Environmentology: Honda thinking in action

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I live in a part of the U.S. that is at once tied to the economies of extractive industries, and perceived as the land of outdoor adventure. These two activities conflict, mightily. And they make for interesting party conversation.

Bill LeBlanc of the Boulder Energy Group (“BEG…for more”) threw his annual summer fête this past weekend – complete with volleyball net, burgers on the grill and progeny of all ages. We sought shelter from a torrential hail storm that rained down for many minutes, infusing the front porch with the pungent scent of shredded garden mint. Unlike the deluged U.S. east coast, we need the rain.

I spoke with energy folks from Architectural Energy Corporation, WellDog, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, and ESource as well as graduates of Rutt Bridges’ Bighorn Center. WellDog based in Laramie, Wyoming, manufacturers a device that accurately and quickly identifies sources and quantities of natural gas in coal seams. (The ecological defense…if we’re going to drill, and we will, we might as well reduce the destructive practices of frac’ing and water production.) Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) promotes energy efficiency through legislation and outreach programs. ESource, which originated at the Rocky Mountain Institute and recently spun itself off from McGraw-Hill/Platts, serves utility clients. The engineers at Architectural Energy Corporation (AEC) advise in the sustainable built environment, and Bill’s Boulder Energy Group recently completed a review of California’s utility marketing programs and presented findings through the Association of Energy Services Professionals (AESP).

Lightheaded from half a brew and altitude, I spoke with a finance professional – who has been with several IT start-ups and is now dedicated to energy sustainability. He said progress of alternate fuels will be made in the transportation sector because of peak oil, but progress coming out of concerns for climate change will be slow: we won’t see habits change because of climate change until we are building dikes around Manhattan to stem rising tides.

I agree, though rack my brain to find a really good refuting argument, because I don’t want to agree with him…hoping for a little more enlightenment. Peak oil threatens consumption and prices – our lifestyles in the immediate. Climate change threatens the ecology by which we survive – our lives.

This past Sunday, climate change made the Parade magazine (I use the term generously) cover story: “How Climate Change Affects You Right Now.” The inside story begins “Global warming is already affecting your life…and costing you money. Why You Can’t Ignore The Changing Climate.” The list of what we can do runs the gamut of conservation, energy efficiency, voting with your wallet, and demanding that government make climate change a priority and – echoing Thomas Friedman and Tim Flannery – enact a carbon tax.

I believe, Houston, we have passed the media tipping point on climate change – just as we have passed the marketing tipping point on the environment (everyone, Wal-Mart included, wants to tell a green story.) While it may well be peak oil – and increasing petrol prices – that drives switching to alternative fuels and fuel-efficient cars, and while it may be the allure of profits in ethanol that brings along suppliers, to date, it is the loftier environment – our survival – not the price of petrol or cost of insurance, that will continue to drive marketing messages, although those marketing messages and the attendant visuals will be gleeful and sunny, and absent New Yorkers building dikes.

Take this Environmentology (“Honda thinking in action”) ad for example:

“When it comes to talking about the environment, we let our products speak for themselves. In 1974, Honda introduced the ingeniously simple Civic CVCC. World-changing for its fuel efficiency and low emissions, the CVCC demonstrated our spirited commitment to environmentally responsible technology. Many other firsts were to follow, such as the first hybrid vehicle sold in North America and the first government-certified fuel-cell car. This legacy of innovation and acting on our beliefs is what we call our Environmentology. And it’s seen in every Honda product, like the 2006 50-mpg Civic Hybrid. Honda. The Power of Dreams.”

It’s this kind of marketing, social marketing, that grabs attention and holds it. But can it hold our attention long enough for people to make the connections between our consuming lifestyles and the destruction of the environment on which we depend for survival, our lives? I remember the post-OPEC go-go 80s. Can social marketing hold attention – and influence behavior – in the face of falling oil prices and increased domestic fossil fuel exploration? Will the 21st century version of the Honda Civic CVCC endure?

That’s hard to affirm from this geographical vantage point, as gas drilling undergoes a massive boom (great for WellDog) and the likes of Morgan Stanley and Houston-based Anadarko buy up local natural gas exploration companies, because of the promise of profits (not great for Colorado). And yet another college-age petitioner with a clipboard from Environment Colorado stands on a street corner appealing to the passerby to protect the wilderness from drilling. And Colorado’s governor vetos a natural gas efficiency bill supported by SWEEP and the local utility. And coal-plants are breaking ground. And the NRC has approved a nuke plant in New Mexico (after a settlement with the state…) And the CEO of Western Gas tells the local paper: “It is up to the American people. The American consumer needs to decide how much they want that balance between their energy consumption and lifestyle and preservation of pristine areas like [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge].” The CEO, Peter Dea, is an avid outdoorsman. I just wish Dea had recognized the choice is between lifestyle and protection of the umbilical cords of life itself, not protection of pretty pristine places.

The conflict between lifestyle and life…it does make for interesting party conversation.

Other goings on this week:
For Good or Ill, Ethanol Boom Reshapes Heartland Economy in The New York Times
Wal-Mart, Health and the Environment in The New York Times
Colorado study on energy efficiency finds it’s good for business (you don’t say!)
NPR reports that GM’s solution to slow Hummer sales is the Mileage Maximizer. For $200, the “Maximizer” brings fuel efficiency from 0mpg to 5mpg, NPR jokes.

1 reply
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    When we as citizens stop comentating about what the problem is and start demanding action toward the known solution not just from ourselves but from our elected representatives and those who produce what we consume then will we start to see real change.

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