TCS Daily


The Energy of Stars

By Herbert Inhaber - December 11, 2002 12:00 AM

There he goes again. Robert Redford, the famed movie star, has criticized what he believes is excessive American energy use. Writing earlier this month in the Los Angeles Times, he says our present policies cause too much dependence on foreign oil and indirectly are the cause of the looming conflict with Iraq. He writes that "weaning our nation from fossil fuels should be understood as the most patriotic policy to which we can commit ourselves".

In this he echoes what some other Hollywood types have said in recent years. In one of the most bizarre incidents, Barbra Streisand, the fabled singer, issued a series of hints to reduce energy consumption at the height of the California electricity crisis. It sounded as if she had taken them from some environmental manual: dry your laundry on the line instead of using a dryer, turn out lights when not in use, and on and on.

Trouble was, although Streisand may have been trying to help her fellow suffering Californians, there was no indication that she ever followed the instructions herself. One wag suggested that the rules sounded like statements to her army of maids and other household help.

Redford has been telling us that we should conserve for at least six years now. I was able to track down at least five stories in which he says more or less the same thing, over and over. Each time he comments, the media treats it as a new revelation.

Now what can we say about the energy use of movie stars? You may be familiar with what is called an "energy audit". In it, engineers and others try to evaluate how much energy - electricity, gas or other fuels - a factory or other facility uses to generate a product or service. In addition to the actual bills, they will also estimate the indirect energy use, such as that used for commuting, producing the raw materials for the factory, and so on. They will often suggest how total energy use can be reduced.

Can we do an energy audit on Robert Redford? None has been done, but it wouldn't be all that difficult. Given the fact that Redford is definitely in the top 1% of income-earners in the nation, he could certainly afford the few thousand dollars it would cost.

Obviously, we don't know people's electric and gas bills. But we do know that Redford has a home in Utah and one in California, and perhaps others as well. He founded the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, and presumably commutes between there and California. So his air travel will be substantially more than that of an ordinary person. Whether or not he has a private jet is undisclosed. If he does, there will be substantial energy expenditures. The energy use in air travel for typical travelers is predicated on the fuel costs being shared with 100-200 people.

If Redford stays in a hotel on his travels, it is unlikely to be the Motel 6, even thought they leave the light on for him. Or maybe that's why he won't stay in a Motel 6 - wasting energy! Either way, the extra costs of an expensive hotel are, of course, partly due to greater energy costs of larger rooms.

What can we conclude until such time as Redford - or any other actor, like Sean Penn, complaining that the rest of us are using too much energy - submits to a personal energy audit? Economists have studied the matter, and have found that the wealthy clearly use more energy than the rest of us. However, their energy intensity - energy use divided by income - is less. So on an absolute scale, given the fact that Redford does not live in a shack and that his houses have considerable embedded energy in all the materials, he clearly is spouting the old gospel, "Do as I say; not as I do."

Now suppose he has some sort of epiphany, sells his houses, moves into a Ted Kaczynski-style cabin and avoids all further activity. Wouldn't his energy use drop? Yes, to some extent, depending on what he does with his savings. If he invests in mutual funds, some of that money is used to develop more industry, which will use more energy. If he just puts the money in the bank, the bank will lend it to people who will build more factories, houses and the like, all of which use more energy. The mere fact that he has a large income and saves at least some of it (George Harrison, the late Beatle, had an estate of $155 million), will generate more energy use.

He could be like Hetty Green, perhaps the greatest miser in U.S. history, who lived in squalor while accumulating millions. But the millions she garnered were invested in the stock market, which, as I noted above, produces greater industry and more energy use.

No, Mr. Redford, you have considerable visibility because of your excellent acting and directorial skills. The fact that that your article suggesting the rest of us should conserve energy can be accepted in the Los Angeles Times without much effort is evidence of this. But along with this visibility comes high income. You can't avoid promoting more energy use, either directly or indirectly, unless you burn every dollar bill that crosses your palm.

Herbert Inhaber is the author of Why Energy Conservation Fails (Quorum).

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