We need to think about less, not more

Rather than spending borrowed money to project military power in the Middle East, we could spend billions to mobilize domestic energy efficiency.  The money could be spent at home. Jobs would be created at home.



September 16, 2021 - 10:07 AM

Afghanistan: Is there anything we can do beyond the Finger-Pointing Olympics we’ve been witnessing?

Can we learn something?

We know one thing for certain. The entire Middle East is a long tunnel with no cheese.

It was a long tunnel yesterday. It is a long tunnel today. It will be a long tunnel tomorrow.

It has been so for centuries, not decades. Name the period, and Western culture — not just us Americans — can be noted only for its delusional, self-righteous and destructive approach to different cultures.

Over the past 20 years, according to a study Brown University study, the combined cost of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been $6.4 trillion, a mind-boggling figure. Other figures differ, of course, but the cost has always been in the trillions.

To put the trillions in some perspective:

$6.4 trillion would provide Social Security benefits for all retirees, retiree spouses and children of retired workers as well as all disabled workers for more than six years. Yes, years of income for millions of Americans.

It would have done much the same for Medicare, Medicaid and Affordable Care Act subsidies — pay for about six years of benefits. Again, years of benefits for millions of Americans.

SO IT’S TIME to ask some questions.

Could we have done anything differently?

I believe the answer is yes.

Then why didn’t we?

Because we’re stuck in a thinking habit.

We are literally wired to think about more, not less. Equally important, that change in thinking would have needed to start earlier than Sept. 11, 2001.

When, you ask?

Not long after the first OPEC oil embargo in 1973.

That’s when we had an opportunity to make a simple decision. We could have found a way to consume less oil, not more. We could have decided that we would not be held hostage by an unstable area with massive oil reserves.

By 1976, we even had a blueprint for how to do it.

That’s when Amory Lovins’ paper “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken” was published in World Affairs. In it, he demonstrated that the least expensive energy we could find was in energy efficiency, not more drilling. The lowest cost “reserves,” he demonstrated, weren’t in new oil and gas wells, tar sands or more strip mining for coal. The reserves were in new energy-efficient trains, trucks and cars. They were to be found in remodeled houses, office buildings, improved industrial processes and more efficient distribution methods.

Rather than spending borrowed money to project military power in the Middle East, we could spend billions to mobilize domestic energy efficiency. The money would be spent at home. Jobs would be created at home. American workers and consumers would enjoy the benefits.

Windmills at the Prairie Queen Wind Farm north of Moran.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

What’s not to like about that?


Lovins, a physicist and MacArthur genius grant recipient, was quickly treated as a deranged tree-hugger. The oil and gas industry, intent on drilling more, criticized his idea as naïve and unrealistic. The auto industry, which had absolutely nothing to offer that would reduce energy consumption, agreed.

Result? America doubled down on more. We took the easy, obvious path. We chose to drill more and spend an ever-increasing fortune protecting our access to oil reserves in the Middle East.

It was a colossal mistake.

“The issue,” Lovins told me 20 years ago, “isn’t the supply of energy, it’s about the delivery of hot showers and cold beer in the cheapest way.” (He said that, by the way, from his house in Old Snowmass, Colo., a structure so energy efficient that it set a world altitude record for passive solar growth of bananas.)

The difference between Lovins and conventional thinking is that Lovins saw an elegant solution using less. Most of us, including our leaders, think about everything in terms of more. The good news is that we can learn our way out of this. Even better, we can learn about it from American researchers in cognition. “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less” is a brilliant little book. In it, Leidy Klotz, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, explains how our culture forecloses thinking about solutions with less. Instead, it fosters thinking about solving problems with more.

Appropriately, Subtract is a short and easy read. It has just 254 pages of text. But it also has 33 pages of reference notes for deep divers.