Green Daydreams: How Much Energy Are We Really Saving?

Yesterday, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) took Obama administration officials to task for encouraging Americans to believe that the majority of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico had dispersed.

“People want to believe that everything is OK and I think this report and the way it is being discussed is giving many people a false sense of confidence regarding the state of the Gulf,” Markey said.

Belief, after all, is powerful force.  As coal baron Don Blankenship says, “You have to have your own beliefs, your own core beliefs, your own strengths and do what you think is right. You can’t do what others believe is right, you have to do what you believe is right.”

But what if your beliefs, even those backed up by science, are wrong? If you believed government officials who reported the oil in the Gulf of Mexico had dispersed — wrong. If you believed McDonald’s or Sara Lee really was helping save the planet — wrong. (Does anyone actually believe that one?) And if you believed you were conserving tons of energy by flicking off the light switches when you left the room — wrong again!

Gullible Greens

Wait, what? Yes, it turns out that environmentally friendly folk don’t know how little energy they save by line-drying clothes, recycling bottles, or turning off the lights, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum writes. Don’t worry! Those activities still conserve energy. Just not as much as you might have thought.

Drum’s evidence comes from a study that asked people to estimate the amount of energy they were saving by engaging in a given activity. Green-minded people tended to miss the mark on how much energy certain activities conserved. Perhaps they want to believe their conservation activities have a more dramatic impact, the studies’ authors suggested.

There’s a kicker, though. “The most accurate perceptions about energy use, it seems, are held by numerate, conservative homeowners who don’t bother trying to save energy,” Drum writes. Ouch. Apparently, knowing how much energy they’ll save, conservatives decide it’s not worth it to even try.

“A green-tinged fog”

But perhaps energy conservationists aren’t to blame for their own confusion. After all, as Anna Lappé writes at Yes! Magazine, corporations increasingly are using green messaging to sell their products:

McDonald’s recently launched an “Endangered Species” Happy Meal, “to engage kids in a fun and informative way about protecting the environment,” explains project partner Conservation International…. Earlier this year, Sara Lee unleashed with much fanfare a new line of “Earth Grains” bread that promotes “innovative farming practices that promote sustainable land use” as part of what the company calls its “Plot to Save the Earth.”

Lappé calls the confusion created by these campaigns “a green-tinged fog” that consumers can get lost in. And in the same way that green advertising is increasing, tips for green living are proliferating, which could explain the confusion about which ones are actually useful.

Government spin

But for the government, there’s no excuse for spreading misinformation. For instance, earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report showing that most of the oil in the Gulf had either been collected or dispersed. Scientists questioned the report from the very first day of its release, and this week evidence is mounting that the report misrepresented the situation in the Gulf.

At the Washington Independent, Andrew Restuccia writes that a group of scientists in Georgia have released a report countermanding the claims of the government’s study, and that other scientists have found a 21-mile smear of oil still in the Gulf.

Riki Ott reports at Chelsea Green on a more vivid argument against the Obama administration’s claims that the oil in the Gulf is no longer a problem:

Off Long Beach, Mississippi, on August 8, fisherman James “Catfish” Miller tied an oil absorbent pad onto a pole and lowered it 8-12 feet down into deceptively clear ocean water. When he pulled it up, the pad was soaked in oil, much to the startled amazement of his guests, including Dr. Timothy Davis with the Department of Health and Human Services National Disaster Medical System. Repeated samples produced the same result.

How’d it happen?

So what is the government’s excuse? Right now, NOAA is standing by its analysis, Restuccia reports. Bill Lehr, a senior scientist with the agency, said yesterday that NOAA will release more documentation supporting its claims in two months.

“I assure you it will bore everybody except those of us that do oil spill science,” he said, according to Restuccia.

But as Ott explains, part of the government’s issue is the standard they’re using to evaluate the fate of the oil to begin with:

The problem is the ‘rigorous safety standards’ are outdated. The protocol relies on visual oil. What of the underwater plumes? The chart produced by NOAA last week shows, in effect, that over 50 percent of the oil (not to mention dispersant) is still in the water column as dispersed or dissolved oil. Scientists have found that the oil-dispersant mixture is getting into the foodweb.

In other words, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. And in this case, what NOAA believes is less important than the scientific facts on the ground. To deal with the oil spilled in the Gulf, NOAA and its partners might have to admit that they were wrong.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. 

photo credit: thanks to gilliu00_ via flickr
by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger


Patti V.

thank you very thought provoking article

Avonne L7 years ago

WE, individually, are saving quite a bit. CFLs, power strips on each and every appliance small and large, every major appliance changed to an Energy Star appliance, windows, and soon - insulation and sealing have greatly reduced our average kwh use by over 40% in the last five years. We are looking forward to greater reductions once the insulation and sealants are in place and perhaps a solar panel or wind turbine. We have also reduced our water consumption by over 40% due to changes made in use and appliances.

But we, collectively, are not if you consider the growth in the global population for the last 50 years. It will only be through personal education, governmental regulation and corporation innovation that, collectively, we'll be able to make strides in reducing our energy consumption and toxic emissions.

Bill M.
Bill M.7 years ago

The author is responsible for a different type of green fog, too little about too much. Each topic alluded to by the author deserves an essay dedicated to the specific topic. Nor is it sufficient to toss condemnation out there as though with a bone to a dog, provide same data and proffer solutions. This is a problem with much of the material printed on Care2, long on emotional appeal and innuendo and short on data and solutions.

Jose M. C.
JOSE M. C7 years ago

Nice intentions, but this article spreads itself too thin. It ends up saying way too little about too many different things. Even a few pieces of hard data here and there would have gone a long way.

Mr T.
Marty S7 years ago

This article is pretty muddling. I'd like to hear some more actual facts on how much energy we are or aren't saving with green practices.

Jose Ramon F.

Rather than try to measure your exact energy savings, why not try to think of one more thing you could do to increase it?

Diane Y.
Diane Y7 years ago

Anyone who pays attention should be alarmed at the multitude of evironmnetal crises on planet earth today. The saddest thing to me is that ther underlying cause (overpopulation) is amlost always left out of discussions of these problems: depletion of energy reserves,deforestation, urbal sprawl, pollutuon, plastic in the ocean, species extinction etc. etc. etc. etc

Anthony P.
Anthony P7 years ago

There was no information in this article. It appears the author wanted are attention so they could put across their opinion on the gulf oil spill.

Biby C.
Biby C7 years ago

I may agree with you on the topics of oil spills and 'green-tinged fog' advertising. But no differrence made by switching off lights and line-drying clothes and all those little things we do?! Hold a knife against my throat and I'll still tell you you're wrong!

Cathi Hartline
Cathi H7 years ago

thank you!