Our collaboration with Grist rolls on today with a discussion prompt submitted by On Day One user teiki:

A key to the massive use of fossil fuels in the U.S. is gross overconsumption. We use way more than necessary, through a combined dependence on the automobile and an infatuation with big, gas-hungry cars, trucks and SUVs., through wasted energy consumption in our homes and offices in everything from their construction to “phantom loads” and light bulbs, and through the amount of green house gas emitted by livestock supplying an overconsumption of food. We must learn to use less.

David Roberts; Tony Kreindler, media director of the National Climate Campaign at the Environmental Defense Fund; and Timothy B. Hurst respond below the fold.
David Roberts

I think you need to be really careful on this one. There’s no benefit in framing over-consumption as an issue of American greed or gluttony. If you come out preaching about sin, trying to make people feel guilty and repent, you play to stereotype, get mired in a culture war, and quickly end up preaching only to the choir.

It is true, via accidents of history, economy, and geography, that Americans have incredibly high per capita resource consumption. We’re an extraordinarily rich country with lots of land and access to cheap energy, so we’ve designed our material environment somewhat thoughtlessly. When things are cheap, they get used in heedless ways. It’s not a moral defect, it’s just human nature.

Now those things are getting expensive, and the damage they’re doing to the environment is unavoidable, so it’s time to address high per-capita consumption. There are two ways to do it. One is through voluntary reduction in quality of life — give up vacations, turn the thermostat down, live in a smaller house or apartment. The other is to get more out of each unit of input, maintaining quality of life while driving down net resource consumption. In other words: sacrifice or efficiency.

Pushing the first will get you blowback and very little net gain, in my humble opinion. The second is a gold mine. People don’t really understand yet that quality of life and resource consumption are not tightly linked. Plenty of European countries — and California! — have per capita consumption lower than the American average and quality of life just as high. With concerted effort, we could slash our resource consumption dramatically and still be perfectly comfortable.

Now, as an addendum: there are plenty of behavior changes I’d like to encourage — riding bikes, living in dense, walkable cities, growing food or joining a community supported agriculture program, etc. But I don’t think of those things as sacrifice, or as “less.” They are more: more exercise, more community, more health. The point to make to Americans is that we can improve our quality of life and reduce our ecological footprint simultaneously. Nobody has to shiver in the dark.

Tony Kreindler, media director of the National Climate Campaign at the Environmental Defense Fund

I’m with David: the best way to look at energy efficiency is not as a reduction, but as an increase in supply. It’s a new source of power all by itself.

It’s also one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to begin reducing global warming pollution, particularly in one of the sectors highlighted here – residential and commercial buildings.

Greenhouse gas emissions (mostly CO2) from buildings and the appliances in them are expected to rise by roughly 50 percent by 2030. But according to the consulting firm McKinsey & Company the sector offers significant low-cost opportunities to reduce consumption and pollution, primarily because residential and commercial buildings are relatively inefficient, and projected growth provides a lot of opportunities to build in efficient technologies during initial construction (which is cheaper than retrofitting).

McKinsey says pursuing efficiency options in the sector could reduce emissions by 710 megatons to as much as 870 megatons by 2030 – the largest pool of “negative-cost” reduction opportunities among the options it looked at across the economy. Among them are advanced lighting, increased efficiency and reduced stand-by loss in electronics, more efficient HVAC equipment, combined heat and power, building shells, and improved residential water heaters.

But McKinsey also warns that the longer we wait to put the right policies in place, and from EDF’s perspective that’s a mandatory national cap on greenhouse gas pollution, the more of those low-cost options will slip away. They are “time perishable.”

Timothy B. Hurst

I second Dave’s response, especially his critique of environmental prostelytizing. Being preachy fuels the fires of resentment towards environmentalists – they come off as elitist. It would be absurd to bad-mouth consumption altogether. A strictly anti-materialist position does not work: the fact of the matter is, people need things. I also support Dave’s effort to reframe individual environmental behavior as smart rather than sacrificial. As my colleague Licia Peck, a PhD student in politics at UC Santa Cruz says, “environmental sacrifice isn’t.”

Dave frames the possible remedies for American over-consumption as improvements in efficiency and changes in individual behavior. All I would like to add is that there is an important third consideration that these solutions do not adequately address; distribution. Regardless of how much we tout making green choices and improvements in efficiency, vast economic disparities also explain global patterns of resource (mis)use.

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