"Americans are just too greedy."
That's the title of a recent op-ed from University of Manitoba distinguished professor Vaclav Smil. Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the piece was no less than a written thrashing of American society. Writing on the American people’s propensity to overconsume, Smil labeled Americans as "wasteful" and "living beyond their means." He even called us fat:
The parallels with America's great public-health epidemic of obesity are inescapable. Even after throwing away some 40 percent of its abundant food supply, the United States still has the industrialized world's most overweight population.
Is He Right?
Despite his patronizing tone, Smil does make some pointed and truthful observations about the American economy and society. His aforementioned argument concerning wasted food is both true and embarrassing, and it wasn't the only trenchant remark to arise:
The United States consumes nearly twice as much energy per capita as the richest countries of the European Union, which raises the question: What has it gotten in return?
Are Americans twice as rich as the French? Are they twice as educated as the Germans? Do they live twice as long as the Swedes? Are they twice as happy as the Danes or twice as safe as the Dutch?
The answer to all of the questions above is decidedly "no." Our immoderate consumption does not yield any overt benefits, yet we Americans are still hesitant by and large to reshape our consumption practices. Why is this?
Energy Conservation Isn't Easy
For starters, energy conservation is just not sexy. When was the last time that you were brimming with excitement about re-insulating your attic? What's more tantalizing: A 6.2-liter supercharged V8 engine with 580 horsepower and 556 lb.-ft. of torque or a 1.4-liter automatic that gets 40 MPG on the highway? How enthusiastic would you be if you unwrapped a power strip on your birthday?
I'm sure that there are plenty of Americans who would prefer the hybrid to the muscle car or who adore practical gifts ("Oh boy, socks!"), but the simple fact is that this does not ring true for the majority of citizens.
The marketing of energy conservation is also an issue. The standard tagline of "spend money to save more money" is clearly not tempting to the average consumer. Until a new method is found to effectively market energy conservation, Americans will be reluctant to buy into it.
Google and General Motors are definitely on the right track to discovering a functional selling strategy. Google, with its $280 million investment in SolarCity, is intent on bringing solar power to the people. SolarCity installs the panels for free. The customer pays a cheaper rate on electricity. Google makes a profit.
GM, with the Chevy Volt, is attempting to re-write the definition of a hybrid car. The Volt is sleek, sexy, and fun to drive. All of the engine's torque is available at a "pedal's press", so accelerating can generate the same "stomach drop" sensation that you might feel when riding a roller coaster.
Another detractor preventing Americans from fully adopting energy conservation is that it requires change, and change is hard. This is a problem evident both at the societal level -- a prime example being our gridlocked political system -- and at the neurological level.
A 2010 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered that at a fundamental level, when faced with a difficult choice, humans tend to stick with the default decision: They choose not to act. As pointed out by the study's researchers, this tendency can lead to more errors in judgment.
America's default state of affairs currently promotes energy overconsumption. Our country's infrastructure is based upon inefficient forms of transportation and fossil fuel-burning sources of power. Today, builders are building castles, not homes. Since 1950, house sizes have doubled while the average number of persons per household has declined.
Is "Biggest and Best" Always Best?
Lastly, energy conservation seems to be partially contradictory to a facet of the American psyche that has made our country what it is today. Americans have always been attracted to having the "biggest and best."
This axiom has proven to be both an advantage and an obstacle. It has been the driving force behind the greatest scientific, technological, and economic advancements in the history of mankind, but it has also compelled us to wantonly consume or, as Vaclav Smil put it, to amass the latest and greatest "energy-intensive throwaway products on credit."
Hard Lessons from a Harsh Critic?
I disagree with Smil's overly simplified explanation for why Americans don't conserve energy. We are not "too greedy." The reasons for our carelessness with resources are numerous, and each person may have his or her own.
What Americans must ask themselves is whether or not those reasons merit continued intemperance with energy, food, and natural resources.
Because we, as Americans, have been blessed with the one of the highest standards of living on planet Earth. We earned it. We worked hard for it. Which is all the more reason that we must not waste it away.