Are we really suffering from a shortage of electricity or other energy? Should we be rationed? The moral answer is yes if we are suffering an energy shortage and no if we are only imagining onemuses Rabbi Lapin.
This would not be the first time that we have imagined an energy shortage. Until the early 18th century, colonial homes were heated mostly by burning wood. Forests were vanishing and the rapidly growing colonies were running out of fire wood. Eliminate immigration and ration firewood, was the call of the day, until they found and began burning coal. As with anything new and untried, coal brought dangers. But these were soon overcome and by 1840 America was deriving energy from a million tons of coal a year.
William Jevons, an economics professor at University College, London, became famous on account of a paper he published in 1865. It was entitled The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines. He predicted that British prosperity would end within fifty years when the nation ran out of coal and recommended an industrial slowdown in order to conserve what coal was left. We are just about finished with the year 2005 and Britain is still mining and burning coal.
America used to depend on whale oil for lighting. During the early 19th century, pundits warned that since whales were being harvested at an ever increasing rate, America would soon go dark. They recommended turning out all lights no later than ten o’clock in order to conserve what whale oil was left. They were right about running out of whale oil, but they were wrong about America going dark. In 1859 a railroad conductor called Edwin Drake had struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Lanterns started burning paraffin instead of whale oil until Edison’s electricity lit American cities.
Since the 1970s we have heard much about exhausting the world’s petroleum reserves. Just how soon has been debated, but nobody doubts that the amount of oil is ultimately limited, just as whale oil was. Should we therefore advise petroleum conservation as they once did with firewood, whale oil, and coal?