Americans Don't Know How To Save Energy & The Green Movement is Partially to Blame

light switches photo

photo: Paul Cross via flickr

A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science shows that many Americans really miss the big picture when it comes to saving energy, thinking that small behavioral changes have a far greater impact than they do.A full 20% of respondents said that just flicking off the light switch was the best approach, even though there are far more effective ways to save energy. Other overrated behavioral changes cited include unplugging electronic devices and phone chargers, and driving more slowly.

It's not that those acts are useless, but if you want big savings and not just making token gestures there are more effective ways of going about it. But apparently that message hasn't gotten through.

Only 2.8% of people cited buying a more efficient car was important; 2.1% of people said purchasing more energy efficient appliances would result in savings. If more people did these things big savings, in the 30% range, are in order--and you don't necessarily have buy vehicles or appliances that are hyper-efficient if what you're currently using is truly an energy hog.

People Focus on Too Much on What They Do, Not How They Do It
Lead researcher Shahzeen Attari, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University's Earth Institute says many people pick the things that are cheapest and easiest to do in the moment and focused on what Attari calls curtailment--doing the same things, but less of it.

Attari points out, "switching to efficient technologies generally allows you to maintain your behavior and save a great deal more energy."

Wrong Messages Sent on How to Save Energy
But back to the messaging part. Attari notes that there was been a failure of communication by scientists, government, industry and environmentalists alike. Instead of more forcefully promoting the importance of these bigger changes, the focus has been on recycling drives and the small steps many people cite as being important.

Reflecting on that it seems that it is partially true. But hopefully that may be changing.

Green Movement Messaging Has Evolved in Past Several Years
Thankfully as 'going green' has morphed, reclaiming its heritage as 'environmentalism' there has been less of a focus on 'simple green steps' and the like--there aren't too many articles about the perils of vampire power being written anymore, and even the micro-management of carbon footprint (which is higher, apples or oranges?) has dropped off.

It hasn't stopped entirely however, the public messaging at this year's Earth Day celebrations in New York City was largely--not entirely, thankfully--still based around small lifestyle changes and recycling as being the most important things that the individual can do.

But in many ways the movement and media have collectively had the realization that Attari alludes to: There are some bigger, longer-term but still relatively simple things people can do to save energy and reduce their environmental impact. In many ways, its not radical new breakthroughs that are required to save energy (even if new research is always welcome); it's more widely adopting energy saving technologies that already exist.

So perhaps, as the messaging changes here, public perception will shift. Based on what was suggested over the past couple years, it's not surprising that most people think just turning off the lights or unplugging the cell phone charger is sufficient.

Read the original study: Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings
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More on Saving Energy:
Ed Begley Jr. on Saving Energy, Saving Money, and Looking Up
Energy Efficiency: Twice the Impact of Renewables, Nuclear and Clean Coal Combined
Crowdsourcing the Most Energy-Efficient Life
Nation's First TV Energy Efficiency Standards Will Cut CO2 by 3.5 Million Tons

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