Less Oil, More Savings

Amid the tearing of hair, the gnashing of teeth, and the passing of blame accompanying the BP oil spill, a more pragmatic question occasionally emerges:

Will news of unprecedented death and destruction in the Gulf provoke Americans to finally reevaluate our dependence on oil?

Maybe, but if environmental (or national security, or health) concerns were enough to provoke a switch to clean energy, we’d probably all be using a lot less oil today.

As with most issues, money is a key factor in the discussion of oil dependence. And reducing unsustainable fuel usage can save households a lot of money. My Emissions Exchange is a web-based service that helps you reduce energy usage and costs in your home, and then sells your carbon credits on the global market. Users make some money off the sale of credits, but most savings—on average about $400 a year—come from fairly simple adjustments like air-drying clothes, reducing shower times, turning down the air-conditioning a degree or so.

Saving money generally has a broader and more immediate appeal than environmental causes. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate an extra $20 at the end of the month. And it helps that the financial results of personal greening are more clearly visible than the environmental ones. Say you eat less meat to discourage industrial farming, a major source of greenhouse gases. The personal sacrifice is evident (the absence of bacon in day-to-day life is quite noticeable to some) but the benefit to the environment is hard to quantify. However, your lower grocery bill is a welcome and immediately apparent sign of success. Likewise, if you turn down the air-conditioning this summer (here in DC, that seems like a lot to ask this week), you might have a harder time sleeping. A small sense of moral superiority might not be enough to balance out the sacrifice, but knowing how much you’re saving is a more tangible payoff.

Environmentalists haven’t succeeded in convincing Americans to use clean energy so far, but even the least environmentally conscious among us can’t help but be horrified by stories of the catastrophe in the Gulf. Combined with the lingering effects of the national recession, could this lead Americans to spend less on energy this year? Does news from the Gulf make you want to cut down your oil consumption? If not for the wildlife, would you do it for the savings?