Three Cheers for Holiday Lights

December 24, 2003 • Commentary

Environmental activists usually critical of electrified America must have mixed emotions this time of the year. Though it is a season of good cheer and goodwill toward all, it is also a time of conspicuous energy consumption. To many people, America the Beautiful is at her best in December when so much of the nation is illuminated by billions of tiny stringed light bulbs. Holiday lighting is a great social offering — a positive externality, in the jargon of economics — given by many to all.

While a few energy doomsayers such as Paul Ehrlich rile against “garish commercial Christmas displays,” few of today’s headline grabbers (Arianna Huffington, where are you?) have attempted to stir up debate over the generator‐​hours devoted to making the season glow. Indeed, holiday lighting seems a dazzling exception to the activists’ goal of reducing discretionary energy usage.

But if holiday energy guzzling can be overlooked, why not excuse outdoor heating and cooling, one‐​switch centralized lighting, and instant‐​on appliances that “leak” electricity, not to mention SUVs? Prancing around to turn on individual lights or waiting for the photocopier to warm up wastes the scarcest and one truly depleting resource: A person’s time.

Known world oil reserves are more than 20 times greater now than they were when record keeping began in the 1940s; world gas reserves are almost four times greater than they were in the 1960s; world coal reserves have risen fourfold since 1950. Transient developments, often political, can drive supplies down and prices up, but the raw mineral resource base is abundant — and expanding in economic terms thanks to an inexhaustible supply of human ingenuity and exploratory capital.

Record energy consumption has been accompanied by improving air quality. Urban air quality is a third better today than in 1970. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that air emissions of the criteria pollutants declined by 25 percent, as energy usage increased by 150 percent. Further air emission reductions are expected, but they will not be accomplished by forcing higher prices or inconvenience on consumers. Future reductions will be accomplished with market incentives, technological improvement, and regulation based on sound science, not alarmism.

Should good citizens think twice about holiday lighting, given global warming and other suspected climate changes supposedly caused by increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide? Hardly. A moderately warmer, wetter world, whether natural or anthropogenic, such as experienced in the 20th century, is a better world. Carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels “greens” the biosphere through the well‐​documented carbon fertilization effect. But most importantly, the wealth created from affordable, plentiful energy provides the primary means for societies to improve the environment. In the final analysis, wealth produces environmental health, which explains why increasing energy usage and environmental improvement have gone hand in hand in the Western world.

There is much to be thankful for this holiday season with our energy economy. But thoughts about the less fortunate should be with us, too. The World Energy Council estimates that 1.6 billion people lack electricity for lighting, heating, cooling, or cooking. A Christmas tree for us is likely to be firewood for those living in energy poverty. For fully a fourth of the world’s population, there could be no greater holiday gift than affordable electricity, explaining why the developing world has flatly rejected proposals from environmental elites to forsake future energy usage in the quixotic quest to “stabilize climate.”

Energy consumption is good — for comfort, convenience, and even celebration. May one and all in good conscience enliven this holiday season with lights aplenty. With sources of conventional fuels steadily expanding and energy technologies rapidly advancing, Americans can look forward to even more energetic celebrations and shared goodwill in the holiday seasons ahead.

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