Green and Clueless

Despite the delugeNewsWeek of books, magazines, newspapers,
and media attention directed toward making us more green, America
ns either
don't have a clue what to do or remain adamant about reducing their carbon footprints.
That's according to a Newsweek article yesterday by Sharon Begley
.  She cites a recent survey
of 505 Americans conducted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, where
the majority of people responded that cutting back energy consumption is the
best method to conserve energy rather than utilizing more energy efficient
products. The reason for this says Begley is that
"we are just not going to become a nation of pedestrians, let alone do
without all our electronic toys." In other words, Americans are under the
impression that in order to save the planet, they would be forced to part ways
from their cell phones, computers, MP3 players and more. In
reality, we can
save energy by adopting different products rather than adapting to a dearth of

Posted August 17, 2010

By Sharon Begely,

You could practically hear a collective groan from
enviros across the world yesterday, when The New York Times
reported on city apartment dwellers who leave their
air conditioning running for days and days when they are not even home:
with “utilities included” in their rent, these model citizens don’t pay
for it, and they want to walk into a nice cool room when they get back
from vacation or just a tough, hot slog from the subway. So much for all
those 50 Things You Can Do books, magazine articles, and Web sites, all
of which patiently explain that it would be really, really helpful if we
didn’t run appliances when we’re not using them. Apparently, that
message—which green groups have been disseminating for at least 20
years—can’t hold a candle to people’s apathy, ignorance, and

Days of the Decade: 2000s Were Hottest on Record

But the problem goes beyond the fact that people
don’t care about, or perhaps understand, the fact that wasting energy
and using it inefficiently accounts for a good chunk of the
greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming. (In one 2009
, scientists led by Thomas Dietz of Michigan
State University estimated that household-based steps—as opposed to
national policies like cap-and-trade—such as weatherizing homes,
upgrading furnaces, switching to higher-mpg cars, changing air filters
in a furnace, and not wasting power would cut U.S. carbon emissions by
123 million metric tons per year, which is 20 percent of household
direct emissions and 7.4 percent of U.S. emissions.) Despite the
millions of words that have been written on how to save energy and use
it more efficiently, people basically have no idea what to do.


Behind every statistic, there's a good story:
facts and figures can add up to something greater than themselves.

Scientists led by Shahzeen Attari of the Earth Institute at Columbia
University surveyed 505 Americans (recruited through Craigslist), asking
them to name the best ways to conserve energy. The most common answers
had to do with curtailing use (by turning off lights or driving less,
for instance) rather than improving efficiency (installing more
efficient lightbulbs and appliances, say). But it is energy efficiency
that offers the only possibility for dialing back our voracious
consumption of energy and the fossil fuels that generate it. The reason
is basic psychology: we are just not going to become a nation of
pedestrians, let alone do without all our electronic toys. The only hope
is therefore to continue satisfying those materialistic needs but with
less electricity and gasoline. Yet as Attari and her colleagues report
in a study in the current issue of the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences,
only 12 percent of participants
mentioned efficiency improvements as “the most effective way” to
conserve energy, while 55 percent mentioned curtailing use.
Specifically: 20 percent said turn off lights, but only 3.6 percent said
use more efficient bulbs; 15 percent said drive less or use public
transit, but only 3 percent said use a more efficient car. No wonder
Americans are so resistant to taking personal steps to mitigate climate
change: they think it means doing without.

And the ignorance continued. The scientists next
asked people to estimate how much energy different appliances used and
how much different behaviors saved. More said line-drying clothes saves
more than changing the washing-machine settings (the reverse is true).
Most people also think trucks and trains that transport goods use about
the same energy; in fact, trucks use 10 times more to move one ton of
goods one mile. Most people also said that making a glass bottle takes
less energy than making an aluminum can (the reverse is true: a glass
bottle requires 1.4 times as much energy as the can when virgin
materials are used, and 20 times as much when recycled materials are
used; making a recycled glass bottle actually takes more energy than
making a virgin aluminum can).

Here’s my favorite:
participants who said they did lots of environmentally responsible
things on the energy front actually had less accurate perceptions
of all this—suggesting that while people may think they’re doing the
planet good, they are not. The notion of making “informed choices” is
great, but it kind of requires being, well, informed. What we have
instead, it seems, is rampant ignorance. The real problem, Attari told
me, is that when people pick the easy things, the low-hanging fruit,
they figure they’ve done their bit for the environment and then don’t
take steps that could actually make a difference.

Why the ignorance? As
usual, the press and green groups bear some of the blame, for
promulgating simple feel-good but ultimately almost-useless steps such
as turning
off your cell-phone chargers
. (Yes, it does add up, but a typical
cell-phone charger draws one watt of power, so over a day that’s 24
watt-hours, or about one 40th of a kilowatt-hour, for a grand total of
about 10 cents per day in savings.) The press and enviros have also
spread the comforting myth that we can shop our way to saving the
planet, a notion I
have pilloried
before. Whoever’s to blame, the consequences are
clear: even people who want to conserve energy have barely a clue how to
do it, and lots of people don’t even want to. No wonder those apartment
ACs are running full tilt while nobody’s home.

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