American consumers face a lot of choices and wield
tremendous economic power; they drive two-thirds of the American economy. But
do they keep the environment in mind as they make their decisions? Most people
have at least a passing concern for the environment and will choose what they
perceive as the more environmentally friendly good or service, all other things
being equal.

Consumers must process information from the latest
sustainability and “health benefits” studies, which is often in
conflict with messages they received in previous studies. Think of margarine
and butter. I’m sure we’ve all heard both margarine and butter are better for
you than the substitute at different times, but do most of us really understand
the science behind each choice and which causes more carbon emissions? My
personal decision-making process goes something like: “I Can’t Believe
It’s Not Butter” tastes pretty good to me, so I’m going to buy that.

And consumers face many of these dilemmas throughout life.
After we use a public restroom, does it cause more environmental harm to use a
disposable paper towel or run an electric hand dryer? Well, I really don’t want
to hang out for 30 seconds while hot air dries my hands, so I grab a paper
towel and go. When consumers face imperfect information and uncertainty between
tradeoffs, it’s irrational to assume they will frequently make environmentally
friendly decisions.

Recently released studies have brought the conventional
environmentalist wisdom into question. Two studies released in the journal
Science found that biofuel production actually creates more carbon emissions
once you consider the land use changes to grow more crops and all the
inputs required to grow, refine and transport the crops than if we
just stick with gasoline. Yet gas stations cheerfully advertise the 10 percent
ethanol additive in the gasoline they sell, and consumers feel great about
buying it.

In his new book, British environmentalist Chris Goodall
questions whether walking is actually more environmentally friendly than
driving. He says if the walker replaces the lost energy from walking with
animal products — such as milk — it likely leads to more carbon production
than if the walker had simply driven to the store.

Conservatives will try to fit these new studies into a
narrative about the futility of government involvement in the economy for
environmental protection. But I believe these studies furnish further proof
that people can’t be relied on to preserve the environment through the
idealization of personal responsibility and public awareness.

It also shows that local governments, like Dane County and
the city of Madison, don’t have the resources, jurisdiction or the information
to confront the kind of monumental environmental challenges we’re currently
facing. While it might be a nice gesture for Madison to ban non-plastic grocery
bags or disposable water bottles at public events, it’s truly a drop in the
bucket.

The federal government must ensure the right incentives are
created on a national and international scale to encourage the truly
environmentally sustainable activities and discourage the destructive ones.
When Ireland imposed a fee for plastic grocery bags in 2002, their consumption
dropped 94 percent within weeks. Use of plastic grocery bags quickly became
socially unacceptable.

Not only must the prices be adjusted, but consumers must be
made to really feel the costs and benefits of their behavior. John Tierney
reported in The New York Times last week on a new study from California
that? showed a neighborhood ?the cost of their energy consumption
right on their thermostats. It also allowed for a comparison to their other
neighbors’ average consumption. While the experiment worked for the higher users,
the lower users actually increased their consumption. Only when “smiley
faces” were associated with being below the average usage did low users
remain frugal.

This research is fascinating, but at the end of the day,
only federal government action can create the kind of economic and societal
restructuring of incentives that face consumers through taxes, subsidies and
investments so that Americans can finally begin to shop their interests.

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Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is
a junior majoring in political science and economics.