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A Postscript: Using Ethical Principles to Guide Decision-Making about Energy Use

[1] In addition to highlighting the importance of reducing energy use among those who use the most and ensuring that all have affordable access to high quality energy, the principles of responsibility, justice, and frugality can, when paired with knowledge of contemporary energy use, also aid decision-making about how to reduce energy use. At least four realms of responsibility exist with respect to energy decision-making. Within each of these realms, decisions and actions should be influenced by frugality and justice.

[2] First is the realm of recurring, relatively small actions which are done so often by so many people that they have significant cumulative effects. For example, turning out the lights when one leaves a room for an hour or turning down the thermostat when one leaves home for work on a cold day do not conserve incredible amounts of energy or prevent significant injustices caused by such energy use in and of themselves. However, when such actions become habits and when many people develop such habits, these small energy-saving actions can have tremendous effects. For instance, in 2007, by switching to compact florescent light bulbs, Americans saved enough electricity to light a city the size of Washington, D.C. for more than thirty years.[1] Such cumulative savings decrease the need for more power plants, the amount of air, water, and land pollution, the number of ecosystems damaged by coal mining, and the number and severity of health problems caused by energy use, among other effects.

[3] On one hand, such small actions as turning down a thermostat, using a compact florescent light bulb, combining errands into one trip a week, or carpooling to work are fairly easy. These actions do not take much time or money. On the other hand, such actions can be incredibly difficult to implement because they involve the formation of new habits, whether wearing a sweater in the winter, or shopping once a week. Forming new habits takes time, often a couple of months. The challenge of these “small” changes highlights the depth of human responsibility for energy use; that we are responsible for the injustice of the negative outcomes of our energy use every time we use a light or drive a car. Being frugal is one way to acknowledge this responsibility and to take responsibility for our actions.

[4] While frugality is often presented as endless deprivation of things one really wants, many ways to be frugal with respect to energy use do not significantly decrease the comforts of one’s life. For example, a friend of mine bought a house a couple of years ago. After moving in she and her husband found that their entryway had a light fixture with numerous 100 Watt light bulbs in it. Realizing that this amount of light was totally unnecessary, since they were not going to read, apply makeup, or do fine handcrafts in the entryway, they took the bulbs out of the fixture and installed one sixty Watt bulb in their place. Now the entryway has sufficient light for removing coats, putting on shoes, and greeting guests but flipping the switch for this light fixture no longer wastes electricity. My friends’ actions with respect to their entryway lighting illustrate aspects of responsibility found in all levels of energy responsibility: being aware of situations in which less energy could be used and doing something about it.

[5] The next level of responsible action arises only once in a while but these sorts of actions have long term effects. For instance, decisions about the fuel efficiency of one’s vehicle, the size of one’s home, the efficiency of major appliances, and the distance one lives from work, are made very rarely yet significantly impact the way one uses energy for years to come. When one buys a house dozens of miles from work in an area with little to no public transportation one will end up driving every day. When one buys a house with a couple of extra rooms to impress the neighbors or to house that once a year weekend guest, one will heat, cool, and maintain these rooms for as long as one lives in the house. These sorts of decisions, though made in a relatively short amount of time, carry with them a huge responsibility because their ramifications will constrain, if not determine, our future patterns of energy use.

[6] These first two realms of responsibility are rather individualistic but responsibility, justice, and frugality with respect to energy use are not merely individual affairs. We are also responsible for the energy used to make and transport all of the products that we use and to perform services we purchase (often called the embodied energy of a product). Thus, calling attention to excessive energy use and advocating for frugality in businesses is also our responsibility. Such actions may include encouraging recycling or the use of recycled materials, asking that hotels only change linens daily for patrons staying more than one night upon request, or pointing out inefficient use of energy such as when freezer cases in grocery stores have no doors. Consumer demand has led to a wide variety of industry changes in recent years including the rise of organic food, green cleaning products, solar and wind powered stores, products made from recycled materials, and reduced, recyclable packaging. Encouraging such actions, whether we are consumers, stockholders, or employees is our responsibility for these actions do contribute to the energy we, and others, use.

[7] Consumer pressure, however important, is not a sufficient solution to reduce energy use. Some businesses and individuals will not be willing or able to reduce their energy use of their own volition. To ensure that increasing energy efficiency and conservation is widespread in order to reach energy justice, decrease environmental damage, and encourage focus on what is most important, new legislation is needed and must be enforced. Citizens in democracies have considerable responsibility for ensuring that legislation limits environmental and social consequences of fuel mining or drilling, refining and processing, and the eventual use of such fuels. Legislation must also ensure that all have affordable access to energy services to meet their basic needs and that people have the opportunity to contribute their knowledge and opinions about energy decision-making that will affect them. Such laws should include incentives for conservation and efficiency (tax credits for weatherizing homes are one such example) as well as fines or other punishments for profligate and environmentally destructive energy use. Without such legislation, many individuals, communities, and firms may not prioritize responsible, just, and frugal energy use. Thus, we have a responsibility to be informed advocates about energy policy, both domestically and internationally.

[8] Our responsibility does not, however, stop with the creation of legislation. Laws must also be enforced, and enforced consistently among all populations. Various studies have found that industries are often not in compliance with federal environmental regulations and that the racial background of people in an area is often correlated with both the enforcement of and severity of fines for code violations.[2] Knowing this historical situation, and assuming the importance of all people, people have a responsibility to ensure that legislation is just and is enforced in a just manner so that all may be protected.

[9] Thus, taking one’s responsibility for energy use seriously entails challenging existing business practices and laws and ensuring that they are revised and carried out in frugal, just ways; developing ethically and technically sound habits of personal energy use; and carefully making decisions that will impact energy use for years to come. Following these principles will require thoughtful attention, hard work, and revising our lifestyles. It will also take significant support from our communities and the recognition that humans alone cannot accomplish such goals. When these ethical principles are applied in such ways they can be helpful guides to responsible, frugal, and just energy use that will enable people to have a good quality of life while recognizing the limits of consumption.

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: For Consumers," U.S. Department of Energy,


[2] For discussions of some such studies see O'Rourke and Connolly, "Just Oil? The Distribution of Environmental and Social Impacts of Oil Production and Consumption."  




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