Let’s play a quick game of word association! I say ‘green car,’ you think:
b) Chevy Volt
c) Nissan Leaf
David Owen, author of The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, would go with D. His theory is that technological advances, including the ones that increase efficiency, actually tend to increase consumption. And also, good intentions don’t count for much. Case in point: New York City has a lower per capita impact than Portland because of high density living (shared utilities, no yards, less space = less stuff, really good, highly used public transportation). Your average NYC dweller might not care about vermicomposting, but probably has a lower impact than a treehugger living in suburban California. Feel-good vibes or not, the bottom line matters.
Let’s go back to the car thing for a minute. So, we have it on pretty good evidence that two things that effectively reduce driving are fuel prices and inconvenience (traffic, lack of parking). Getting a hybrid actually reduces your fuel price and, if you’re in an area where hybrids can use the carpool lane, makes it more convenient to drive. Does getting a hybrid encourage you to drive more and offset your saved emissions? Or alternately, does the money you save get spent pursuing some other form of consumption? Same thing for air conditioning, solar power, EnergyStar televisions…If our technology is getting more efficient all the time, why are our emissions not heading satisfactorily south?
It’s a provocative question. David Owen suggests that looking to technology to save us might just be ass-backwards. For example, he thinks that a car that would cut down on emissions far more effectively than a Prius would be the following:
Or maybe mandating inefficient equipment wouldn’t be a terrible idea. During a talk I gave in New York in 2011, I described one possible vision of a green automobile: no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty-five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon.
In other words, something kinda like a Model-T. Paired with today’s gas prices. And with most of the lanes on our highways closed and parking lots turned into high density housing. If this were the only car available, would you drive it? Or would you start looking for ways to live, work, and play closer to home? (This, more than just the emissions, is why cars make such a difference in our lives.) What if Australia were still a two year journey with 50% mortality away? Would you not cross it (and all other far away locations) off the list for your next holiday?
Neither galloping technological advances nor efficiency provides an incentive to reduce energy use. Quite the opposite. Owen suggests that we need, if not mandated energy inefficiency that acts as a deterrent to the whole high-consumption structure of western civilization, then at least energy efficiency combined with enforced caps on how much we can use.
One problem is that the environmental movement emphasizes making small, voluntary changes. At the same time, technological advance makes it cheaper and easier for us to consume more, so it often comes down to individual willpower. Do I have the willpower to never fly for another holiday? Do I have the willpower to not drive my car, to not hit the button that turns on the AC on a hot day, to not take hot showers, to not use the electricity my condo is wired with, to not upgrade my 5 year old phone, to not replace my laptop? Even knowing the high environmental impact of each of these activities, I don’t think I do — at least not all the time. But a century or less ago, people did without these things and still had fulfilling, interesting lives. The more technology lowers the price of admission for all of these things, the more they start seeming like necessities rather than luxuries, the more the energy we use on them feels like a necessary expenditure.
One other interesting idea in Conundrum is how good intentions aren’t enough. It’s easy for us to point a finger at corporations for the planetary damage they cause, but how willing are we to make the type of big, infrastructure changes in our own lives that would make an effective difference? I’m not talking about changing a light bulb; I’m talking about the stuff that really matters personally and on a gut level: where we live, what we eat, how many children we have. Owen argues persuasively that high density living is the lowest impact option, while moving out to the country is essentially extending suburban sprawl. How ready am I to give up my dream of a cabin in the woods for the sake of being greener? I’m not. Given how huffy people become when anyone suggests adopting a primarily vegan diet or having fewer kids, I’m skeptical that we will voluntarily make these types of changes on a species level.
No one likes to talk about sacrifice, and I don’t think self-sacrifice is going to be effective on the scale we need anyway. But something’s going to give eventually if we don’t want to live on a dead planet: maybe our free market economy, maybe our personal freedom to make unsustainable choices.
I guess my question is: at what point will sustainability become more important than my individual freedom to screw up the planet to the fullest extent of my financial limits? Would you support restrictions that sharply limited the amount of water, electricity, gasoline, and other resources you (and everyone else) could use — all in the name of sustainability?
Photo by Bill McChesney