Monday, April 11, 2011

ENERGY CONSERVATION: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

“Spare at the spigot,” admonishes an old proverb, “and let out the bunghole.”  That rather tidily sums up America’s schizophrenic attitude toward energy conservation.  We gladly rally to trim our energy use by a few percent, whether at home, at work, or in our cars, but we ultimately feel little urgency to change the overwhelming wastefulness of our built environment.  

During the past thirty years, we’ve done plenty of “sparing at the spigot”, and that can only be applauded. We’ve passed minimal building energy standards such as California’s Title 24, but then wiped out much of the savings by building the sort of needlessly bloated, energy-guzzling homes that now sprawl across acre after acre of once pastoral landscape. We’ve enacted minimum standards for gas mileage--for some vehicles, at any rate-- yet we’ve made little headway in curbing our reliance on the automobile itself.  

How did we get into this jam? A fair share of the blame for our disastrous land-use policies belongs at the feet of the very people who insisted they knew better:  the postwar city planners. They’ve left us our current legacy of hyperorganized zoning ordinances which encourage--and in fact practically mandate--urban sprawl. These in turn have produced a national reliance upon the automobile that has only increased.  After a disastrous 2009 sales year, 2010 car sales were up by almost twelve percent. So were people taking the opportunity to buy more efficient vehicles? Not quite. Leading the 2010 recovery was the gas-guzzling Ford F series pickup truck, whose sales increased by almost 25%.  

And no wonder Americans remain auto-centered. Too many planners and state transportation departments still consider freeway expansion programs the solution to our mass transportation woes, even though it’s been demonstrated time and again that bigger highways merely invite more traffic instead of reducing it. 

We consumers are to blame as well, for buying into the idea that a snowballing trend of consumption is the very embodiment of success.  Even in the teeth of a nasty recession, we remain hooked on huge houses, and we're still willing to move out to the boondocks so we can afford them.  Many people now routinely drive an hour or even two to get to work--a commute that would have been considered perfectly absurd even twenty years ago.  Pretty soon, of course, the new community is as choked with cars and asphalt as the old one.  

The real pity is that we’ve recognized the folly of these trends for decades, and we’ve done next to nothing to even protest them, let alone change them.  And thanks to the hidebound attitudes of so many civic planning departments, little of substance has changed in our land use policy since the 1950s: Our hyperorganized zoning ordinances still jealously guard the outdated postwar ideal of the single family home surrounded by largely useless strips of “setback” land, and continue to frown on more intelligent arrangements such as zero-lot-line construction, courtyard homes, and mixed commercial and residential planning. 

By all means, save all the energy you can.  But while any move toward conservation is commendable, it’s America’s fundamental building practices that really need changing, not the position of the light switch in your hallway.  

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