Energy, Development, and Quality of Life


[1] “Developed countries” are characterized by large formal economies, a significant use of modern technology, an increasing ability to transform natural environments, and increasingly, a homogenized, “Western” worldview. Such development has relied upon the increasing access to and use of high quality reliable energy, typically in the form of fossil fuels and electricity.[1] Cars, electric lighting, industrial agriculture, and computers, accompanied by the societal revolutions they aid have developed alongside the increasing use of high quality energy. These ramifications of development and energy use are often seen as unambiguously positive ways to improve the quality of human life. Yet development and the energy use that accompanies it also contribute significantly to environmental and cultural degradation. Using oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy, whether as fuel or to produce electricity, destroys mountains through mining, creates toxic and radioactive waste, pollutes air, water, and soil, and contributes to acid rain and climate change.[2] Such negative effects of energy use are felt most significantly by poor and minority people and nations even though their access to energy and its benefits is limited.[3] Additionally, energy use and the development it allows are also often accompanied by an increasingly consumer-driven, technological, Western culture in which the idea that more is better may overshadow existing cultural norms and ideals.

[2] The simultaneous promise and peril of development are often pitted against each other as people formulate recommendations about energy and development. Some argue that developing nations should be allowed and encouraged to develop just as the now-developed nations did in the past. Advocates of this approach maintain that developing countries should not be kept from the advantages of development because others have developed in ways that have polluted the earth. On the other hand, many focus on the fact that human activities are already having a tremendous adverse effect on the environment and culture. They recognize that if all people in the world developed to the point of using technology and resources at rates of developed countries such as the United States then all cultures and environments would be harmed even more.[4] Thus, they support limits to development.

[3] Yet discussions of development and energy use do not have to result in polarized stalemates. A careful assessment of the benefits and harms of energy use, relying on studies about energy and quality of life combined with ethical principles such as responsibility, justice, and frugality, can yield a technically relevant, moral response to energy development in which all have affordable access to energy services.

[4] In order to understand how energy, development, and quality of life are related, we must know something about how people use energy. People in developed nations such as the United States, Canada, and Australia use tremendous amounts of energy as they drive cars; heat, light, and cool homes; and run industries.[5] Indeed, energy in these countries is often so cheap, available, and abundant that only a sudden shortage or price spike (the oil crisis of the 1970s, the oil price spikes of the mid 2000s), or relevance to hot environmental or political issues (climate change, war in the Middle East, fear of nuclear power after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl) causes their citizens to give energy any thought. The tendency to think about energy only in a crisis is reinforced by the fact that unless people directly profit from the energy industry, there is no reason for them to desire gallons of oil, or tons of coal in and of themselves.[6] People want the services – the heat, light, computing power, and transportation – that they can get from energy use and do not care how they obtain these services as long as it is easy and affordable. Yet this unthinking relationship to easily accessible and affordable high quality energy is not the case throughout the world.


[5] As of 2002, 2.3 billion people, over one-third of the world’s population, relied on traditional biomass for their primary fuel, and at least 1.6 billion did not have access to electricity.[7] In other words, more than 2 billion people in the world use wood, twigs, grasses, and dung as fuel to cook their food and to provide a little light and heat for their homes. Given rising populations and rapidly deforested areas, people, typically women and children, must spend several hours a day (up to six hours per day in parts of sub-Saharan Africa) collecting fuel to meet their most basic needs. [8] Improving affordable, reliable access to high quality energy carriers such as electricity, gasoline, natural gas, and kerosene decreases the amount of time people expend in gathering fuel, freeing up time for education and entrepreneurial activities. Increasing access to high quality energy also decreases indoor air pollution from solid fuel stoves, an important contribution to increasing health and life expectancy. Otherwise respiratory illnesses from indoor air pollution will continue to be the fourth largest health risk in developing countries, killing an estimated 1.6 million people per year worldwide. [9]

[6] Given the apparent links between the use of high quality energy sources and health, education, and entrepreneurial activities in developing and developed countries, researchers including Amulya Reddy, Valclav Smil, and P.M Dekker et al. have studied the relationship between per capita energy use or electricity consumption and a variety of basic quality of life measures. They have found that as the per capita electricity or energy use in a country rises so does life expectancy, literacy, education, GDP, and access to clean water. At the same time, infant and maternal mortality rates decrease.[10] However, increases in per capita energy use or electricity consumption past a certain point demonstrate have had diminishing returns for the basic quality of life measures listed above. Different authors identify these inflection points slightly differently, but all place them in a range of 145 to 1620kgoe.[11] Within this range of energy use, countries typically have infant mortality rates below 20 deaths per 1000 live births and female life expectancies above 75.[12] Thus, below this turning point, with current technologies and patterns of use, increasing per capita energy use typically indicates increasing quality of life. At rates of consumption beyond this level, however, little benefit with respect to these basic quality of life measures is gained.

[7] Though these studies indicate that there is a relationship between energy or electricity use and some quality of life measures we must be careful not to assign such studies too much weight. After all, past trends do not guarantee future results. Additionally, we must note that these relationships rely on general trends as monitored by the average per capita energy or electricity use and average measures of quality of life. These statistics do not indicate that all peoples’ lives are improved in countries with high energy use or that energy use is the only factor in any observed improvement. If a small percentage of the population uses tremendous amounts of energy while the rest has no or little access to high quality energy or if a few energy-intensive industries such as aluminum smelting are located in a country, these significant energy consumers could affect the rate of energy consumption without significantly improving the lives of the “average individual.” Discrimination, whether intentional or unintentional, as well as significant disparities in energy resources between regions may also contribute to vast discrepancies in energy use and quality of life within any one country that will be masked by average data. Using averages will not reveal internal injustice.

[8] Studies of energy use and quality of life can also be critiqued because they rely on a narrow vision of quality of life. They do not assess relationships with family, friends, the environment, or one’s coworkers. They do not monitor spiritual health, political freedom, or the ability to participate in political structures. Additionally, such studies do not ask whether people want the cultural and environmental changes that accompany energy use and development.

[9] Despite these limitations to quality of life studies, the basic trends they monitor (infant mortality, life expectancy, educational rates etc.) are valued by a vast number of individuals and societies worldwide. Thus, energy and quality of life studies can provide a general picture of the way energy use shapes human societies: energy use, up to certain levels, enables improvements in these basic measures of quality of life. Increasing energy use beyond these levels yields diminishing returns. Even such a broad vision, when paired with knowledge about the detrimental effects of energy use can be helpful during decision-making about energy use. After all, such an approach is significantly more nuanced and better aligned with reality than a “more is always better” outlook or studies of development that overlook energy use altogether, the two major alternatives to this understanding of energy and quality of life.

[10] Though studies of the relationship between energy, development, and quality of life can help determine which decisions need to be made about energy use and which factors are technically relevant, they are not sufficient to determine which energy outcomes are best. To determine the level of risk from environmental and societal consequences of energy use one is willing to bear and the level of benefits one wishes to achieve, one must rely on one’s ethical priorities.

[11] To be effective, ethics must be relatable to, be shaped by, and influence one’s understanding and experience of the world. Thus, one should use ethical principles that are grounded in one’s religious and cultural tradition and that resonate with the situation in which they are to be applied.[13] While there are many ethical principles that could be applied to energy use,[14] the principles of responsibility, justice, and frugality resonate with Christian ethics and are particularly relevant to energy use. Let us look to each in turn to explore how they may inform our thinking about energy use.

[12] Responsibility is implied in a number of Christian concepts including sin, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Though humans are limited by the conditions of existence as imperfect beings and bound up in social structures that influence and constrain their actions, Christians believe that humans are responsible for what they do and for what they do not do. Thus, humans are responsible for using energy in ways that result in mountaintop removal, acid rain, and climate change, whether or not they recognize that their energy use has these effects. Humans are also responsible for avoiding practices of energy conservation and efficiency as well as for using more destructive rather than more benign energy sources. Humans, particularly those in developed nations, are responsible for sending the byproducts of their energy use elsewhere and for ignoring the fact that so many do not have affordable access to energy services. All of these actions and inactions may be classified as sins because of their harm to other people and the environment; because they reinforce the idea that people, rather than God, are in charge; and because they dishonor God as creator.

[13] The Lutheran tradition holds that though humans are responsible for their sins they cannot do anything to merit forgiveness; God’s grace is necessary. From this grace should spring good actions. Yet, humans will certainly get things wrong as they try to address the complicated issues of energy and development because they do not know enough, because they cannot know enough about such complex systems, because they are weak willed or too bold, or because they face resistance to responsible energy use. Despite this almost certain probability of falling short of ideal actions about energy use, Lutherans believe that humans are responsible for their actions and have the hope of forgiveness and better actions because of God’s love.

[14] Christian responsibility to think about and work to find solutions to developmental and energy problems is not only rooted in a general sense of being responsible for decisions and actions. Biblical injunctions to care for the poor, widows, orphans, and outcasts are also a call to a responsibly. Similarly, the command to care for the earth as stewards is a sign of responsibility. Connecting these responsibilities to energy and development, it seems that Christians are called to limit the negative consequences of energy use for humans and other biota, to care for those who are vulnerable to or harmed by the ramifications of energy use, and to ensure that the benefits of energy use can be enjoyed by all.

[15] Caring for others is not only important because of one’s own responsibility but also because of the importance of and needs of the other. In Biblical times, people in need were allowed to gather the grain missed by the harvesters in a process known as gleaning. Through this tradition and others they were able to have access to what was necessary for life. If, today, it is understood that energy services are intimately connected to the ability to cook, regulate indoor temperatures, decrease indoor air pollution, and increase life expectancy, infant survival, and education rates, and we as Christians believe that all should have access to these basic experiences then it is implied that access to basic energy services is a matter of justice. Justice does not require that all are able to use as much energy as they want, but rather that all are able to utilize the energy required to meet their basic needs.[15]

[16] Many contemporary theories of environmental justice maintain that justice does not only involve distribution; it also involves enabling people to participate in making decisions that affect them.[16] The ELCA’s social statement on the environment, “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice,” maintains that all living things are involved in covenant with God and thus are in relationship to God and one another. These relationships, along with the idea of justice entails that all “are entitled to be heard and and to have their interests considered when decisions are made.”[17] Thus, people should be able to choose the extent to which they want energy and development. They should also be able to influence decision-making about others’ energy use insofar as it affects them.[18]

[17] When people 1) prioritize responsibility and justice, 2) recognize that the actions of individuals and single countries may have an enormous impact on others, and 3) acknowledge that the earth’s resources and capacity to assimilate waste are finite, the ethical principle of frugality gains importance. This principle requires that people recognize when they have enough or more than enough. Based on this realization, people should either keep consumption constant or consume less either by reducing the ways energy is used or increasing the efficiency of its use so that others may survive. However, frugality is not merely an ecological principle borne of crisis. Religious people around the world have long recognized that too much attachment to things can distract one from what really matters. In Christian language, such attachment is a form of idolatry which can distract one from God and the sort of relationships and lifestyle expected by God.

[18] Relying on these ethical principles of frugality, justice, and responsibility, we can assess the relationship of energy, development, and quality of life. In this context, frugality suggests that people limit energy consumption for their own physical and spiritual benefit as well as to aid humans and biota and to respect God. Justice implies that people should have access to energy to meet their basic needs and have the ability to shape decisions about actions that affect them. Responsibility implies that all must take ownership of the implications of their energy use and act to limit their negative consequences.

[19] To follow these principles together, those who consume lots of energy need to decrease consumption while those without basic energy access will require the ability to consume more in order to achieve basic energy services such as cooked food, heating, lighting, and transportation. Now, such a recommendation is certainly not new, but pairing this insight with empirical studies may lead to clearer goals for energy use. Remember the thresholds beyond which increased energy or electricity use does little to improve basic measures of quality of life? What if these thresholds became targets for energy use? After all, they provide a benchmark for what can already be done with existing technical and social structures.

[20] Thus, countries with high quality of life and low energy use could serve as models for countries with high energy consumption rates and high quality of life as well as for countries with low quality of life and low energy consumption.[19] Of course, such targets will not solve the problem of distribution within countries and will not necessarily be environmentally or social sustainable so additional technical studies and ethical reflection will be needed to refine such targets over time and to determine the best ways to reach them. Refining energy use targets will also be needed if the same quality of life could be achieved with even less energy use through technological development or lifestyle changes.

[21] Some Swiss groups already advocate for such goals through the 2000 W society program piloted in Basel. These goals already inspire technological development, infrastructure change, and policy reformation.[20] Certainly, such goals will be difficult to attain given entrenched development and energy use policies, infrastructure, and the limits of knowledge about the links between energy, development, quality of life, and ethical priorities. However, such an approach, if accompanied by increases in efficiency and decreases in the use of greenhouse gas intensive energy sources will help limit the environmental burden of energy use and development, encourage justice with respect to basic quality of life measures, and help people focus on what is ultimately important.

[1] High quality energy services are those that contain a great deal of energy is a small volume, making it possible to efficiently transport and store them. Electricity is typically included in this category though it is not a fuel like coal or oil.

[2] Kristin Shrader-Fréchette, ed. Nuclear Energy and Ethics (Geneva: WCC Publications,1991); IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Summary Report for Policy Makers," (Paris: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007); Jeff Godell, Big Coal: The Dirty Secredt Behind America's Energy Future (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007).

[3] Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); D. O'Rourke and S. Connolly, "Just Oil? The Distribution of Environmental and Social Impacts of Oil Production and Consumption," Annual Review of Environment and Resources 28 (2003).

[4] This debate was, for example, a major point of disagreement in the development of the Kyoto Protocol.

[5] "International Energy Statistics: Total Primary Energy Consumption ", (Energy Information Administration (EIA), 2009).

[6] Of course people care about the cost of these fuels and electricity, but they would not care about the cost if they didn’t want energy services. It is the services they want, not the fuels themselves.

[7] UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), "Energizing the Millennium Development Goals: A Guide to Energy's Role in Reducing Poverty," (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2005).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] P. M. Dekker, P. Meisen, and A. B. Bruton, "The Geni Model: The Interconnection of Global Power Resources to Obtain an Optimal Global Sustainable Energy Solution," Simulation 64, no. 4 (1995): 247, 50; Amulya .K.N. Reddy, "Energy Technologies and Policies for Rural Development," in Energy for Sustainable Development: A Policy Agenda, ed. T.B. Johansson and J. Goldemberg (New York: UN Development Programme, 2002), 117-20; V. Smil, Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 103-04.

[11] Estimates differ because authors analyze slightly different data sets and because they desire different minimum levels of quality of life.

A kgoe, or “kilogram of oil equivalent” is a unit of energy equivalent to the amount of energy obtained by burning one kilogram of oil. Energy scholars often use kgoe as a standard unit with which to measure the aggregated energy use of regions or nations. Utilizing a standard unit measure makes it easier to compare energy use over time or between countries, but does rely on assumptions about standard amounts of energy obtained from fuels such as oil or coal even though the composition of the fuel itself, as well as the process by which its energy is harnessed, can impact the amount of energy obtained from any one individual unit of fuel. One must always trade off some level of accuracy if one is to aggregate large amounts of data in cost-effective ways. For a fantastic summary of the various units used in energy accounting see Godfrey Boyle, Bob Everett, and Janet Ramage, eds., Energy Systems and Sustainability (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2003), 57-66, 597-600.

[12] At this level of energy use, the Human Development Index, a way to aggregate basic quality of life measures including life expectancy, infant mortality, education and literacy rates and GDP that ranges from 0 (low) to 1 (high) is between 0.4 and O.8. Smil, Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 103-04.

[13] Ideally, one would recognize the ways ones ethics resonate with other religious and philosophical traditions to enable cooperation between diverse groups of people, a necessary condition to address the enormous questions of energy and development. The length of this article does not enable rigorous interreligious ethical discussion, thought the principles discussed here do resonate with ethics based in a number of religious and philosophical schools.

[14] See, for example Louke van Wensveen, Dirty Virtues: The Emergence of Ecological Virtue Ethics (New York: Humanity Books, 2000); The Earth Charter Commission, "The Earth Charter,"

[15] Some may argue that since high quality energy resources and the lifestyle they enable have only been available for a few decades that such resources cannot be categorized as necessary for life. I agree that connecting energy to quality of life is a new trend but do not find its newness reason to exclude it from discussion for a number of reasons. First, energy to cook food and heat homes has been a human issue for thousands of years whether or not people recognize it as a subject of study or ethical concern. Secondly, given the incredible increase in human population, the tremendous population density in cities, and current infrastructure, many human societies today would collapse without high quality energy services. Such collapse would lead to massive disease, civil unrest, and death. Additionally, communication technologies and the life saving and prolonging technologies made possible by reliable high-quality energy services have raised new questions about quality of life from what community means to when and how long a person should live. The uneven distribution of such possibilities makes them even more worthy of study. Finally, we face future shortages of fossil fuels. Over time, reserves in the earth will diminish and those that are left will be more economically and technically challenging to obtain. The quality of available resources will also diminish as the highest quality resources are extracted first. Thus, justice for future generations entails that we diminish our use of these nonrenewable resources so future generations can have an opportunity to benefit from their use. For all of these reasons energy is linked to quality of life today.

[16] Robert Melchior Figueroa, "Environmental Justice," in The Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, ed. J. Baird Callicott and Robert Frodeman (Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA/Gale Cengage Learning, 2008).

[17] Division for Church in Society Department for Studies, "Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice," (Chicago, IL: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1993).

[18] To date, the idea of participatory justice has been articulated best by activists and environmental philosophers. Religious ethicists are slowly beginning to wrestle with this concept. While Christian ethicists have often been hesitant to unilaterally endorse particular economic systems and participatory justice is firmly linked to democratic theories, it seems to be an important element of justice that Christian ethicists should prioritize at least because it can help to ensure other forms of justice.

[19] Differences in climate, infrastructure, and country size will complexify cross-national comparison of energy use but will not preclude the possibility of gaining insight about effective energy conservation techniques and lifestyles.

[20] These goals are based on average energy use of all countries rather than the quality of life possible with certain energy levels given contemporary infrastructure, but both methods arrive at similar targets. Association of European Local Authorities Promoting Local Sustainable Energy Policies, "Geneva Gets Closer to the 2000 Watts Society,"; Thorsten Schulz, F. et al., "Intermediate Steps Towards the 2000 W Society in Switzerland: An Energy-Economic Scenario Analysis," Energy Policy 36, no. 4 (2008); Roland Stulz and Tanja Lutolf, "Imagine Seminar," Novatlantis, Association of European Local Authorities Promoting Local Sustainable Energy Policies,



© November 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 11