquire more goods, prompting more energy and resource use. We are even beginning to hear that we should give up the idea of increasing our purchasing power, in the name of ecology. This is more of a problem for the wealthy, since the poor will not use their savings to buy gadgets, but rather to feed themselves better and raise their children with dignity.

But in fact this rebound effect, if it exists, could occur just as easily with sobriety as with technological efficiency. 

What we need to understand is that the profitability of efficiency enables economic and social development that respects the environment by fighting waste. If you are not convinced, take a look at the more than 1,450 technical solutions identified by the Solar Impulse Foundation that prove it. Isn’t it more appealing than the sacrifices presented to us as inevitable? The very future of the environment – and the economy – is at stake. 

First published in Le Journal du Dimanche 

Written by Bertrand Piccard on October 3, 2022

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