A Vicious Cycle

By: Jessica Stavole, Energy and Built Environment Working Group Project Intern

Energy consumption patterns seem to trend in the same general direction; the more we consume in our daily behaviors, the more that is produced, imported or transmitted.  The development of renewable and alternative technologies seems to also follow a similar cycle of simple economics; we tend to place more effort into the public development of such technologies when there is a high demand for them.  As “green” as our attitude may be toward consumption, there is a certain point that when reached, it seems that we cannot do much as individuals besides read into the policy behind the madness and hope for the best.

Lately, here has been quite a push toward alternative fuels for vehicles such as hybrid-electric, diesel, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG).  ImageCNG emits very few greenhouse gases during its lifespan, offering benefits such as low maintenance costs and tax credits, whereas an average compact vehicle in the United States, according to a study done by the EPA, emits 20.9g of CO per mile, 1.39g of NOx per mile, 2.80g of CH4 per mile and 0.916lbs of CO2 per mile.  Yet, despite all of the benefits associated with this newer technology, consumers are hesitant to buy into it as public CNG refueling stations across the country are both sparse and scattered with large upfront costs.  In order for CNG cars to work their way into being a viable household vehicular choice, more refueling stations need to exist but for more refueling stations to exist, the demand for CNG vehicles must rise and so, a vicious cycle ensues.

We see this cycle in many areas of sustainability, from the consumption of plastic water bottles to our use of multiple vehicles per household.  If there is no motivation behind purchasing reusable water bottles or CNG capable vehicles, will the vicious cycle just continue?  If the demand of plastic water bottles was to decrease, supply would eventually follow in suit.  Likewise, if the supply of plastic water bottles was to decrease, demand would also follow in suit.  But without any real incentive, why would the average American step away from the immediate gratification of the consumer culture?  Beyond policy incentives, what might cause a change in opinion about the way we view things that are so easily consumed such as plastics and gasoline in vehicles?  What has to change first?

Often, we are told that our culture, defined by over-consumption and even reckless consumption at times, lacks the motivation necessary to changing our behavior.  Sometimes I wonder if it is actually a lack of motivation or a surplus of availability.  Our consumption patterns seem to show a habitual trend; a lifestyle choice that seems to have become less and less of a choice with time.  Policy can, in actuality, only contribute so much to our economy.  There must also exist a willpower to change, to create a better environment for both ourselves and future generations.


One thought on “A Vicious Cycle

  1. As a social and cultural anthropology student, I found this story of consumer culture to be very interesting. Your description of supply and demand mirrors the whole, “what came first: the chicken or the egg,” phrase, which is true in many cases. I agree that to many who exhibit a Western mentality, the idea that money can buy happiness is very prevalent. However, this consumerist frame of mind is not uniform in time or in culture. In the past, during economic depressions, thriftiness was a virtue. And today, depending on one’s upbringing or socioeconomic class, frugality can be the preferred way of life.

    The majority of our culture can probably be defined as consumerist, however, as history and as modern exceptions show us, ours is not a lost cause. Culture is constantly changing and we are constantly adapting our behaviors to better suit our survival. Modern technology has made it easier for us to limit our adaptations, so hopefully it won’t take a depression to teach us how to decrease our wastefulness. Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but our species has proven itself to be capable of creatively engineering our way out of trouble. Hopefully, enough people will realize the issues your blog entry discusses before we dig ourselves any deeper and build our landfills any higher.

    Now to comment on some specifics of this blog entry:

    What exactly the the “policy behind the madness” that can “only contribute so much to our economy?”

    Also, what is a “surplus of availability?” Do you mean an excess of available products, or money, or free time?

    Concerning CNG, I believe that in this case, the government and businesses have more resources to popularize this technology than do individuals. In my amateur opinion, it’s a matter of, “if you build it, they will come.” I feel that the presence of CNG refueling stations, and of affordable CNG-run automobiles, would be motivation in itself.

    Lastly, I’m no economics expert, but if the supply of plastic water bottles was to decrease, wouldn’t demand increase since the individual bottles would be scarce and therefore more valuable?

    Really thought-provoking blog entry. Thanks for getting my brain juices flowing!

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