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Eco-feedback can change our consuming ways

Simple eco-feedback devices would inform people instantly of their impact on the environment and, more importantly, how much it is costing them, writes Joan K.

Technological innovations have impacted society, forging changes in our culture and how people view the world.  The telephone, radio, and automobile were innovations with the strongest impact in the early 20th century. 

During the 1990s, the computer and internet impacted our culture by enabling individuals and companies to send much information to others within seconds.  The recent convergence of telephones, computers, and internet in small handheld devices or smart phones promises instant communication of audio, text, and video communication just about anywhere at anytime.

As with all technologies, these innovations have had both positive and negative consequences.  The positives relate to a shared sense of community that people felt by watching the same broadcast programs. People can learn about news events simultaneously and then share that information with others via phone or internet. 

Automobiles enabled families to visit relatives or see this country’s magnificent landscape. In addition, workers could move out to the country and commute to the cities to work, creating the suburbs, essentially redesigning the American landscape, for better or worse.  

While the negarives of these innovations are several, the enviromental effects are the most relevant to this essay.  Overpopulation around the world is fueling massive consumption of nonrenewable resources.

Unfortunatley,  technological innovation has not helped so far to alleviate the environmental strain.  Automobiles add to the global warming problems by promoting long commutes.   Increased electrical power needed for electronics is also warming the planet by spewing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Technology can be the solution to this dilemma, delivering an ecological balance between earth’s resources and human consumption. Many innovations including solar, wind, geothermal, hybrids, bio-fuels and other technologies have been developed but not adopted by Americans for the most part.   

 Widespread adoption of green technologies requires a major change in  American culture.  People must want to engage in a green lifestyle, decreasing their carbon footprint, not because it is fashionable but because they have a strong desire to do what is right for the planet.   And, it must be economical to do so.

So, the question becomes: What innovation can promote a fundamental change in our consuming culture? The innovation might be as simple as eco-feedback devices so that people know instantly their impact on the environment and more importantly, how much it is costing them. 

 For example, whenever someone turns on an oven, a panel in the kitchen could display how many watts are being used in real time and then show the environmental and monetary costs. Where I live in Appalachia, it might show mountains being blasted off to get at the coal used for generating electricity.  These panels could also list a more energy-efficient alternative, such as using a toaster oven or microwave. 

To illustrate further, sensors in a sink drain could detect polluting chemicals.   A voice with a visual display might show malformed frogs that are occuring in our nation's waterways as a result.    

At the end of the year, carbon footprint maps based on energy consumption would be displayed on these eco-feedback devices for homeowners.   A comparison to the average footprint in the locality and suggestions for improvement should help people engage in a green lifestyle. 

Hybrid cars already have a type of eco-feedback device by showing instant fuel economy in a display panel.  Many hybrid car owners  change their driving habits to save on gas because they get immediate feedback on what works. 

Manufacturers could add more features to the panel, such as carbon emissions. Maybe they could be combined with the GPS smart phone to tell drivers how they could combine errands or suggest alternatives.  

Of course, eco-feedback devices will not have a strong impact on our consumer culture if it is cheap to consume nonrenewable resources.  Government intervention is required so that the price of nonrenewable energy sources and pollution reflect their true environmental costs. Then, eco-feedback devices can have a strong impact on consumer culture.

Joan K is a retired professor from Virginia Tech living in the Appalachian mountains in the US. She blogs here.


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