By Gary Berg-Cross
The 2011 MacArthur Fellow Awards are out and the winners feature lots of friendly science with benefits. A good example is the work of Shwetak Patel, a 29-year-old computer science prof at U of Washington, Seattle. He received the $500,000 "genius" grant for his work on inexpensive and easy-to-deploy sensors that measure things such as energy and water use down to the level of individual appliances and faucets. We could use his technology to track household energy consumption and make buildings in general more energy efficient. It fits in well with other efforts such as using Energy report cards to boost conservation or a providing comparative information to tell people whether they use more energy than their neighbors. But will we wind up using it and reaping benefits? Maybe it will just be too laborious and conserving consumption needs to be primed by institutions. Perhaps it runs afoul of personal philosophies and requires broader cultural change.Not everybody is happy when civil society pushes efficiency efforts this side of China. It turns out that political ideology an affect the use of such tools that are seemingly for the common good. Liberals tend to be in favor of government support for investing in things like Patel’s smart meters. It is easy to believe that it will lead to more efficient energy use when consumers of are given tools to monitor their electricity usage in more detail. With additional information, rational consumers can use their electricity smarter and take a step towards lower energy use and carbon emissions.
But to some conservatives monitoring of any kind, including personal use of energy, violates their privacy. As to carbon emissions well global warming is a hoax and we should drill a bit more baby.
On top of this objection comes a study, reported in the NYTs by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors, economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn,
conclude that providing feedback on energy use can actually backfire with some conservatives. Costa and Kahn merged utility data from 80,000 homes with corresponding voter registration and donation records of the residents. The 2 economists found differences in general between Democrats and Republicans. These differences widened when a Democratic household showed evidence for favoring green initiatives – e.g. paying for electricity from renewable sources, donating to environmental groups and living in a neighborhood of fellow liberals. These reduced consumption by 3 percent in response to energy feedback.
In contrast, Republican households that didn’t adhere to such green/environmental behaviors actually increased its consumption by 1 percent. What’s going on here? The economists speculate that some conservatives may react angrily at being “told” to save energy and thus are out to prove a point. An alternative explanation is that some see from the feedback that their energy use is lower than average and reflexively increase it to match perceived norms – “I was just being too hard on myself I’ll leave the night light on like my rich neighbors and announce that I am rich enough to consume resources too”. Waste seems like the polite thing to do in some circumstances and at odds with pure reason. Taking home a doggie bag of food seems like bad taste and doesn't "impress" most dates. Sometimes there may be an implicit taboo established. Ever been in a bathroom situation where someone hasn't flushed? Is it rational to flush before you use the facilities or just good taste which should trump any possible value of water consumption?
The authors don't address all the issues but concluded their discussion by suggesting that other tactics than just efficient use of resources reinforced by a smiley face may be needed to get conservatives to conserve.
"One solution is to tailor messages to different groups," Costa said in an e-mail. "But another possibility is that at some point we may need to make the hard choices of taking costlier actions to lower electricity consumption."
We should not expect people to be sensitive to voluntary restraint in areas where they do not see a problem, but coercing them or having an institution do it may also get their back up.
"These costly choices," she explained, "could either be raising prices, which has the advantage of not just reducing current consumption but also of making houses built in years of high energy prices more energy efficient, or of imposing stricter building codes." But again some people will oppose this because they see this as government imposition – a bigger evil than consuming resources.
Political persuasion also plays a role in overall electricity consumption, the authors found. Registered Green Party members consume 9.6 percent less energy than Republicans; Democrats consume 3.9 percent less. The difference is even greater in summer months, with Greens consuming 11.1 percent less than Republicans.
"We cannot pin down why electricity consumption is lower in more liberal communities," the authors wrote. "Either liberals who choose to live in liberal communities are more liberal and practice greater voluntary restraint or social pressure in liberal communities encourages individuals to conserve on electricity consumption."
This phenomenon is, of course, much wider than just attitudes towards energy consumption. Adam Gopnik riffed on the anti-progress meme in an article ("Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat," The New Yorker, Sept. 12, 2011, pg. 42). Gopnik discusses contemporary mistakes and follies that some see as “part of some big, hitherto invisible pattern of decline.” What Gopnik does agree with is that a big part of these seem to have an element active choice as in the energy consumption situation. In his view it’s more than laziness of some distracted, passive indifference:
“people who don't want high-speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains, as the New York Post is offended by bike lanes and open-air plazas: these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals. Annoying liberals is a pleasure well worth paying for….
The reason we don't have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it's that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would, when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal. They hate fast trains and efficient airports for the same reason that seventeenth-century Protestants hated the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome when they saw them: they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised.”
Indeed. This uncomfortable thought explains some underlying micro-processes that foam up into the macro-level systemic paralysis that is abroad. It suggests that we’ll need much more than smart meters to save us from the path we seem to be on.