In an interesting and insightful piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, David Owen laments that sometimes “it’s too easy being green.” In his commentary, Owen identifies a trend that I’ve seen played out time and again—the belief that “switching to an ostensibly more benign form of consumption turns consumption itself into a boon for the environment.” In other words, “the Prius Fallacy.”
Owen’s examples of the Prius Fallacy in action—buying a new, more fuel-efficient vehicle, replacing a kitchen counter with a “greener” option, eating locally grown produce—remind me of one the simplest energy-saving tips I’ve ever heard: turn off the lights. In the end, buying a more efficient light bulb is not the solution—particularly if consumers use the increased efficiency as an excuse to sustain (or even increase) their current energy usage. Owen points to transcontinental travel as another example—“the environmental problem with modern flying isn’t that our airplanes are wasteful; it is that we have made flying so efficient;” and, thereby, made it much easier for folks to hop on that plane.
I’ve discussed this conundrum before. Last year, in a blog entitled “The Best Defense: A Good and Efficient Offense”, I said, “it’s not enough to simply improve products and services so that the status quo can be maintained, we must strive to also reduce the amount of energy we use.” In discussing energy efficiency in schools, I pointed out that sometimes “the low-tech solution can reap the biggest rewards,” and I highlighted the success of William Balicki, Energy Manager for schools in the Holmdel Township, located in New Jersey. Balicki found that simply by installing automatic timers on outdoor lighting and “keeping a tight check on thermostats,” the school district was able to realize real energy savings above and beyond energy efficiency retrofits. These savings were the result of changes in behavior.
We must begin to attack the basic human instinct to do more with less, and find a way to increase efficiency and reduce energy use. As Owens points out, the issue is that more often than not—whether it’s airplanes or light bulbs—engineering improvements that result in great efficiency also result in “encouraging us to do more of it;” and as Owen makes clear, doing “more of it” may be good for some, “but it doesn’t move the world closer to resolving a long list of energy, climate, and environmental changes. In fact, it pushes the solutions further away.”
It’s a vicious cycle: efficiency improvements enable us to do more with less, which triggers a desire to do even more, and results in an increase in demand and dependence on the very resources we are trying to wean ourselves from. As Owens explains, “engineering breakthroughs not only enable machines to do more work with less fuel; they also make it possible to manufacture new and desirable produces, swelling our contentment as consumers and further increasing our dependence.
The solution is to increase awareness of the impact of our decisions and to move beyond the hype of living “green.” For example, what does have a larger impact on the environment, an old clunker—whose parts and labor have already been absorbed back into the community—or the shiny new hybrid, with high-tech components whose origins begin a continent away. Whether we’re talking about carbon footprints or water footprints, or some ethereal ideal we identify as “sustainability,” the truth is that our actions and purchases carry with them all of the resources—including energy, water, and GHG emissions—that went into their creation.
As Owens sums up, “we may believe that we care about the world’s deepening environmental challenges and are merely waiting for scientists, environmentalists, politicians, and others to come to their senses and implement effective solutions. But we already know more than enough, and we have for a long time. We just don’t like the answers.