Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Musings on American-ness

To follow-up on the idea of "less" Anila brought up in the comments here: In my work, I'm continually amazed at how the "more is better" principle is reinforced by public policy. For example, the rate formulas for electricity providers, set up by local regulatory agencies, link profits to increased electricity consumption. Some of that is changing now, with a focus on limiting CO2 emissions (see this article). Power companies have used this rate system to their advantage. I've heard that the TVA (power generator in the Tennessee valley) had an ad campaign in the 1950s where they actually encouraged people to keep their TVs on all night. Why? Because electricity was so cheap! And of course, because it increased TVA's profits and changed the habits of subsequent generations of consumers. In my research field (related to transportation/vehicular efficiency/climate change), one of the things that continues to perplex researchers is this energy-efficiency gap, where people routinely fail to consider the monetary (and environmental, if you happen to think that way) benefits from consuming LESS. Fuel efficiency ranks around 19 in the list of attributes that people consider when buying a car.

So the question I end up thinking about a lot is how do we craft policies that change these perceptions and values? Is it through education? A shift in advertising by companies? One of the things I hear over and over is "Why can't we be more like the Europeans?" (See a recent piece by the NYTimes). I mean, they got it figured out - compact urban design, fuel efficient vehicles, state provided health care, etc (anti-Muslim sentiment...but that's another story for another day). Problem is, only us greeny liberals want to be like the Europeans. The rest of America just wants to be American. So, when it comes to policy, how do we craft policies that protect the environment yet do so in the American way? Not the way that says more is better (you can still be green and consume) and economic growth is our sole objective, but the one that draws our history of innovation and dialog and openness. Can we, as a society, retain our identity but shift into a "walk lightly on the Earth" philosophy? Or will it require a fundamental paradigm shift, advocated by people like Herman Daly (father of ecological economics)?

I leave you with something from Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption:

3 comments:

Omaira said...

wow...that picture says it all...a related point:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/nyregion/30towns.html?ref=environment

Sanjana said...

furthermore, "Americans do not need to pare back their lifestyles to help protect the global environment but may need to use sugar or orange peel to power their energy-guzzling Hummers and Cigarette boats, Florida's governor said on Tuesday"

Green Doesn't Mean Sacrificing Lifestyle from ENN

Sabira said...

wow, ppl in TN were encouraged to keep their TV's on all night? maybe that has something to do with the ABNORMALLY high rate of cancers.....they seriously have an outrageous rate. both my grandparents in Murfreesboro, and several of their relatives have had cancer. just a thought..