I've always been just a hair skeptical about all those admonitions to consumers to save the world — you know, the "Live simply, that others may simply live"-type instructions. They felt a little too much like guilt-tripping to me, with perhaps not enough corresponding actual environmental good being done. It seems like a way for consumers who are feeling guilty about something — say, those SUVs they drive — to assuage their guilt by doing something that doesn't really hurt, like turning off the lights when leaving a room. And of course, we've seen how this mindset can backfire:
What? You want me to do something more to help the environment? I recycle, ya know!
So environmentally, my frame of mind was: No pain, no gain. Well, I stand corrected. Finally, some smart people did us all a favor and ran the numbers. And it turns out that, OK, maybe consumers can't save the Earth from global warming on their own, while the factories and power plants grind on — but consumers can have a measureable impact. Especially if they live in the U-S of A. And in Dateline Earth's never-ending search for the hundred 1-percent solutions to global warming, this one counts. What I'm talking about is a recent paper (PDF) entitled "Household Actions Can Provide a Behavioral Wedge to Rapidly Reduce U.S. Carbon Emissions" that appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Co-author Michael Vandenbergh was interviewed by Robert Siegel, co-host of NPR's All Things Considered. It turns out that U.S. consumers could, by taking a series of 17 actions that the authors of the peer-reviewed paper say would result in "little or no reduction in household well-being," reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by about 7.5 percent. Siegel asked my question: Just 7 percent? Vandenbergh's answer:
Seven percent. That's equivalent to the total emissions of France. It's also equivalent to the combined emissions of the petroleum refining, iron and steel and aluminum industries … One of the largest problems that we face is getting over the presumption that people have that individual behavior or household behavior doesn't matter. But when you aggregate it across 300 million individuals and 100 million households, it has a very large impact on total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, that 7-percent estimate doesn't even assume that everyone in the United States would start taking these steps. No, the research team assumed a certain "plasticity" for each action (which sounds to this economics minor a lot like the "elasticity" we learned about in ECON 301. It was also here that I learned that all-important economist's question: "Compared to what?"). For example, the paper's authors figured that maybe 90 percent of the population could be cajoled into weatherizing their homes, while maybe 80 percent would install low-flow showerheads and efficient water heaters. But only about 15 percent could be talked into carpooling. Even at that, we're still looking at reducing U.S. emissions by 1/13th! That ain't nothing, no how. And it turns out, Vandenbergh says, that my initial assumption about this is probably wrong. That is, there's no evidence that people who take these steps excuse themselves from larger burdens. There hasn't been much empirical data on that question, he says, and what does exist suggests just the opposite — that as a person begins to feel good about one set of small actions to help the Earth, he or she is likely to start considering larger and bolder steps. OK, that does it. I'm vowing to redouble my efforts. And in the meantime, I'll feel a lot better every time I walk to InvestigateWest World Headquarters instead of driving my 20-year-old, gas-sipping Honda two-seater. I'll congratulate myself when I open the door of my efficient refrigerator. Now, if I could just figure out a good way to dry my clothes in the winter in Seattle in my tiny house without using the dryer… — Robert McClure