Whether you twang your “ay”s or opt for the posher “ah,” it all comes down to the same thing: We’re lethargic. It’s not just Americans, although we do our part with our TV about TV and our valet parking. Rather, there’s something inherent in human nature that makes us self-possessed and as a result, base decisions mainly on personal exertion. We opt for convenience over cause. There are so many children starving and forests being slashed and burned that it’s hard to invest an appropriate amount of emotional engagement in each new cause, whereas independence and apathy are both incredibly easy.
David Crane, the CEO of NRG Energy, spoke to this at the MIT Energy Conference this past weekend. Amidst jokes about backwards, American energy realities, be it the continued use of wooden electricity poles or the constant vilification of the EPA, he dropped a line that really struck home: “80 percent of Americans are pragmatic environmentalists.” We care about the earth when it’s easy to do so.
Despite the intention of his comment as just a funny sound bite, the sentiment rings true. People care when it is the path of least possible resistance. If you’re eating lunch and a recycling bin is there, you wouldn’t actively look for a trashcan. But it takes a hardened environmentalist to carry an empty soda can around for more than 30 seconds, seeking out a recycling bin. I would like to think that I care about the environment about as much as the next person. I’m vegetarian, so “Duty to the Environment”: check. But if I happened to like meat instead of finding it gross, I would be eating feedlot-beef on my hamburgers with the best of them.
People have too much faith in the proactivity of people. The average American produces about 20 tons of carbon dioxide per year, for a grand total of six billion tons of carbon dioxide coming from the United States. If everybody cut out a mere two tons worth of waste from their lifestyle, we would be on par with one of the next highest emitters, Australia, and we would cut out 600 million tons of carbon dioxide. That’s about how much the U.K. emits in a year. So problem solved; power to the people!
Unfortunately, doing it for the next generation isn’t a strong enough incentive. Environmental problems are the origin of the concept of tragedy of the commons. Even when there is personal gain to be had from making pro-environmental choices, it’s not a reality of American energy infrastructure that people work for this common benefit. Consider the way you use electricity in your home. When do you run your dishwasher? When do you turn on the washer or dryer? My answer is when they’re full.
However, the choice to run your dishwasher as soon as you finish dinner is overly common. The huge demand placed on the electric grid around 6 p.m. drives up prices for users and raises emissions from the power generation. More often than not, baseload power is provided by the efficient power plants. Those with worse track records are only brought into use to meet increased demand during peak hours. Less demand during peak hours would mean lower maximum demand on the electric grid, and emissions would decrease. Peak hours are predictable, but there is no good way to see real time electricity costs or track your personal usage. Though using electricity intelligently is good for everybody involved, it’s hard to encourage that small effort. Lena Hansen, a representative of the Rocky Mountain Institute put it quite well, “Nobody wants to be a day trader for $5 a day.”
The moral of our lethargy is this: If you care about something, make it easy for other people to care about. Emotional appeals have very limited efficacy. I got super psyched and wrote George W. Bush a letter about saving seals in second grade, but a week later I forgot that I cared. We are far-too over stimulated to hang onto each individual sob story. The way that you can affect change then isn’t on public media campaigns against using a billion hand towels. You have to actually change infrastructure: work on a start-up, write legislation, do something. Laziness is the basis for an industry. Cool gadgets like Nest, a smart thermometer that adjusts your home’s temperature itself for optimal energy use, get designed because people are apathetic. Ironically enough, our laziness creates jobs and opportunities for innovation. Outsourcing people’s social responsibility isn’t necessarily a bad thing if that’s what it takes to be effective, so stop feeling bad about the Fritos and keep on clutching your universal remote. Couch potato isn’t such a dirty word after all.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Lydia on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.