Last night, I was listening to a BBC program on NPR (I often listen to the BBC -- NPR here runs BBC shows from 11ish on, and I drive out to the field site way too late some nights). In the show, they interviewed someone who had done studies about when people are more likely to personally conserve.
The conservation issue is tricky. A lot of people think "man, I would have to do *a lot* of work to conserve stuff, and would my one part really make a difference?" I certainly feel that way sometimes. In the show, the interviewee said his studies conclusively show that people are not more likely to conserve because of the environment, or because of political reasons, or even because of the added cost (really, how many people started driving significantly less because of the gas price hikes? Not many, I'm willing to bet. They just kvetch more).
Apparently, people are more willing to conserve when the people around them are conserving. Therefore, if you have lots of neighbors who have gone push mower, you're more likely to do the same. Ditto with turning off lights (maybe roommates influence this more? I wish I had that kind of influence on my roommates), saving water, and buying less stuff.
This brings me to my next thought on energy conservation. By conservation, I'm talking about using less electricity, water, and oil. I have to say that I am honestly shocked by how much of a fight people put up regarding conservation issues.
1. I didn't know that people actually vacuum their hardwood floors. Who does that? Apparently, lots of people do. I can't even imagine that. First of all, it's a waste of energy. You still have to use your energy to move the thing, and you also have to use your energy to get it out, set it up, etc. Then, you are also using electricity to power the machine. I could see perhaps that people might sweep and then dust bust the pile to make sure it all gets up, but I feel that it's wholly unnecessary for the majority of people (that is to say, I understand why some people with mobility issues might have an easier time vacuuming up the pile. But most Americans don't have that issue).
2. Water conservation. We all know that we shouldn't leave the water running while we brush our teeth. But people still leave the water running when they wash dishes! I've even repeatedly mentioned this one to my roommates, as I find it particularly galling. We don't fill the sink to wash dishes here, since we each wash our own dishes, and there is rarely a sinkfull worth of stuff. But some of my roommates will pour a bunch of soap in a pan, turn the tap on full, put a bunch of water into the pan (thereby undoing the benefit of all the soap they just put in, since the soap is now dilute and not working as effectively), and then continue to run the water as they scrub the pan outside of the flow of water. I honestly don't understand that one either, especially since we have to pay for water. And this isn't an isolated issue; I've seen it with many a roommate. It still frustrates me.
A little part of me also wants to say that people should learn how to take navy showers. I think that day is fast approaching, honestly. I don't follow the rule myself -- yet -- so I'm not too outraged. But there is a definite benefit to getting showerheads with an easy off flip switch so that you can cut the water while soaping up but still retain the water temperature you picked from your faucet. I actually think I'll buy a new showerhead (maybe even a low flow one, if the water pressure is good) when I move into my new place so that I can train myself to take quicker showers with less water. I've done it before at hostels, and it's not so bad; many hostels have push button showers, and you only get water for about 10 seconds after pushing the button. Definitely cuts down water use -- you get the water to wet yourself and rinse off, but you don't have water running as you lather up.
3. Plastic bags. The thorn in my side with almost everyone I know. I'll be blunt here, people: THERE IS NO REASON TO GET PLASTIC BAGS EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU GO TO THE STORE. None whatsoever. From a lot of people, I get the "well, I reuse all my bags, so [whine whine whine]." Granted, for pet owners, I can see reuse of bags. I'd rather pet owners took the plastic bags than didn't pick up after their pet (on the other hand, biobags are nice sized, biodegradable bags that are perfect for picking up after pets). Honestly, I see no reason that more people can't use reusable bags. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods now sell affordable, reusable bags. Recycle canvas bags from conferences. Hit up goodwill. You can still put your meat in plastic; nothing says that you can't use a mix of canvas and plastic (or canvas, plastic, and paper). Every excuse I've ever heard from anyone just seems to hinge on laziness or initial cost. Laziness is the frustrating one, and initial cost is the product of economic fallacy. Just because you're not directly paying for the plastic bag does not mean that it doesn't cost money in many ways. Bags cost money up front with the environmental cost of removing oil from the earth and trucking it across the globe. They cost in the extra money you pay for groceries because bags are provided. They cost in the other part of their lifecycle, when you pay ever increasing costs for removing garbage and placing it in landfills.
I'm quite heartened by the recent push to ban plastic bags. I think it's a good move. I definitely think store owners, especially at grocery stores, should just stop providing bags. It works quite well in Europe, and I think people in the US would get used to it despite initial kvetching.
4. Driving. I won't get started. Suffice to say that I have strong feelings when people routinely feel the need to drive distances less than half a mile. And then there's electricity use and the need to always have lights on. And so much more. I haven't even touched on every area, but I think that's enough for one rant. I hit three things that are bothering me right now.
This things I mentioned might be little, but I don't think they take too much work (okay, the navy shower might be a bit extreme. Once I get into it, I'll write a post for everyone about how great they are. Maybe). But learning how to slightly alter your water habits, or making the move to reduce the number of plastic bags you're personally using, or deciding to use your own muscle power instead of sucking a little electricity . . . these things add up over time. And as the study showed, other people are more likely to conserve if they see you setting a good example. People love to think they're normal, so they'll do what other people are doing. Start the trend in your town.