More helpful, I believe, is research from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology identifying the amount of energy that every one of us must stick to if we’re to keep the planet hospitable: precisely 2,000 watts.
As a rate of consumption, 2,000W would keep a two-bar electric fire running constantly, or 20 not-very-eco incandescent light bulbs.
(Or, if you prefer, it’s the power you’d get from 22 humans trudging endlessly on a treadmill.)
Watts are like the rate at which water flows out of a tap. The total energy used is measured by timing the flow (how long the tap has been running at that rate).
This gives the total amount of water in the bath, or rather the watt-hours for which your utility company bills you.
Thus, over 24 hours, consumption at a rate of 2,000W totals 48,000 watt-hours (48 kilowatt-hours or kWh).
In a year, as I’ve tried to explain rather desperately to my wife, that comes to 17,520kWh.
Twenty light bulbs doesn’t sound much, considering that it must cover all our needs, in every part of our lives: not only energy we consume at home but our individual share of infrastructure such as road-building and sewage, and the energy that goes into everything we buy.
So if you want to run the oven or drive a car, you must turn off several light bulbs.
In theory, it shouldn’t be difficult, because 2,000W is more or less the amount the average human uses already.
But that’s an average. In practice, consumption varies enormously.
The typical Bangladeshi uses just 200W. Across Europe the figure is about 5,400W. In the U.S it’s a stonking 11,400W.
The Swiss scientists believe that 2,000W is sustainable only as long as the whole world sticks to it. The disparity between nations is unsustainable, they say.
It’s a basic matter of fairness.
And increasing energy use in developing countries beyond 2,000W a head would be ecologically catastrophic – so we must learn to use less.
The head of the Swiss federal department of the environment, transport, energy and communications, Moritz Leuenberger, concedes that the target seems, initially, unrealistic.
“But the necessary technology already exists.”
The director of the overall project, architect and urban planner Roland Stulz, emphasizes that the 2,000W Society need not be a hard place.
“It’s not about starving, it’s not having less comfort or fun.”
Indeed, he tells me one of his colleagues has already attained the 2,000W life.
“It’s about a creative approach to the future.”
Yay! Creative! Like me with my manual typewriter…
The three big areas of energy use are food, transport and the home, each accounting for roughly a third of our needs.
On the first two I have already made progress.