ENERGY CONSUMPTION is down in this country, and energy production is up. Oil imports are down sharply, and coal exports are up. The Department of Energy has just published the preliminary figures for 1980, and the patterns are striking. Total energy consumption seems to have fallen about 4 percent from 1979 to 1980, an astonishing drop in one year. Last year, oil imports ran 20 percent below the 1979 level. That decline is continuing, incidentally. By last month, imports were almost 30 percent below those of early 1980. To keep that trend going is probably the most important contribution that this country can make to the future stability of its economy or, for that matter, the world's.
Seven years ago the Ford Foundation's Energy Policy Project set off an angry debate with a study comparing several different tracks that American energy requirements might take. The historical growth rate was the high track. The lowest, labeled the "zero energy growth scenario," showed consumption rising slowly to the end of the century, when it would gradually level off to a flat line. In 1974, a great many people believed that there was a fixed ratio between energy input and economic output. Zero energy growth, they argued, would condemn the country to zero economic growth, and, as population increased, to an inevitable decline in living standards.
As it has actually worked out, energy consumption in this country has consistently stayed well below even the Ford project's lowest estimates and seems to have arrived at zero growth fully 20 years ahead of schedule. It's been accomplished, of course, by methods that are not pleasant -- recurrent crises, gasoline lines, two recessions and prices far higher than anyone considers desirable or even safe. There are a couple of useful lessons to be drawn from this experience.
The first is that events won't always wait for American to make up their minds. When the political system came to a stalemate on the energy dilemma, events imposed their own harsh solution. The second lesson is more hopeful. Under the burden of rising oil prices, the economy has not grown as fast as most people had hoped or expected. But there has been solid growth since 1974 and living standards have improved, not deteriorated. It turns out that Americans, when confronted with necessity, were able to do far more than, seven years ago, they thought even remotely possible.