When it comes to environmental advocacy, I’m not interested in personal virtue. For me, this is not a moral crusade. Yes people may install solar panels or drive a hybrid car out of a sense of moral obligation to the planet, a commendable sentiment when coupled with effective action to reduce one's impact on the planet. But I don’t think we will make the changes we need by trying to instill greater piety in people. I think we make the changes in our energy economy by working to reach the tipping point where the economic advantages of renewable energy are too compelling for us to turn back. I prefer to think about changing economic systems rather than nudging people to live more virtuous lives.
The fallacy that this is about piety permeates the discussion about energy. Dick Cheney said ten years ago
, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”
Cheney’s first fallacy is confusing conservation and efficiency. Conservation is driving less or turning down the thermostat. Efficiency is using less energy to provide the same benefit.
His second fallacy is confusing inputs with outputs. Energy use is not perfectly correlated with economic output. The amount of energy required to support a dollar of GDP
has fallen by half since World War II.
This leads to his third fallacy: thinking that using less energy requires deprivation. I am not as interested in instilling personal virtue in others as I am in creating a cleaner and more efficient energy economy. It’s the idea that environmentalists are scolds who want to deprive their neighbors of a warm (or cool), brightly lit home at a reasonable cost that creates so much of the resistance to renewable energy policies.
This is the basis of much of the criticism of Al Gore for not living frugally enough. When Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I predicted that his critics “will probably point out his hypocrisy when he flies to Stockholm to receive his award instead of traveling by kayak.”
Similar criticism has been leveled at Michelle Obama for eating an occasional burger and fries. This kind of carping just doesn't belong in a serious discussion about problems affecting millions of lives.