Diet for a Small Plant

Photograph CC Nick Castonguay by-NC-SA 3.0

Dinner salad or double-bacon cheeseburger? When dieting, some choices are obvious. But when it comes to cutting back on the amount of vital and scarce resources we, as a society, consume, the options are as numerous as the tradeoffs are complicated. Oregonians voiced their opinions about such issues in a survey, "How Much Is Enough? Examining the Public's Beliefs about Consumption," conducted by Ezra Markowitz, MS '08, and Tom Bowerman '69. An overview of the results is presented below in an article by Ronald Bailey titled "Deconsumption Versus Dematerialization: How to Protect the Environment by Doing More with Less," published in Reason magazine and on Reason.com.

“How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement: We’d all be better off if we consumed less.” That’s a survey item reported in a new study by University of Oregon researcher Ezra Markowitz and Tom Bowerman of the Eugene, Oregon-based environmental polling and policy shop, PolicyInteractive. Their study, “How Much Is Enough? Examining the Public’s Beliefs about Consumption,” is in the [February 5, 2011] issue of the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.

In five polls of Oregonians and one national survey, they find 74 to 80 percent of respondents “support reducing consumption and believe doing so would improve societal and individual well-being.” Markowitz and Bowerman interpret their poll results as challenging “conventional wisdom about our collective and never-ending need for consumption of material goods.” Armed with these poll results, they hope to persuade policymakers that Americans are ready to “deconsume” for the sake of the environment, cutting back purchases of material goods, and especially reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Digging deeper in one poll, Markowitz and Bowerman found that 84 percent agreed that cutting consumption would “be better for the Earth,” 67 percent agreed that we would then have more time to spend with family and friends, and 84 percent believed lowering consumption would lead to greater self-reliance. But talk is cheap, especially when answering pollsters’ questions. So the researchers sensibly probed further with a poll that asked respondents to choose among several different public policy proposals aimed at cutting consumption. It’s worth going through their results.

The Oregonians polled, it turns out, are not all that eager to tax their own consumption. Majorities were against a luxury tax on houses bigger than 2,500 square feet or costing more than $300,000 (62 percent opposed); a tax on houses bigger than 5,000 square feet and costing $500,000 (50 percent opposed); a 10 cent per gallon gasoline tax (63 percent opposed); a program to tax energy when its price is low and invest the funds in conservation (64 percent opposed); charging a one cent fee for each kilowatt hour consumed once a household consumes $100 of energy in a month (71 percent opposed); a luxury fee on second homes (56 percent opposed); a $1,000 new vehicle tax on cars that get fewer than 25 miles per gallon (62 percent opposed); and a one cent per mile carbon tax on airplane travel (58 percent opposed).

These results mirror similar findings in a June 2010 national poll by the Institute for Energy Research, which found that 70 percent of respondents opposed any new energy taxes aimed at reducing dependence on foreign oil or reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The same poll found that 61 percent opposed any increase in gasoline taxes. In another politically liberal state, Massachusetts, a January 2010 poll asked about residents’ support for the Cape Wind energy project. The pollsters found that “while 42 percent of respondents are less likely to support the Cape Wind project if their bill increased by $50 per year, this percentage increases to 67 percent at the $100 increase per year threshold and to 78 percent at the $150 increase per year threshold.”

Markowitz and Bowerman found that Oregonians were, however, happy to cut the consumption of the rich, favoring a 5 percent luxury tax on private yachts, airplanes, and motor homes (61 percent for). In addition, 76 percent are for utility rates structured so that the per unit charge goes up with increased energy consumption; 75 percent approve of making energy efficiency standards on new buildings stricter, and 57 percent favor boosting automobile fuel efficiency standards.

Taking into account the fact that their poll respondents don’t seem much interested in policies aimed at encouraging deconsumption, Markowitz and Bowerman mildly observe that other policy avenues besides taxing consumption might be more fruitfully pursued. They suggest publicity campaigns. “If consuming less of nonessential goods and services is beneficial or necessary for long-term survival of our species, then it seems it would be prudent to publicize the widely held ‘consume less’ disposition,” they write. They hope that if people knew that their neighbors favored deconsumption, a cultural shift in attitudes would lead to lower consumption.