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Planet-friendly design? Bah, humbug

The chief result of energy-efficient housing technology is in fact the rise of McMansions

ANDREW POTTER | Feb 13, 2007 | 05:52:22

All aboard the Save The Planet bandwagon -- seats are filling up fast. After years, even decades, of neglect from the political right and the pro-business media, this big blue marble of ours is getting all the love it can handle.

Exhibit A is the recent state of the union address, in which George W. Bush challenged America's scientists, entrepreneurs and farmers to join him in his goal of "Twenty in Ten," which involves reducing gasoline usage by 20 per cent in the next 10 years. Bush's newfound greenery sprouts from a useful confluence of interests: lower gasoline usage will lower America's reliance on foreign oil, so what is good for the planet also happens to be good for national security.

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But as the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out last week, there is a dreary Groundhog Day repetitiveness in all of this, since the promise to make the U.S. energy independent has been a staple of presidential addresses since 1973. The only thing that has varied over the years is the hoped-for technological breakthrough. Nuclear power, wind power, tidal power, synfuels, hydrogen cells -- none of those panned out. Do we have any reason to think ethanol will save the planet's bacon from broiling? Given that America has gone from importing 35 per cent of its oil in 1973 to 60 per cent of it today, the answer is, "not really."

For over 30 years now, the debate over sustainability has been marred by a fairly simple misunderstanding: that there is such a thing as a sustainable technology or a sustainable product. We believe, in other words, that sustainability is a function of design, and that we can somehow design our way to a greener, better world. We have missed the fact that sustainability is not a matter of how things are designed, but of how they are used.

Consider the hybrid car. When the first hybrids appeared on the American market seven years ago, they were hyped as a way to save gasoline and help end the country's dependence on imported oil, and to that end, people who bought hybrids were entitled to a substantial tax deduction. What the tax deduction ended up subsidizing, though, was not fuel efficiency, but performance. Hybrid cars squeeze more work out of a gallon of gasoline, and they give better acceleration at the low end of the speed range. So much so that in 2005, Consumer Reports magazine dismissed the hybrid version of the Honda Accord as a "green turbocharger," whose main feature was that it chopped over two seconds off the zero-to-60 time of the standard model. Meanwhile, the effect on fuel consumption was often nil.

This is an example of a kind of law of technological progress: improvements in efficiency end up making things bigger or faster while keeping energy consumption constant. A similar dynamic appears to be at work in the suburban housing market. The single most important consequence of new environmentally friendly housing technologies, for instance, has not been the development of small, extremely cost-effective housing, but rather the proliferation of McMansions. This is because most people tend to buy the biggest house they can afford. If high-efficiency furnaces and state-of-the-art insulation make houses less expensive to heat, people simply buy bigger houses. If low-emission glass and argon inserts improve the insulating properties of windows, they just install bigger windows, so the overall heat loss from the house remains unchanged. Our consumption habits seem to be ruled by a principle of "waste homeostasis," where the energy savings we get from better technology is used to fund better toys.

An analogue to this is the theory of risk homeostasis, developed by Gerald Wilde, a psychology professor at Queen's University. Wilde argues that each of us has a set level of risk that we find acceptable, and that when we lower the level of risk in one part of life we compensate with a corresponding rise in risk somewhere else. Wilde's work is frequently cited by libertarians fighting various forms of state paternalism, who argue that making cyclists wear helmets only makes them less attentive, or that forcing people to wear seatbelts only makes them drive more recklessly.

When it comes to social policy, the theory of risk homeostasis says it's pointless for the state to try to reduce overall risk. Rather, the state should directly reward the behaviour it wants more of, and directly punish behaviour it wants less of. So instead of forcing people to wear seatbelts, for instance, the state should impose massively punitive fines for speeding.

The same applies to the environment, where we should start thinking in terms of behaviour, not technology. If we want people to use less fuel, they need to drive slower, so maybe a sizable horsepower tax is in order. If we're bothered by the rise of McMansions, we need to think seriously about a luxury tax on window size and square footage.

President Bush's plan does nothing of this sort. Instead, Bush is proposing to use state subsidies to increase the supply of ethanol, and to bring America's pathetic fuel economy laws up to date. Neither of these will have the slightest effect, which is why "energy independence" will be a feature of state of the union addresses for decades to come.

To comment, email letters@macleans.ca


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