Rethink: Changing Gears

Rethink: Changing Gears

Nov 12, 2014 – the headline reads ‘As gas prices slide, U.S. car buyers go for size, shun hybrids’. In brief, the article identifies that for Americans, their preference is larger vehicles. A shift to smaller vehicles occurs only when gas costs get too high. When gas prices go down, vehicle size goes up. 

American culture is a car culture. It is also a culture of consumption - competitive consumption – work more and consume more. A culture of status defined through material goods, including large vehicles.

So what happened to fuel economy? It improved. It improved enough that many people do not see it as an issue any more. A quote in the article from auto analyst Brian Johnson sums it up: "A new Ford Escape (crossover SUV) is more fuel efficient than a 10-year-old Camry". 

The question we need to ask however is ‘Is the fuel efficiency of a 10-year-old Camry good enough?’

If we look only at end-user choices, perhaps the answer could be yes. Why?

It comes down to culture. What do we value? What do we consider normal? 

Is a culture of large vehicles sustainable? Is a culture with a bias towards individual car ownership sustainable? Is a culture that measures economic vitality through resource consumption sustainable? 

These questions are of course all economic questions. The sustainability of societies is not measured solely in environmental terms. It is measured in environmental, human, and economic terms. 

The mistake we can make when we talk about sustainability is to focus on the environment alone, often pitting it against our economy. Such a battle is pointless, as we need both to flourish. 

But clearly, our current economic models are not sustainable. Build more, build bigger, consume more, own more, until it all comes crashing down.  

The time for change is now. 

It begins by questioning our obsession with economic growth, measured through consumption. It begins by questioning our use and dispose mindset. It begins by recognizing the full impacts of our choices. 

The power for change is with producers but there has to be a payoff in producing sustainable products. This is where it comes down to culture. What is it that we value? Is it the ability to change our cars every few years? Is it the ability to have larger vehicles thanks to technological advancement? Is it to put short-term gains ahead of long-term considerations, to put individual wants ahead of global realities? 

Many articles have been written on the failures of our societies to become sustainable along with several proposals on how to move towards a sustainable world. Perhaps the most important message in all of them is the time for change is now.

It is time for us to shift gears towards sustainable societies.  

Future blog posts will examine some of the first steps we can all take, including how we at the Museum are striving to work towards reducing our own ‘ ecological footprint’. (William Rees & Mathis Wackernagel developed the concept of the ecological footprint to measure the amount of land required to sustain a person, city, business, nation, or humanity.)  

Photo credit: Kaushik.chug / Wikicommons 

The views expressed by the author(s) of Rethink are not necessarily reflective of the organization and are provided as ideas for consideration in context of a changing world view.