The Reality of Saving Energy, Money, and the Planet

Which uses more energy, a recycled glass bottle or an aluminum can made from virgin material? Most people think it is the recycled bottle. Of course, I wouldn’t have brought it up if the correct answer was the popular one. TurnsElectric Wires Crop - Diligentdogs out, recycled and new glass bottles use about the same amount of energy and both use a bit more than a new aluminum can. The energy consumption of recycled cans are an order of magnitude lower.

I got this from an interesting paper recently published on common perceptions versus the reality of energy savings. Much to my non-surprise, they found that perception and reality are only roughly related. “The observed correlations between judged and actual energy values, although positive, may be too small to support sound decision making.”

The paper is based on a survey that asked respondents to rank groups of alternatives in terms of relative energy savings. Some, like the beverage containers, had to do with energy used outside a consumer’s view. For example, when asked to rank the energy use of transporting goods by airplane, ship, train, and truck, most people correctly picked air as the most inefficient. However, they ranked the other three as being about the same. (In fact, trucks use about ten times the energy of trains and ships.)

But even when asked about things like household appliances and gas mileage people made meaningful mistakes. The savings from reducing driving speed from 70 to 60 was overestimated, while the savings from tuning up the car was (greatly) underestimated.

Overall, the researchers found a consistent pattern in the under/over estimations of consumer energy use. People tended to favor not doing something over doing it more efficiently.

When asked for the most effective strategy they could implement to conserve energy, most participants mentioned curtailment (e.g., turning off lights, driving less) rather than efficiency improvements (e.g., installing more efficient light bulbs and appliances), in contrast to experts’ recommendations.

This fits nicely into my basic criticism of most frugalism. It is concerned less with saving money than with finding and carrying out conspicuous money saving acts. Driving in the slow lane and line-drying clothes is preferred over tuning the car or getting a more efficient clothes dryer because they are things you can do on a daily basis. In as much as they are a little annoying, they are more easily noticed reminders of virtue.

The survey breaks out the relationship between a person’s accuracy on the questions and certain other traits and behaviors. The usual demographic divisions, gender, age, income, political views, etc., had little or no effect. But measures of greenness, climate change attitude and pro-environment behaviors, did have a significant impact on accuracy. Greens tended to be less accurate.

Surprisingly, participants’ self-reported environmental behaviors scale always had a negative coefficient and was significant in three of the five tests, indicating that participants who reported engaging in a greater number of proenvironmental energy-related behaviors had less accurate perceptions.

It is clear that the authors of the paper are indeed surprised, and confused, by this result. Their basic thesis is that the planet is being destroyed because people are making incorrect decisions about energy use based on ignorance.

Many people’s concerns about energy are simply not strong enough, relative to their other concerns, to warrant learning about energy conservation. Although it may be appropriate to criticize the media for not presenting the case for climate change more strongly and for not presenting the implications of individual behavior more clearly, scientists share at least some of the responsibility for the current state of affairs.

So how can it be that the pro-environment green types, who presumably understand the case for climate change and the implications for individual behavior most clearly, actually understand the facts of energy conservation less well?

To those of us who think that the media has not presented a stronger case for climate change because there is no stronger case to be made, the answer to this conundrum is obvious. The greens have a poor command of the practical facts that surround their central cause because those facts are not important to them.

Particularly as it intersects with frugalism (and the overlap is wide) greenism is more about asceticism than practical concerns about saving money or the planet. Banning incandescent light bulbs is not important because it will have any practical effect. It is important because it qualifies, for reasons I honestly do not quite understand, as the right thing to do.

[Photo – Diligentdog]

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