Energy Consumption Per Capita: Are Americans Wasteful?

Here’s an example of how public policy can go awry when the relationships between population density, per capita consumption and employment are not clearly understood.  Click the above link to see a chart of energy consumption per capita for seven different countries.  Recently, I’ve seen something similar posted on various blogs that deal with issues like energy policy and global warming, and in each case the conclusion of the author has been the same – that since Americans use far more energy per capita than other wealthy nations like Germany, Japan and the U.K., then Americans are wasteful and great oil savings (and reductions in carbon emissions) could be realized by becoming as efficient as those nations at the right hand side of the scale. 

At first blush, it seems like a reasonable conclusion, doesn’t it?  After all, the image that immediately comes to mind regarding the relatively higher energy consumption in America is gas-guzzling SUVs, right?  And the image that comes to mind regarding Japan is fuel-efficient cars like the Toyota Prius.  There is some smattering of truth there, although no one thinks about the fact that there are far more Priuses on the road in the U.S. than there are in Japan. 

More importantly, the conclusion that America is wasteful and great energy savings could be realized is erroneous because population density and its relationship to per capita consumption, together with the economic consequences of that relationship,  haven’t been taken into consideration.  In the cases of Japan, Germany and the U.K., their per capita energy consumption is low not because they are more efficient than the U.S. but because their extreme population densities have driven down per capita consumption of nearly everything.  (Japan is ten times as densely populated as the U.S. while Germany and the U.K. are about seven times more densely populated.  Also, notice that, with the exception of the tiny city-state of Luxembourg, the left side of the scale includes the sparsely populated nations of Canada and Australia.) 

For example, consider the effect upon the per capita consumption of dwelling space in Japan.  It’s only 30% of that in the U.S., not because the Japanese like living in tiny homes, but because there is no room for anything larger.  So the energy used to light, heat and air condition their homes, in per capita terms, is only 30% of that in the U.S. as well.  Now, that may sound like a good thing from an environmental perspective until you consider the economic ramifications.

Not only is their per capita energy consumption in their homes reduced to 30% of the U.S., but so too is the per capita employment in all industries associated with building, furnishing and maintaining their homes.  Making matters worse, their per capita consumption of nearly everything, along with their per capita employment in those industries, with the exception of food and clothing, is similarly affected to a greater or lesser extent by their extreme over-crowding.  This leaves them with an enormous glut of labor that can only be gainfully employed by manufacturing products for export.  In essence, this over-crowding and low per capita consumption transform them into a parasitic economy, feeding on the markets and manufacturing jobs of nations like the U.S.

So the only way to reduce per capita energy consumption in the U.S. to a Japan-like level is to cut our overall per capita consumption of everything to their level.  The problem is that this would also cut per capita employment, just like in Japan, but without any other U.S. to turn to for employment of the resulting labor glut.  This would drive unemployment through the roof and start a world-wide decline of living standards. 

So let’s back up and consider the real problem, which is not the per capita consumption of energy but the total, world-wide consumption of energy.  If we want to reduce it, the correct approach is not to drive it down in the U.S., a move that would send global unemployment soaring, along with poverty around the world, but to dramatically reduce the population in overpopulated nations like Japan, Germany, the U.K., China, Korea and so many other places.  Yes, this would actually allow their per capita consumption of everything to rise, but the net effect would be a significant reduction in total consumption while allowing living standards to rise around the world.   

It’s imperative that we understand the economic consequences of overpopulation if we want to avoid a move toward well-intentioned policies that make a complete mess of the global economy.


15 Responses to Energy Consumption Per Capita: Are Americans Wasteful?

  1. Billy says:

    The fallacy of your argument is the fact that money, labour, and resources spent doing one thing, such as supporting more energy consumption, are money, labour and resources that can be spent doing other things. Particularly as a lot of that consumption is wasted, ie consumption that is unproductive. No matter how you cut it, a light bulb left on in an empty room is wasted energy, whatever the employment of power plant workers. Using less power probably means fewer power plant jobs overall but it just means those prospective power plant workers go and do something else, and the bankers who would have given the power company the loans to build the now unneeded power plants loan their money to some other enterprise.

    Another fallacy of you are indulging in is equating per capita consumption of resources with quality of life. The Germans and Japanese have a quality of life that equals if not exceeds that enjoyed in the United States. And the do so with fewer resources.

    There are penalties associated with living in continetal-sized countries but even that does not explain away all the differences in energy consumption.

    Your point on overpopulation though does stand. Too many people fighting over too few resources in an unsustainable manner.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Billy, I’m certainly not an advocate of wastful consumption. I’ve installed flourescent bulbs, keep them turned off when not in use, and turn down my thermostat to 60 at night. Nevertheless, a certain level of per capita consumption goes hand-in-hand with a high standard of living and quality of life.

      You mentioned the Germans and Japanese. Their quality of life is, in fact, dramatically eroded by their high population densities. The Japanese, for example, live in homes 70% smaller than the average American’s, not because they like living in tiny homes but because, thanks to their gross over-crowding, their isn’t room for anything else. Far fewer own cars, not because they like being jammed onto the trains but because there’s no room for garages and their roads are too packed with traffic. In addition, there is very little room for recreational facilities. In per capita terms, they have far fewer golf courses, fewer parks, own far fewer recreational boats, and have so little arable space left that they can scarcely feed themselves. And things are not much better in Germany. All of this reduced consumption translates directly into reduced employment, making them utterly dependent on manufacturing for export in order to sustain their labor force. Without less densely populated nations like the U.S. to absorb that output (at the expense of our own workers), their unemployment would skyrocket to depression-like levels.

      You used the example of the light bulb. Regardless of whether it was left on needlessly, not only does that light bulb (multiplied millions of times over) represent jobs for power plant workers, it also represents jobs for the people who design and build power plants, the people who manufacture the steel, concrete, electrical equipment and computer systems that go into those plants, the people who maintain those plants, and so on. You say that such displaced workers will simply find something else to do. That’s not a good enough answer. What specifically will they do? What product is being consumed at a higher level in a densely populated society that will absorb those workers? I can tell you that there is none.

      I encourage you to read my book. I assure you that you’ll see things in an entirely different light and appreciate the real consequences of overpopulation. I don’t think you realize it, but you and I are actually “on the same page.” We both see the necessity for reducing total consumption. But my approach accomplishes that while still allowing people to enjoy a high standard of living. Reducing per capita consumption will reduce total consumption too, but will also leave us with high unemployment and poverty.

  2. Eva says:

    I’m not very educated on this, but I’m writing a paper on overpopulation and something keeps reoccuring in my research. All these articles and books keep saying that reducing population and waste will “allow all people to enjoy a high standard of living”…is that Socialist??? Because that’s what I’m thinking. But I could be totally wrong, I just want someone else’s opinion–someone that knew what they were talking about.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Eva, I think the people who are telling you this are confused. Socialism, capitalism, communism and so on – all of these are economic models that have nothing to do with population size. Just as an example, Australia is a country as large as the U.S., but with less than one tenth as many people. Yet, Australia is a democratic, capitalist country just like the United States.

      Perhaps the people who are telling you this believe that the only way to reduce our population and consumption is through the kinds of heavy-handed methods employed by China, their famous “one-child” policy being an example. Of course, China is a communist country – communism being socialism carried to the extreme. But managing the size of our population can be accomplished in far less intrusive ways – through economic incentives, for example. Tax policy could be used to encourage people to choose to have smaller families. My philosophy is that none of us should care how many children any one family chooses, as long as the overall birth rate is reduced to a level needed to stabilize or reduce our population.

      There are a number of countries in western Europe who have declining populations, all of whom are democratic countries and most of whose economies are capitalist, though some employ socialism to varying degrees. Socialism is just an economic model in which the government takes more of a central role in the operation of the economy and in distributing wealth. For example, the kind of national health care provided in a country like Canada is a socialist approach to health care, as opposed to leaving it up to everyone to provide health insurance for themselves, as we do here in the U.S., although that may change. But this doesn’t make Canada a “socialist” country. In general, they are capitalists, just like the U.S.

      The size of a population and whether it is rising or declining has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of economic system that the nation employs. I hope this helps. I’m impressed that you’re concerned with this subject and encourage you to continue to learn more about it. How soon is your paper due? Please let me know if I can help in any other way. Good luck.

  3. Eva says:

    Thanks so much!! That clears a lot of confusion I had on that topic of over consumption. It’s nice to know that there is someone I can ask questions to for this paper and for later reference in life. I’ve always been interested in these subjects of population and such. It’s really cool that you get back to people and honestly answer their questions.
    What you said really makes sense and should greatly improve my stance for that part of the paper. I really wasn’t sure what to believe. My paper isn’t due for another couple of weeks, so if I have any other questions I’ll be sure to ask.
    Thanks Again,

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Glad to be of help, Eva.

      I didn’t really address the “consumption” part of your question, Eva. My book deals with a truly revolutionary theory that links population density to reduced per capita consumption. This theory has major implications for both population management and global trade. For a good understanding of this theory, I strongly encourage you to read the “The Theory Explained” page on this blog. (See the link on the right. Or use this link: Just be aware that this is truly new thinking – something I’m sure that even your teacher hasn’t yet recognized.

  4. neaftEthine says:

    Wonderful web site Will definitely come back soon…

  5. Amy says:

    I can agree with your statement on overpopulation as a catalyst to resource depletion, but the rest of your theory is inconsistent and vague. I will limit myself to two concerns:

    First, if your theory of per-capita energy consumption directly relating to population density was true, then economically developed countries with a smaller population density should theoretically have a larger per-capita consumption rate. On the contrary, some developed and less dense countries such as Australia, Norway, and New Zealand have a smaller rate of consumption per capita. At the same time, Sweden and Ireland, with comparable population densities to the US, also consume less energy per capita. In return, the US generates more waste per capita than any of these countries mentioned (Japan and Germany included).

    The conclusion that “America is wasteful and great energy savings could be realized” is NOT erroneous. Saying so only sugarcoats the severity of our consumption rates and falsely vindicates our gluttony.

    Second, change and improvement is inevitable in our economy, and economic repercussions will always follow. If we always put such emphasis on preserving the market, where would we be today? Probably stuck in the 18th century because the importance of job security reigned over efficiency and innovation. And as for employment vs population density, how can you justify comparing housing demands from two completely different markets? And not to digress, but we Americans screwed ourselves in the first place for demanding and purchasing things (like huge homes) with money we didn’t have.

    “The only constant is change”, and we have always been able to adapt. Less demand for a new power plant does not negate the need for energy. Since we should never put our eggs in one basket, it would be advantageous for one to adjust to the market by easing off the power plant investment and look into opportunities that lie in solar cell or wind turbine manufacturing. Or if employment scarcity is the problem, then maybe we shouldn’t be promoting outsourcing by purchasing imports like BMWs or Priuses.

    Why do we have to portray this era as a sacrifice? Its really about being more efficient, confronting our laziness, and if anything, it offers countless employment opportunities to profit from or even pioneer new efficient innovations.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      You’re looking at different data than I am, Amy, because what I see is that most of the countries you mentioned consume energy on a per capita basis close to that of the U.S., unlike very densely populated nations like Japan and Germany.

      Yes, I am comparing housing demands from two completely different markets and the way in which they differ the most is POPULATION DENSITY! It’s not just Japan. Housing data from around the world shows a direct correlation between population density and the per capita consumption of dwelling space.

      Regarding your next-to-last sentence, you’re exactly right and that’s the whole point I’ve been trying to make – we shouldn’t be importing BMW’s and Priuses from nations like Germany and Japan that are so densely populated that they can’t provide U.S. manufacturers access to an equivalent market.

      Regarding your last sentence, I think the millions of people who have lost their jobs would take great offense at being characterized as being “lazy.” Secondly, my theory has nothing to do with “efficiency.” My concern is crowding ourselves out of the market for products and thus, out of employment. If you’d take a few moments to ponder what over-crowding does to per capita consumption (and thus our quality of life), and not be in such a hurry to come up with retorts, you might start to understand what I’m talking about.

  6. Amy says:

    Yes I agree that we are crowding ourselves out of the market, but I also think that the millions, no, billions of people who live in Japan, Germany, the UK, China, and Korea would take great offence to your reccommendation that the correct approach to resolving world-wide energy consumption is to “dramatically reduce the population” What did you have in mind when you wrote that? I’m sure what you meant to suggest wasn’t genocide, but this crisis is derived from a number of problems, including our own. I’m mostly concerned with the message in your theory, which comes across as a problem out of our control and needs to be dealt with in “those” countries. I think

  7. Amy says:

    cont… sorry. hit the button by mistake. I think the matter of Americans constituting 5% of the world’s population, yet consuming 25% of the world’s energy is not something to put on the back burner while we throw stones at other countries. Again, I agree with your concern and theories of overcrowding, and acknowledge your concern over world-wide consumption of energy. However our per-capita consumption IS part of the problem too.

    In response to your housing comment, my arguement was how you compared Japan’s energy consumption in homes as being 30% reduced from the US market. “Reduced from the US market” is your claim I disagree with. That would be like saying our Vegemite demand is 30% reduced from the Australian market. Two different markets with different demands. Your theory uses overpopulation as the cause. I don’t disagree with that. But who is to say that the housing energy consumption in the US is any better off, much less, grossly inflated?

    In response to your “lazy” interpretation, it was in no way a slam against the unemployed. Our laziness, I should have elaborated on, is our wastefulenss… the preference to drive a car rather than ride a bike or walk if allowed, the extra food, glass, paper, metal and plastic we throw away, the construction waste we trash rather than salvage (yes, 40% of all landfills are from construction waste). I could go on, but this is the laziness I urge we confront.

    Unfortunately, there is not enough time for us to sit and wait for dense populations to ween themselves out. Given our current rate of consumption (and for argument’s sake, lets suppose the entire planet is only as densly populated as the US, and consumes energy at the same rate that we do) we will completely exhaust our resources long before we notice an improvement in the world’s actual population. We NEED to do what we can now with ourselves, and not pass on the burden to another country. Don’t forget that this time also offers so many opportunities to flourish from ingenuity and benefit from taking initiative in a revolutionary movement.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Amy, my book is actually focused on population reduction for the U.S., not those other countries, not that they don’t need it too, but their population management policies are beyond the control of Americans.

      The primary method I proposed in the book for achieving a reduction of population in the U.S. is through dramatic reduction in our ridiculously high rate of both legal and illegal immigration and, secondarily, through economic incentives (like tax policy) designed to reduce the birth rate to about 1.79. Such a program could reduce the U.S. population from its current level of 307 million to about 260 million by the year 2075. So, as you can see, this would be a very gradual reduction. Without such a program, the U.S. population is projected to exceed 450 million by that time.

      Just one more word about the difference between Japanese energy consumption and that in the U.S.: when their homes are only 30% the size of the median American home, their consumption of energy for lighting, heat and air conditioning is reduced proportionately. This accounts for virtually all of the reduced per capita consumption of energy in Japan vs. the U.S. So, it’s not that the Japanese are so much more efficient than the U.S. They simply have a lower standard of living, something we really don’t want to emulate.

  8. Brian says:

    So I’m writing a paper on the conservation of energy by the implementation of walk-able communities in an effort to reduce dependency on personal automobiles. A major concern for this type of planning involves maximizing population density in order to reduce commute distances among others.

    Part of my hypothesis is that as population is forced inward, density rises and efficiency results. Mainly I’m attempting to explain how reducing urban boundaries will effect energy consumption.

    Am I wrong to assume that Suburban areas consume much more energy than an urban area of similar population?
    I consider these; Commute times and distances, the need for utility expansion and the energy use of single homes vs. high-rise construction. (1000 single family homes vs. a 1000 unit apartment building; 1mil sq.ft of single family homes vs. 1mil sq.ft of high-rise residential)

    You seem to propose that in order for efficiency to result then population must decrease so that population density decreases, quality of life increases etc. Besides thinking that population decline is impossible, seems to contradict my logic.

    For example I might say that if the entire population of the united states was forced into the smallest area possible, such as one giant city with little or no outlying residential areas, then there would be a great reduction in time waste, energy waste, not to mention land waste. I consider single family home to be the most wasteful. Utilities would have to cover less distances, transportation grids would be smaller, less costly, etc. How does this effect one’s living standards though.

    You mention Japan’s energy usage vs. home size and how that reflects their standard of living. You also mention the fact that they have less availability to personal automobile, and must therefore use crowded trains. This is the exact result that I am hoping to highlight in my paper in an effort to explain how this actually increases standards of living. I talk about how commute times of three hours or more in order to live in a single family home outside of New York might decrease one’s living standards due to the trade of leisure time for commute time. Spending 30 minutes on a packed high speed train might arguably be more tolerable than spending 3 hours on a congested interstate. If we all live, work, and consume within a small proximity, then efficiency results not only in the form of energy consumption, but in time spent in order to work and consume.

    You do mention that there is less opportunity for recreational areas in Japan such as parks and golf courses, but due to the restriction of land availability. I’d like to suggest that if Japan’s population density was much higher than is currently, then there would be land available to develop for these uses. In a sense, higher population density = more open land, but this only works if density is rising faster than population is growing. If density is a result land shortage, then open space is probably not an option anyways, and density is then a result of population growth, not land conservation. In the US though there is much open space, our population density is rather low, but our open space is being used up more and more through urban sprawl. I suggest that if we were to stop the practice of subdivisions and focus only on increasing the densities of urban centers, then as a whole we’d travel less and have more time to spend as we please, perhaps traveling to some of those open spaces rather than to work or the super-market.

    I suppose the underlying difference in our arguments is that of living standards. You equate living standards with home size, possessions, number of automobile etc. I equate living standards to the time available for leisure vs. that spent working and commuting. Your definition requires decreasing population density, mine increasing.

    I by no means am an expert in any area of this argument, but am just looking for some feedback on the principles of my argument.

  9. Pete Murphy says:

    Brian, if your goal is to reduce “waste,” you’re certainly on the right track – increasing population density will definitely do that. The problem is that what you define as “waste” – greater consumption of products than could be achieved by packing people more closely together – is actually a measure of peoples’ standard of living and quality of life.

    You say that you equate living standards to “the time available for leisure vs. that spent working and commuting.” By that measure, the people of Bangladesh or the crowded slums of India have the highest standard of living of all. They have little or no work to do, no commute, but plenty of “leisure” time on their hands.

    I know this isn’t what you envision. I suspect that what you envision is people living in small but nice apartments, warm and well-fed, with modern entertainment media and easy access to other forms of entertainment and recreation.

    The problem is that such a vision isn’t economically viable. As per capita consumption of products declines, per capita unemployment rises. The two are inextricably linked. By “products” I mean everything, including infrastructure. (For example, the road over which you and I travel is a “product” that each of us “consumes.” It takes labor to build and maintain those roads.)

    I mentioned Bangladesh and India above – nations with very low standards of living and quality of life. There are other examples of densely populated nations that do have high standards of living – Japan and Germany to name a couple. But in every case, such nations are utterly dependent on manufacturing for export to sustain their labor forces at that standard of living, because their domestic consumption is so low, due to over-crowding. This means that they’re dependent on low population density nations like the U.S. to consume their output. This also means that the high unemployment they’d otherwise be forced to bear is shunted onto the American work force. The effect is to spread around and share unemployment.

    I’m not knocking urban vs. suburban vs. rural life. If you think about it, all are necessary. We need cities where sufficient labor force can be pulled together to man factories. And we also need rural communities to provide resources. Just imagine if you tried to crowd everyone together into one dense city, as you’ve proposed. Where would the food come from? Obviously, some people would have to remain in rural areas to man the farms. Other people would have to join them to provide support – infrastructure for processing and transporting all those goods.

    Where would the steel, timber and mineral resources come from to build that city? More people would have to spread out to man the mines, run the steel mills and log the forests. This would require many small, rural communities.

    And suppose everyone in this enormous, dense city wanted to enjoy a round of golf once a week. Every day you’d have to empty that city of one seventh of its population and transport them to the courses. So many courses would be required that most of those people would have to be transported vast distances. Small communities would have to be erected along the way to provide overnight lodging and so forth.

    What I’m getting at is that once you’ve done the mental exercise of crowding everyone into this one vast, dense city – and when you begin to think through what would be required to support this city – you realize that you have to begin emptying the city and spreading the population out again in order to support it.

    But the ultimate problem with extreme population densification is unemployment. Without the consumption of products, unemployment would sky-rocket.

    Brian, I think it’s great that young people are trying to envision a new world with relieved demand on resources and reduced pressure on the environment. The approach you’re advocating is the same approach proposed by many environmentalists. But I think if you consider not just the environmental benefits, but the ramifications for employment as well, you’d discover that the only way for all people of the world to sustainably enjoy a high standard of living and high quality of life is with a smaller population, where per capita consumption of products may be a bit higher than you envision, but total consumption is far less.

    Such population reduction is not at all impossible to achieve but, to be achieved in an ethical, non-coercive manner, it would no doubt take a long time, but then so too would the kind of population densification you’ve envisioned. (The primary method I propose is to reduce the birth rate through economic incentives – tax policy being just one example.) But it has to be done and the sooner we start, the sooner we can begin raising living standards for everyone while reducing strain on the environment.

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