One solution to carbon pollution is a more economical lifestyle. Sharing cars, living in smaller homes, and generally saving energy are obvious ways to mitigate global warming. Will we adopt them, or will we continue with a more wasteful lifestyle that destroys the only planet we can live on?
Reagan versus Carter
The choice between environmental responsibility and waste is nicely illustrated by a piece of political theater from several decades ago. Ronald Reagan had Jimmy Carter's solar cells ripped off the White House roof, commenting that he would never settle for Americans having to save energy. In practical terms, Reagan won this debate. We are still Number One in energy consumption per person.
Reagan had minimal interest in the environment one way or the other. Trashing the White House solar panels was more of a statement about the Cold War. The implication was that if you want to save energy, or economize in other ways, go to an Iron Curtain country where virtually everything is scarce and where old people spend their day lining up to visit food stores that are perpetually depleted of basic necessities.
In America, there is always much more food than anyone wants to eat. It is a land of plenty where each generation consumes more, and enjoys a more luxurious lifestyle than their parents had.
Why the small house movement went nowhere
Reagan's frame of mind seems to be more common than Carter's. That may help to explain why the small home movement went nowhere.
Small homes are anywhere from a twentieth to around a quarter the size of a conventional home. They could be a huge financial advantage to young single people, saving around three-quarters of the initial cost of a conventional home and being much more economical to run.
Mostly built on trailers (to avoid building regulations), small homes need a site and they generally have trouble connecting to utilities. For these and other reasons, small houses are used mainly as supplementary living space for a conventional home and the market for them is, well, tiny.
Some environmentalists will always be interested in owning, designing, or building, small energy efficient homes but the mainstream house has gone in the opposite direction. Over the past quarter-century, the average number of people per household has shrunk but home size has gone straight up rising from 1,780 square feet in 1978 to 2,479 square feet in 2007. This means that the space per person has increased by about half.
Americans prefer even larger homes. That may be because home ownership is considered a sign of economic success and functions both as a form of investment and a means to finance a child's education or other substantial expense.
Turning from the home to the second largest big-ticket item, the car, will the environment fare better from car sharing?
Can car sharing succeed where tiny homes failed?
The success of taxi services like Uber is good for the environment because cars are used more efficiently by doubling as private vehicles and taxis and fewer need to be manufactured. The main reason for this success may be that the service is more responsive than conventional taxi companies so that users spend less time standing around in the rain. It has very little to do with environmental views.
Car sharing is a well organized form of short-term car rental from companies like Zipcar and Car2Go. In car sharing, clients drive themselves, in addition to making the reservation, picking the car up and returning it. Car sharing services are emerging because this is much cheaper than owning a car. Indeed, a car sharing membership can get by with ten times fewer cars than individual ownership requires. That change may not be primarily motivated by environmentalism either but it is very good for the environment (if bad for car companies and auto workers).
If car sharing were adopted by the majority of Americans, there would be a huge drop in car sales and in oil consumption. Large cities would suddenly be relieved of traffic jams and urban air quality would improve.
That has not happened, alas. Car sharing remains too small a fraction of driving to really have an impact either on energy consumption, or pollution. Anyone who wishes for that to change should not hold their breath.
A car is not just a machine for getting around. It is also both a status symbol and a projection of personal identity. That, and a growing economy, are the reasons that car sales are increasing from year to year rather than declining.
Carter was decades ahead of his time and remarkably prescient in his environmental views. Reagan may not have known much about environmental issues but his views on energy consumption have been far more influential.
Most Americans don't want to live in a tiny trailer or putter around in a shared car, environment be damned! Neither do the residents of any other country. In principle, global warming may be a solvable problem but we seem incapable of accepting the solution.