Talking green: Consumers should think before buying
December 22, 2012
What's better for the environment, people in Steamboat Springs buying electric cars, or taking advantage of the bike paths? Are solar panels best for the environment, or should homeowners invest in insulation and LED lighting?
University of California visiting scholar Ozzie Zehner, who is in Steamboat for the holidays visiting family, discussed those types of thought-provoking questions during the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council's Talking Green event Thursday. The goal of his book "Green Illusions," published in June, is to motivate people and leaders to think about ways they can truly have a positive environmental impact without getting caught up in so-called green illusions.
Zehner told his Thursday audience that green technologies such as solar cells and electric cars can seduce consumers into thinking they have found the answer to replace fossil fuel consumption. He said green technologies aren't necessarily the "saviors" we think they are because they require fossil fuels for the mining of materials, fabrication, installation, maintenance and traditional power plants that backstop renewable energy.
Zehner earned a master's degree in the sociology of science at the University of Amsterdam and now lives in San Francisco, but he often visits Steamboat. He includes the positive example of the Yampa River Core Trail in his book, noting that the miles-long concrete path is a good model of a "real greening impact" for other cities to follow.
"Looking at pedestrian infrastructure has a strong greening impact but doesn't get as much attention on the local and national stage and doesn't create profit in the economy in the same way," Zehner said.
As an example, he said electric cars receive support from auto companies that seek a profit as well as from national-level lobbying, policy-making and research. But the cause for creating more bike paths and bike lanes receives limited national support.
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Renewable energy technologies can lead to an "energy boomerang" because people think the tools are "clean, cheap and limitless," Zehner said, which can push consumer materialism and energy-intensive production. He said the key is to focus on reducing the ever-growing energy use levels and plugging the holes in the leaking U.S. "energy bucket."
On a national scale, the U.S. wastes half of the energy produced through inefficiencies in transportation systems, power grids and buildings. He said the Netherlands, for example, uses half the electricity of the U.S. per capita but has an equal standard of living.
"The top 10 happiest counties in the world on average use 40 percent less energy than the U.S.," Zehner said.
Often, the complexity of the U.S.'s sheer size, diversity and political lobbying can keep great ideas used in other counties from becoming a reality here. In Germany, consumers can place a legally binding "Bitte keine Werbung" sticker on their mailboxes to keep junk mail from being delivered. Zehner said utilizing this strategy to reduce the energy to produce, deliver and then dispose of junk mail would have a stronger environmental impact in the U.S. than all of the country's currently planned and existing solar systems.
Zehner said the country is at crossroads where "social and environmental problems converge." Improvements in widespread health care coverage, human rights, walking, cycling, transit systems and energy efficiency upgrades would have a greater and more affordable impact than renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and biomass.
More information about Zehner and his book can be found at http://www.greenillusions.org.
The next YVSC Talking Green topic is "Green Building Products: Oxymoron or Panacea?" on Jan. 22 at Steamboat Smokehouse. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.