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Americans Adjust Their Lifestyles, Slowly, to Changes in Energy Use

Moving away from fossil fuels does not have to mean a lower quality of life and higher energy costs, some experts say. Last in a series.

SPEAKING to boosters of new oil drilling in Alaska recently, Energy Secretary James Watkins said, "I believe the American people think that the Bill of Rights has in there $1.06 per gallon for unleaded. That's what they want and that's what we ought to give them."Mr. Watkins comment was meant to be more humorous than cynical, but it raises important questions: As supplies of nonrenewable energy run out - as they eventually will - will Americans have to radically alter their lifestyles? Will they have to shiver in the dark and let their gas-guzzling cars gather dust as they woefully contemplate an identity tied to cheap oil? Or are those the wrong questions? Will the shift to new energy sources, including greater efficiency, in fact present new opportunities for individuals, families, and communities? Opportunities not only to treat the environment more kindly - both in terms of what we extract from the Earth and put into the atmosphere - but to demonstrate social and personal values and attain a more secure economy as well. Many Americans already are doing this. In Bellevue, Wash., writer Alesa Lightbourne, her husband Aaron Silverberg, and their three children added extra insulation to their house, put in skylights, and replaced their electric water heater with a gas one. None of this was prohibitively expensive, she says, and they're paying much less for electricity. They ride bikes whenever they can, "eat lower on the food chain," consolidate shopping and other auto trips, and organize neighborhood potluck suppers and play readings for entertainment. "In suburbia, it's tough," says Ms. Lightbourne, "But we're trying to make our community more of a village. "All of this ties together," she says. "We help the planet and we help our spirit. We focus more on real virtues like time with the family." Engineer Hal Harvey, executive director of the Energy Foundation in San Francisco, says his family's conscious efforts to consume less energy have meant "no compromise in lifestyle" and in fact save money. Investing in added insulation, an energy-efficient refrigerator, and compact fluorescent light bulbs has brought their total monthly energy bill down to $24. Mr. Harvey's commute to work is 10 minutes longer than when he was driving across the Golden Gate bridge, but he's gained a half hour of bicycle exercise and an hour's reading time on the ferry. "I never have the frustration of sitting in traffic," he says. "We can expect that the switch-over to energy-efficiency and renewable energy will improve our quality of life and make our lives more pleasant, not less - and all at a considerable profit," asserts Robert Gilman, founding editor and publisher of "In Context," a quarterly journal on sustainable development. The Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C., group headed by business leaders, says four "simple, available, proven, and cost-effective energy efficient technologies ... can save more than 6 percent of all the energy used in the United States, save the economy almost $20 billion each year, and avoid more than 10 percent of all US carbon dioxide emissions." The four technologies are energy-efficient windows, compact fluorescent light bulbs, efficient oil burners, and industrial pipe insulation. Energy analyst Nicholas Lenssen of the Worldwatch Institute believes the overall cost of energy to the individual will be about the same once renewable sources and efficiency are in widespread use. Initially, he says, transportation fuel will be more costly, but hydrogen fuel and electric vehicles eventually will make up for that. In the meantime, Honda and Mitsubishi recently announced development of new engines that will achieve nearly 50 m.p.g. in city driving. A Volvo prototype gets 71 m.p.g. The shift away from such heavy reliance on petroleum, says Mr. Lenssen, means "energy systems will be much more secure. We won't be relying on huge flows from one part of the planet to the other. Without those transmission bottlenecks, homeowners will have greater reliability." Americans clearly and enthusiastically agree with the need to save energy and are willing to do so - up to a point. A survey conducted by Republican pollster Vincent Breglio and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake for the Alliance to Save Energy and the Union of Concerned Scientists showed those favoring reduced energy demand outnumber those wanting an increased supply by more than 3 to 1. Eighty-four percent favor boosting auto gas mileage standards to 40 m.p.g. by the year 2000, and almost all of those would pay $500 more per car to do so. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll earlier this month showed 67 percent willing to pay 15 or 20 cents more per gallon for cleaner gasoline. But a similar majority opposes a 25-cent-a-gallon tax to encourage less driving. And while most respondents in an Abt Associates survey consider the environment when buying a product, very few make the connection between energy efficiency and reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. What's needed, many experts say, are more tax and investment policies that encourage energy efficiency - like California's rebate program for efficient refrigerators. This would cut the payback time on such investments. More important, perhaps, is the need for political leadership to encourage wiser use of energy. "It's unfortunate that the administration didn't do that at the time of the Gulf war," says Abt Associates senior analyst Andrew Stoeckle. "It could have been touted as a patriotic thing to do." Public attitudes are changing, however, as more and more Americans get the word that saving energy can make them feel smart and virtuous, as well as save money. Says Dr. Gilman: "The only things that we really need to give up are our wasteful technologies and our cowardice in confronting those special interests - and those habits of thinking within ourselves - that are attempting to block and delay these beneficial changes."

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