Friday, February 09, 2007

Environmental Dissonance

North Americans know that the environment is a huge problem. We know that we need to take immediate steps to reduce green house gas emissions. And yet we seem unable to do even the easy things.

Reducing electrical consumption means reducing the pollution that comes out of coal-fired generators and other plants. There is so much waste in our current lives that we can greatly reduce electricity usage without losing any comfort or convenience. For example, Garth Turner writes, "if we just put on-off switches on kitchen appliances to shut off power (stoves, microwaves, coffee makers) when not in use, we could save a third of the power generated by the country’s worst polluter, Nanticoke."

It's a great idea. But don't forget that there are currently on-off switches that aren't being used enough. Walk through any office building on a Friday evening and you'll see computers and monitors winking away on every desk. Even in power-saving mode computers use up a lot of power when left on, and they should be shut down every evening.

Thermostats are another easy change. I wear short sleeves in the winter and jackets in the summer because in my company we heat too high and cool too low. (Some people put heaters under their desk in the summer.) And there are still loads of homes that don't have programmable thermostats and don't turn down the heating/cooling when they're asleep or out of the house. Or even wear sweaters around the house in winter.

That's just part of it. There are also compact fluorescent light bulbs, fuel-efficient automobiles, insulation, energy-efficient appliances, products with less packaging, public transit, long-lasting appliances... in almost every well-known, easy to change environmental initiative, North Americans aren't doing what they could.

There are a number of things the government isn't doing that it needs to do. They need to make regulations smarter, tighter, and better enforced. They need to increase the tax on gas and electricity so that we have a cost incentive to reduce consumption. And they need to provide clear, unambiguous public education about the need for change.

But none of this is going to change things until North Americans clear up a conflict of values about consumption. Smoking finally started to drop off when smoking became déclassé. Wasteful consumption is not déclassé - far from it. Its opposite, frugality, is déclassé.

Wasteful excess is still glorified in our society as a sign of wealth and success. We are living in a state of cognitive dissonance in our attitudes to the environment. We know there is a huge problem and we're scared and we want to improve it, but we value excess as the trappings of success. We're proud to live in a huge house that costs $500/month to heat, and we consider little houses as being for people who can't afford "better". We value big new SUVs and devalue buying small cars and keeping them a long time. We admire possessions and don't admire simplicity.

I used to think that raising the price of gas and electricity would solve the problem of wasteful consumption, as it has in Europe. I no longer believe that. Gasoline prices skyrocketed in the US over the last couple of years, and yet the fuel efficiency of new cars fell. We are a very wealthy society and we can afford to waste.

Our clash of values freezes us up. That's why Jean Chretien signed Kyoto but didn't reduce greenhouse gas emissions; that's why Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty had to go back on a campaign promise to close down coal-fired generators; that's why every North American politician has talked about the environment but done precious little to improve it. The lack of political will among citizens is holding back the government.

It's nice that a few movie stars are driving hybrid cars, but as long as we watch celebrities debauching out of gas-guzzling limos onto the red carpet at the Academy Awards, as long as we aspire to the wasteful excess of the rich and famous, as long as we value wealth and excess over all - we won't make real strides on the environment.


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