Personal conservation habits will never be enough
I’m not sure if NYT’s Elisabeth Bumiller intended to write a piece of sly satire with this story on Bush’s conservation efforts, but it’s brilliant nonetheless.
You may recall that last week Bush called on Americans to conserve energy by driving less, turning off the lights, etc. He instructed federal gov’t agencies to "cut back on nonessential travel and also encouraged them to carpool, telecommute and use public transportation."
The ironies here are rich and multifarious, but let us first quote at length from Bumiller’s piece, which is just too delicious:
Meanwhile, members of the administration were not especially responsive last week to questions about their personal conservation strategies.
When asked by e-mail what he was doing to conserve, Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, hit "reply" and asked, "What are you doing to conserve?"
Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, said that she was avoiding nonessential travel because "I’m working so much that I don’t have time to go anywhere personally."
Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman’s spokesman did not say what Mr. Bodman was doing personally, although he did say that Mr. Bodman had asked employees to actually read the president’s conservation directive.
Back at the White House, it was unclear how many people, if any, had turned in their parking passes for Metro rides. But there was one incentive: "You can get it back – it’s like squatters’ rights," said Trent Duffy, the deputy White House press secretary. "You don’t have to give up parking permanently."
I find Mr. Bodman’s efforts particularly heroic. Getting low-level gov’t employees to actually read a memo from the boss!
But on a more serious and wonky note:
As I’ve tried to argue before, this emphasis on conservation as a personal virtue is vastly overrated. As an energy expert notes in Bumiller’s piece, if you could persuade every American to turn off the lights, properly inflate their tires, carpool to work, turn up the thermostat a bit, etc., you could save a substantial amount of energy. But two things:
- It wouldn’t be enough energy, and more importantly,
- you can’t persuade every American to do so, even if you’re a much better orator and a much more plausible source of moral authority than George W. Bush.
The subset of people willing to sacrifice creature comforts in the name of the environment is always going to be relatively small. Such is human nature. If your program relies on the sacrifices of American consumers, your program is destined to failure. It’s akin to attempting to eliminate poverty by calling on Americans to donate to local churches (oh, wait, Bush did that too).
Recall what the public-health guy said: "We’ve spent years making the healthy choice the most difficult choice. We need to make it the easy choice." Replace "healthy" with "eco-friendly," and there you have it.
It is the structure of people’s lives that largely determines their granular habits. We need to change that structure, and that requires coordinated, large-scale action. It is, in other words, a matter of public policy.
This is what’s pernicious about Bush’s — and mainstream enviros’ — calls for personal rectitude. They cast as personal what is properly political. They let greens off easy (hey, I turned off my lights!).
Bush has his hands on the very levers of power that could shift public policy, and he’s been going in the wrong direction for years. Happy talk about turning up the thermometer doesn’t make him any less blameworthy on that score.