Putting real numbers on greeny goodness

Seth Godin examines greeniness as a marketing problem, and finds the environmental movement’s advocacy of living with less to be at odds with humanity’s age-old impulse to pursue More.

It’s a campaign about less, not more. Even worse, there’s no orthodoxy. There’s argument about whether x or y is a better approach. Argument about how much is enough. As long as there’s wiggle room, our desire for more will trump peer pressure to do less. “Fight global warming” is a fine slogan, except it’s meaningless. That’s like dieters everywhere shouting, “eat less” while they stand in line to get bleu cheese dressing from the salad bar.

His proposal: find ways of measuring Less in such a way that it comes across as More. Godin likes real-time mileage measurements in cars, for example, such as the one in the Prius’s dashboard showing you just how much distance you’re getting for a litre or a gallon of gasoline. “And put the same number on an LCD display on the rear bumper,” he says.

There’s already a community of radical-mileage hacker types who try to outdo each other with their Toyotas, which got a bit of attention a month or so ago. From Bloomberg News:

Toya, a 56-year-old manager for a tofumaker in central Japan, puts special tires on his Prius, tapes plastic and cardboard over the engine, and blocks the grill with foam rubber. He drives without shoes and hacks into his car’s computer — all in the pursuit of maximum distance with minimum gasoline.

Toya is one of about 100 nenpimania, Japanese for “mileage maniacs,” or hybrid owners who compete against each other to squeeze as much as 115 miles per gallon out of their cars. In a country where gasoline costs more than $4 a gallon, at least $1 more than the U.S. price, enthusiasts tweak their cars and hone driving techniques to cut fuel bills and gain bragging rights.

These people’s test-drives would seem to burn a lot of fuel rather gratuitously, but they do prove Godin’s point.

The same basic idea underlies Toronto’s Zerofootprint experiment (getting people to compare their environmental efforts and get competitive about it) and many others. It turns environmentalism into a measurable positional good — something you want because you can lord it over other people in some way, even if only in your own secret heart — not just an abstract one.

Positional goods, the apex of consumerism, ultimately make the world go ’round. The efficiency argument for environmentalism — that you’ll have more cash in your bank account if you waste less — will go a long way, but social position is an even stronger motivator. Godin’s right that we’d be much better off if we could turn the pursuit of positional goods into something positive, rather than pure wastefulness.

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