The increasing consumption of energy by the world's rich countries could soon threaten the very existence of the planet, according to nuclear physicist Hans Peter Durr.
Professor Durr, director of the Max-Planck Institute for Physics, said in an interview at the State of the World Forum in San Francisco yesterday (October 27) that Europeans were using four times and Americans nearly seven times the amount of energy per person than the earth could sustain.
A former board member of Greenpeace, Dr. Durr has developed the concept of "energy slaves" to illustrate the drain on the world's resources by the West.
"I divide energy into manpower, and a manpower is a quarter horse-power. If you make a calculation you will find that behind us there are 130 billion energy slaves working for the world's six billion people.
"So in a way you have 130 billion virtual people jumping around. And that is the difficulty," Dr. Durr said.
He said the question people ought to be asking was not how many people the earth could sustain, but how many energy slaves it could sustain.
" I have made a calculation of what is the limit you have to observe so as not to destroy the bio-system, and you come to a number which is about 90 billion energy slaves.
"The world's population is six billion, so that means every person is only actually entitled to 15 energy slaves. If you look at the problem, you will find it is really unfairly distributed. America for example has 110 energy slaves per person, Europe has 60, China has eight and a Bangladeshi has one. So you have really to get birth control on energy slaves."
Dr. Durr calculated that the world was presently home to about 130 billion energy slaves - 40 billion more than the world could sustain.
" People in the rich industrialized north see too many people on this earth and point south, but we should be pointing north. Which doesn't mean that the birth rate isn't a problem, but we have to leave it to the south to find the solution. In Europe we should be concentrating on getting down to 15 energy slaves per-person."
"Energy is so cheap we do not realize we have to care about it. But all the energy slaves that we use that we don't need are jumping around in our environment and destroying it. If people want to jump around they should dance. The world can cope with that," he said.
"I don't want to scare the people. In Europe, for example, I say we have to go to one quarter of the energy we are using now. But it is very far away from the stone age, it is actually the lifestyle of a Swiss person in 1969. That's all.
"I want to create lifestyles that are very beautiful. You can have everything you really want without stepping over this limit. I don't want it enforced absolutely. But for people to have it in their mind that if they use more, someone will have to get less."
Dr. Durr said he had created a form that allowed people to calculate how many energy slaves they had around them. " It makes people realize they are just being lazy. In Europe most of it has to do with heat. Heating many rooms which we do not occupy."
He said energy could never be completely equally distributed. " We must differentiate what is used for private use and what is used for business. " His flight from Germany to San Francisco, for example, used up a year's supply of his suggested energy slave allocation.
However, he said the benefit of sharing his thoughts on the overuse of energy with the corporate leaders attending the State of the World Forum outweighed the cost to the planet. "To propagate this idea you have to travel around."
Dr. Durr said the economic race between the world's countries was just as destructive as the pre-Cold War arms race.
"Competition originally meant to seek together for solutions. We are more or less in a race with a winner and a loser."
He said the countries of the industrialized north should be described as "bank robber countries."
" We crack one natural safe after another and take out its natural wealth. We call it wealth creation because we spent less money on the equipment than we spent on the safe that we cracked open. This is not a sustainable economy."
Dr. Durr said traditional economic theory viewed the earth as an infinite resource.
"We must include in our economic calculations that the Earth is finite. In this respect the Bangladeshis are in very good shape. They can increase their use of energy slaves by 15 times. But they should not copy our recipes."
He said the rich industrialized countries had a responsibility to help developing countries create alternative technologies. "We should not go there and offer our cars. Let's help them develop some type of vehicle that won't cause damage."
He said it was corporations rather than governments that held the real power in the late 20th century. That was why it was vital to engage corporate leaders in meaningful dialogue.
A former student of Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, Dr. Durr said he was convinced there was no place in the next millennium for either nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants.
"Human beings should only use technology which if the worst case happens, it leads to an acceptable damage. Definitely nuclear energy is not in that category. I want an industrial world where people are allowed to make errors. Because human creativity has to do with being allowed to make errors. We want an error-friendly environment."