Friday, September 30, 2005

Why Conservation Doesn't Work

Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) is introducing legislation to raise the fuel economy requirements for cars to 33 miles per gallon by 2015. Republicans for Environmental Protection describes the rationale:

Since America holds only 2 percent of global oil reserves, increased domestic production would add little slack to the oil market. America accounts for 25 percent of global oil demand, but 98 percent of global oil reserves are in foreign countries. Consequently, an energy policy that perpetuates America's oil dependence is a poor strategic choice.

In contrast, we can exert more control over our energy destiny by reducing fuel demand through greater efficiency. The National Academy of Sciences has documented that technology is available today to produce safe vehicles that get substantially better mileage.

Improving mileage by as little as 2 mpg would cut gasoline demand by 1 million barrels per day, equivalent to all the growth in U.S. gasoline demand since 1997.

I'm going to speak some heresy here--conservation doesn't work. Not voluntary conservation, anyway. Jimmy Carter was rightly mocked in the 1970s for asking Americans to wear sweaters as part of his energy policy, and GW Bush should be mocked as heartily. We know from clinical trials of depression, ADHD, and other psychiatric disorders that 'Behavioral' interventions--defined as those that rely on changing habits and offering rewards/punishments--only work as long as the intervention period lasts. As soon as the patient stops meeting with the therapist, the changes all go away.

The real solution is making the desired behavior flow directly from the system, rather than imposing change from without. In other words, for ADHD for example, it's better to have class in a room with less distractions, than to punish a kid each time he gets out of his seat. Likewise, it's a more sustainable program to provide incentives for buying smaller cars, than it is to release the strategic oil reserve with each shortage. And it certainly makes more sense to level the playing field for car manufacturers by having them all adhere to an aggressive fuel efficiency requirement than to have the Commander-in-Chief periodically exhort Americans to drive less.

H/T Moderate Republican