Why We're So Clueless About Being Green

Michelle Yee / Corbis

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 selfishness.

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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 analysis, 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.

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).

The higher the energy used by an appliance, the more wrong people were in their estimates. “In other words,” the scientists write, “people’s understanding may be worse where the potential for CO2 reductions is large.”

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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