A Reuters story, “U.S. struggles to build green homes,” describes Americans’ deep seated resistance to doing the right thing, energy-wise:
Regardless of the sales pitch, energy efficiency is an opportunity that Americans shun….
While gas-guzzling vehicles draw the most criticism, homes and businesses consume even more energy — 40 percent of the U.S. total in 2005 versus 28 percent for transportation — and provide the biggest potential for savings.
The U.S. Green Building Council says structures built to its standards can cut energy usage 20 to 80 percent using available technologies such as compact fluorescent lighting and high-efficiency building shells and water heating.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency, which advises rich governments, says more efficient use of energy can do far more to cut carbon dioxide emissions than either a shift to renewable energies or nuclear power in coming decades.
The problem is that builders and consumers don’t want to change their habits, and lawmakers are reluctant to take them on. Consumers are eager to spend on glitzy amenities, but aren’t willing to pay more for more energy-efficient homes unless the payback is rapid, meaning less than three years, when prototype energy saving homes show four-year recoupment.
This failure reveals a lack of political will and personal responsibility. It’s always easier to build things to be environmentally efficient from the outset than to retrofit, but the incentives aren’t there to induce most builders to convert to more energy efficient designs, particularly if the end buyers aren’t so keen. Legislators and regulators have been willing to impose costs and restrict freedoms when it comes to product liability, requiring safety belts, air bags, the use of child seats. Despite considerable industry opposition and lukewarm consumer support, these rules have been passed. Why should collective safety be any different than individual safety? In fact, in that case, there is a much stronger argument for intervention.
So how do you change behavior? One method is building codes. Another, as we have discussed before, is an energy or carbon tax. This would not only change the payback on investing in energy savings, but would change behavior on other fronts. It isn’t just the design and the construction of the homes that’s a problem, it’s also the very fondness for dispersed single family residences. Higher energy prices would induce some to favor housing in denser locations, with shorter commutes, and around the margin would also favor multi-family dwellings.
And there is PR and the media. The American culture glorifies conspicuous consumption, and it is reinforced on TV, in magazines, and in movies. Now it’s hard to compete with the power of advertising, but perhaps being green could be spun as an elite consumer positions (to a degree, that’s already true) and being “not green” could be depicted as being uncool.
Finally, there are the evangelicals. Many of them are adopting a pro-environment stance. They represent a lot of buying power. Why hasn’t someone figured out how to harness them?