The more things change…

by Heather Rae

My favorite book on clean energy is Energy for Survival: the Alternative to Extinction written by Wilson Clark and published in 1975. I was barely in high school then. It wouldn’t be for another 20 years that I would hear the words ‘compact fluorescent bulb’ and another 28 before I would discover Clark’s book. It was in the library of an energy engineer in Denver.

Some of the energy technologies in Clark’s book have evolved into the marketplace, though not enough to avoid wars over oil and not enough for solar to be commonplace in the United States. Some things stay the same.

Polar bears perch on bonsai-shaped ice floats, and The Boston Globe writes about the possibility of drilling in the melted Arctic and the opening of new shipping routes due to climate change. Some things do change.

Amidst the bit of progress in energy technology, the lack of political will to invest as much in war as in the R&D and the science of life remains. So I wonder, is this new, these mangled priorities, or is this just more of the same? In the context of marketing and new technology adoption, do people, can people, change? In America? What will it take – other than the fear-mongering that backfires – to get people on board with new energy technologies and new behaviors? I don’t have the answers, but I have an inkling and am paying close attention. It comes in handy when marketing everything from solar to air sealant to biofuels to building science.

An energy consultant with a vast reference library passed along Energy Efficiency: Perspectives on Individual Behavior, a compilation of articles published twenty years ago by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. (One thing that needs to change is the term “energy efficiency.” I won’t get back on that soapbox.)

Take a peek back in the past:
On information and economic incentives: An article in the volume shoots holes in the argument that attitudes (education and information around energy) and reason (cost-effective economics) will lead to behavioral changes like buying those CFLs.*
On weatherization lacking glamour and appeal in the marketplace: “[the lack of glamour] is why so many of our respondents are willing to spend thousands of dollars on solar water heaters that can never pay for themselves, while they are unwilling to take an afternoon to caulk cracks and save hundreds of dollars in the first heating season. As specialists we may laugh at such behavior, but in the interests of further energy conservation in the country it behooves us to learn to work with the existing set of cultural values rather than to challenge them.”
On energy consumed by a town in Minnesota called Foley: “Many Foleyites felt powerless and angry in the face of rising fuel prices and an uncertain energy future. They trusted neither government nor utility companies, which they felt gave them mixed messages about energy: the denial of an energy crisis by the Reagan administration; conflicting reports on existing fuel supplies and natural resources; and the sharp reversal of former encouragement to consume “penny cheap” fuel. Foleyites felt trapped as dependent fuel consumers. Many chose to reassert a sense of personal power through maintaining or even increasing their household fuel consumption levels. They legitimated these “rebellious” decisions with the third rationale, the ability to afford the consequences…Sobel (1981) depicts consumption as a “sacrosanct” area of American life, one in which feelings and power and control are experienced. Foleyites resented attempts to constrain their freedom of consumption, especially since the inalienable right to cheap fuel was being abridged.”
On energy consumed by a town in Sweden called Munka Ljungby: “The confidence that most Swedes place in their government and its policies contrasts markedly with the hostility exhibited by Foleyites in the face of energy ambiguities and with their suspicion of collusion between government and “big business” to profit from energy crises. The Swedish welfare state is based upon humanitarian and moral principles, and its policies result from an elaborate process in which academic and scientific specialists, labor unions, businesses, and all public interest groups are consulted. Decisions issued are thus based on consensus, and Swedes can accept them with confidence, knowing that the “right” conclusion has been reached and that all Swedes will be treated equitably.”
On self-image and change: “Foleyites were apologetic, and the Munka Ljungbyans smug, about their ways of life with regard to energy use. These attitudes helped to precipitate the changes made by Foleyites and to deter changes on the parts of the Munka Ljungbyans.”

Beyond the science and the engineering are the governments and the utilities…and people who are just as hard to figure out as the technology.

Other Going On This Week:
The New York Times throws questions to a NASA climate scientist who says global warming “is a bad name.” It sounds “cozy and comfortable…Climate meltdown sounds a little more ominous.”

Australia (which like the United States did not sign on to Kyoto) has new rules around light bulbs. By 2009-10, regulations will ban incandescent light bulbs. Some changes just take some political will.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

1 reply
  1. Bill Barney
    Bill Barney says:

    Heather,Thanks for your interesting postings on this blog which is starting to become daily reading for me.I don't know if people are so hard to figure out. Ecologically sound living is in many ways still a "do it yourself" kind of thing. People are busy (or lazy, or both) and tend to choose the path of least resistance. I was interested to read in Natural Capitalism (Lovins, Lovins, and Hawken) about how architects tend to re-use building designs because of the high cost of developing new ones. They imply that if greener building designs became "standard" then those designs would get reused; clients and homebuyers would not have to seek out specialized green builders. Same can be said for consumer products: most people will buy whatever is available to them in the stores, and most manufacturers tend to opt for the same standard solutions for ingredients (e.g. triclosan) and packaging. Wal-mart has recently told their suppliers to adopt plans to phase out certain chemical ingredients. This of course does not fix the problems with mass consumption that are exemplified by Wal-mart. But it does show that there are ways to influence consumer behavior (or the effects of consumer behavior) without requiring conscious effort on the part of the consumer.

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