Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

January 28, 2008

The silent creep of consumption and how to reverse it

Category: Economics,Editorial,Observations,Policy – Tom Harrison – 10:42 am

As we are faced with large challenges like rising energy costs and global warming, we need to reconsider the things that have insinuated themselves into our lives over the years and step back and think a little, or a lot. Consider these facts.

Houses didn’t used to have 45 light bulbs on average. There was no such thing as an SUV. The average house in 1950 was 1/2 as big as it is now. We now live about 17% further from work than we did in 1969. And get this, our food calorie consumption has increased by almost 25% between 1970 and now. And while we saved between 8% and 10% of our incomes through much of the 20th century, we’re now spending more than we earn (a negative savings rate), all in the last 25 years.

These numbers are remarkable in their magnitude. A little scary. A positive thing to consider, though, is that twenty or thirty years of dramatic change must be reversible in a reasonably short time. That is, the costly parts of our growth we don’t really benefit from can be rolled back. We have done this through history — recognizing and teasing out the good parts of our progress while eliminating some of the bad parts.

We have made great progress with pollution, for example, even if we didn’t understand that the most pernicious pollutant was the CO2 we exhale in every breath. Car engines have become dramatically more efficient, even if in our continued excessive consumption we have voided the benefit of any efficiency increase through the demand for larger and more powerful cars.

But our demands are simply a result of the expectations we have of ourselves, and that have conveniently fueled some of our economic growth. Our demands have resulted from everything being easy: easy money, easy energy, easy food. The only thing hard is keeping up with the Joneses. The mere fact that we have this odd expression suggests it’s something that matters to us. In this land of opportunity, we want to have more opportunity than the next guy, or at least seem to. We just want to be a little cooler than our neighbor.

It would be glib to suggest that what we need is a new “cool”. If there’s one thing that defines money, it’s how easy it is to quantify. Money, and more of it is going to be “cool”, or more importantly is going to spell the difference between comfort and discomfort for a good long time to come (the day it does not is a day after which a rather drastic social change has occurred, the kind of which are resolved with guns and bombs).

Thus, it will be important for us to change what we perceive to have value. This is a more solvable problem, since value is subjective thus less easily quantified. Think of SUVs, for example. They provide little real benefit compared to cars; mostly they are just bigger. They are impressive, large, broad and solid in the eyes of many. But I have to say, when I see a person climb down from the SUV he or she drove to the market, to me they look absurd.

SUVs came to be because, being classified as trucks, they didn’t have to have more costly safety and emissions equipment and were therefore less expensive to produce. But that’s only half of the picture. The other half is that the marketing departments of auto makers figured out how to convince us that such vehicles were cool. It wasn’t hard: in a land where bigger is better, a bigger car associated with a bigger lifestyle and bigger wallet were all good things. So SUVs were sold at a premium, yet produced at a discount.

What’s important in the rise of the SUV is that there are two forces working together to cause their rapid adoption. First, there is economic incentive; second, there is a willing consumer. The economics in this case arose from unexpected differentials between vehicles classified as cars and trucks due to legislative inequities. The willing consumer is being told that which he hadn’t articulated in his mind before, but now sees to be true (after seeing the good looking guy impressing the cute girl in the ad). This is a match made in heaven.

If we look at many of the trends I noted at the beginning, I think this pattern can be seen repeatedly. Government incentives make it beneficial to own your domicile, and they provide some apparent benefits compared to urban living, so we moved out of the city into houses that home builders and real estate people marketed as “homes” or “estates”. (Thus, longer commutes and bigger houses). Fast food made it easy to pick up dinner, and going out to dinner became a regular thing to do. Bigger servings were needed to make people pay higher prices. So we ate more.

But looking back at our successes, consider pollution, ozone, and smoking. All were a result of concerted campaigns by organizations and the government to recognize the severity of the problem and address it. We changed perception through good ol’ American marketing. Recall the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign. The thinning of the ozone, once identified as a major cause of cancer, was reversed and now resolved, through legislation. The Surgeon General became famous, and was effective at stopping smoking through legislation, and marketing through numerous public service announcements and ad campaigns (some of which used fear as a tactic). All were costly to some companies and to the government. Yet we managed to find solutions and move on.

We must make being efficient, streamlined, and sleek cool. We must make waste, bigness and bulk uncool. It works, even if it takes time.


  1. Hm. I’m not sure I would characterize the ozone problem as “resolved”. Yes, we’re putting much lower quantities of CFCs and BFCs into the atmosphere, but the ozone layer hasn’t come close to a full recovery yet, and it’s not entirely clear that other chemicals we’re putting into the atmosphere aren’t still doing some amount of damage. As for smoking, about a quarter of Americans still smoke. That’s a lot lower than it used to be, but we still have a long way to go. What this says to me is that although we’ve had some partial successes, not only will we need to put in the same level of effort to reach similar levels of success on other matters, it will be even harder to attain greater success.

    Comment by BDan — February 1, 2008 @ 8:56 pm

  2. @BDan —

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and reading my whole post! Chapter 22 was a little dry, as I am sure you found.

    I got a little glib, I guess :-). None of these problems of smoking, ozone and pollution is truly resolved, of course. But through a concerted public effort we have made progress that one might never have though possible back in 1970. And the ability to conceive of some path to success is my current objective.

    So I am really trying to think about climate and energy issues as problems we can “solve”, even in the same partial way any massive public policy problem is ever solved. These problems don’t get solved like a puzzle, and it’s quite disheartening (to me at least) to think that anything less than a complete solution amounts to failure. There’s some gray … which might be haze from smoke or pollution :-)

    There’s no doubt in my mind that dealing with climate and energy are some of the biggest and most difficult challenges we face; certainly the risks are as high or higher than any problem before. However where problems like war, starvation, and poverty have been a part of human life and death forever, these problems are clearly more recent and by our own hand.

    The key is to have a groundswell of understanding and acceptance. From that will come the forces that will support a leader who can finally bring together the powerful forces creating the problem in a way that dramatically, and quickly reverses the trajectory. We need to reach that “tipping point”, and yes, we need to reach it pretty much right now. Once we do, we can dispense with the stupid and pointless incremental policies that do nothing more than give us a false sense of progress. When we get there we can start taking this problem seriously, and when that happens, things can change very, very quickly.

    If we don’t allow ourselves to imagine success, we can only see failure. If we ignore the risk of failure, we can spend our mental energy to focus on the steps we need to take to start a solution.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — February 1, 2008 @ 10:23 pm

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