More Sex Is Better With Energy Efficiency

by KC Golden, via the GRIP Blog

My first foray into this topic, “Sex is better with energy efficiency,” was warmly – aye, steamingly – received.  (We are a simple people, no?)  So let’s dive deeper…

First, for the record:  Jimmy Carter is a great man, a courageous humanitarian, and a vastly underappreciated former President.  It’s not his fault.  But one of the founding myths of the modern energy efficiency “movement”, if we can call it that, is that his “moral equivalent of war” speech and his fireside chats on energy were a huge cultural setback for conservation.

By framing energy conservation as a moral proposition (goes the myth) he made it somehow trivial, sentimental, insubstantial.  In order to elevate energy efficiency to its proper place as a big manly energy alternative, we must think of it not as a lecture, not as a lifestyle admonition, but as an energy resource — just like a power plant.   We must never, ever call it “conservation,” because that smacks of moralism; we must call it “efficiency” in order to underscore its practical, effective, hard-nosed utility as an energy option.

I wish to explode this myth.

The problem wasn’t that Jimmy Carter framed conservation as a moral issue. It IS a moral issue (AND a our largest, cheapest, most important energy resource). The problem, in a nutshell, was The Sweater.

To observe that The Sweater was profoundly unattractive is to dwell on the obvious.  But the issue goes well beyond the butt-ugliness.  The problem was that The Sweater, and its wearer, came to symbolize national impotence, and the weakness rubbed off on energy conservation.  Look at that damned cardigan; a bald eagle wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing!  It’s fuzzy and pathetic and yella!

Once again, Jimmy Carter is a great man and it wasn’t his fault, but his Presidency occupies a place of doubt and deprecation in an American myth that celebrates exceptionalism and virility.  That he was followed by the strapping, ruddy, anti-ambivalent  Ronald Reagan was no accident.  “Morning in America” was the light at the end of the dark tunnel of national tentativeness for which the Carter era is (inaccurately) remembered.  The cardigan became a pathetic symbol of that, and the “malaise” oozed out all over energy conservation.

Which is why, inspired by a great upwelling of national pride, or something, I googled up these images.  I think you will agree that they illustrate a keen grasp of marketing on my part.

(Important preliminary research finding:  Penelope Cruz apparently does not wear sweaters.)

It may take another blog post to get to it, but there is actually a point to all this.  And it’s not just that we need to make energy efficiency sexier.

It’s that the clean energy transition must be enormous and robust.  And it must be accelerated in an era when large public institutions are increasingly prevented from doing much of anything, let alone enormous, robust things.

We can’t give up on large institutions – we must redemocratize them.  But we also need to drive the clean energy revolution up from the bottom.  Powered by distributed technology, connected by interactive media, and affirmed by new cultural norms and rewards (including but not limited to sex; but hey, might as well start with sex), the clean energy revolution is gaining inexorable momentum, even though it remains formally undeclared.  And we have to lean into that cultural transition, not run away from it.

Moral imperatives and psychosocial rewards CAN go together….just not in a yellow cardigan.

We’ll shoot to get more GRIP on that down the road.

KC Golden writes for Grip on Climate. This piece was originally published at the GRIP blog and was reprinted with permission.

20 Responses to More Sex Is Better With Energy Efficiency

  1. I have never understood mens fashion. Preident Carter’s sweater said nothing to me but that we should not waste energy. It didn’t make him a wuss. He wasn’t wearing grandma’s shawl. It was just a sweater. Everyone wears sweaters. Should it have been more stylish? Perhaps, but the fate of the world shouldn’t depend on such things, should it?

  2. Gail says:

    Sex sells as we all know but I don’t think it would have made any difference if Penelope Cruz had delivered Jimmy Carter’s message. It’s what I call the “doing the dishes” argument I used to get from my family when the children were growing up.

    Everyone would say they hadn’t done their dishes because they didn’t like the way I asked. This was completely bogus, it never made one iota of difference HOW I asked, the fact is, they just didn’t want to do the dishes and no amount of trying to make it “fun” – playing with bubbles? – was going to persuade them that it WAS fun.

    This is at the root of denialism. Deniers know that we can’t replace the intense concentration of fossil fuels with renewables. The convenience and power aren’t there. The only way to deal with climate change – and we should have done this back when Jimmy Carter gave that speech – is to drastically curtail consumption of fuel AND everything else, including our production of offspring.

    Climate activists and scientists that try to convince the public otherwise are doing humanity a disservice, because it’s not convincing…because it isn’t true. Real sustainability means no growth, and for that to happen, our entire profit-driven industrial civilization needs to be overturned and replaced with much simpler, localized communities.

    Of course I don’t see that happening so we may as well talk about sex.

  3. You make some excellent points KC.

  4. Chris Winter says:

    “The only way to deal with climate change — and we should have done this back when Jimmy Carter gave that speech — is to drastically curtail consumption of fuel AND everything else, including our production of offspring.”

    Quite right. Can you imagine a way to sneak that in, or sugar-coat it, so that measures moving us in that direction become law? Or so cultural norms shift to make non-growth more acceptable? Because I agree that the direct approach incurs too much angst.

    Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
    Cannot bear very much reality.
    – T.S. Elliot — Burnt Norton (No. 1 of ‘Four Quartets’)

  5. Chris Winter says:

    “(Important preliminary research finding: Penelope Cruz apparently does not wear sweaters.)”

    Neither does Paris Hilton, apparently. She appears next to your post in an advert for the daily Progress Report, which tells us that “Paris Hilton is NOT a job creator.”

  6. Paul Klinkman says:

    Two themes run through all of rock and roll, from the late 1960s up through today. One theme is “we want lovers” and we’re not talking about any merely mooning eyes stuff. The second theme is “what a bunch of crooks and stooges!” This theme covers the waterfront all the way from Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” to Devo’s “Mongoloid” to Green Day’s “American Idiot”.

    Mister Rogers, with his support of the Shah of Iran and his use of Taft-Hartley against the coal miners, didn’t really command much progressive moral force at the time. He told us peons how we could do tiny things but didn’t tell Exxon how they could do lots more. Nor did he challenge the Republicans to right the country.

  7. M Tucker says:

    “Deniers know that we can’t replace the intense concentration of fossil fuels with renewables.”

    You seem to accept this as a forgone conclusion. I say we can. I have seen proposals from many in the energy field that say we can achieve just that. It is true the deniers want us to believe otherwise but then they would. It will take a tremendous effort and it will consume resources and it will put people to work. But it is something we can control. We can actually end our dependency on fossil fuels.

  8. Doug Bostrom says:

    Where would we be without a sense of humor?

    Thanks for this; grim to the brim is deadly monotonous after a while.

  9. Lisa Boucher says:

    Re: moral issues

    The climate crisis is the most important moral issue of our age.

    Democracy is broken in the modern industrial world.  We are ruled by the capitalist marketplace (“corporations”), and that marketplace dismisses “moralism” because capitalism itself is an amoral system.

    My understanding is that the emergence of capitalism (before the industrial revolution), was initially stymied by the longstanding moral prohibition against acquisitiveness.  That changed when the Catholic Church declared that the accumulation of excess wealth was no longer necessarily a mortal sin.  And so the misbegotten notion was born that greed could be harnessed for the “common good.”

    Today, I see many Catholic leaders trying to stuff the “cat” back into the bag.  But it’s too late.

    I thought these comments in 2008 were interesting:

    Some of the negative reaction in the press can be attributed to the fact that “our modern society doesn’t like to talk about sin,” said Bohan.  He said the “church has become unpopular” because it continues to confront people with the immorality of their “willfully destructive” behaviour.

    Destruction of the environment is essentially based in the “deadly sin” of greed, he added.  That is, it is based on the desire to have more regardless of the impact on the poor in our own country, the poor in other countries and future generations.  It is a failure to love one’s neighbor.

    — Archbishop Daniel J. Bohan of Regina, Canada

    We now confront a system that is premised upon endless, growing exploitation of nature and human labor.  In my view, it is crucial to understand that we should not pretend that the climate crisis will be solved within the capitalist framework.

    Despite their scientific illiteracy, climate deniers generally understand these political implications far better than those who accept climatology.  But deniers mistakenly think that state socialism is the only alternative system, and it seems they would rather be dead than red.

  10. SecularAnimist says:

    Gail wrote: “Deniers know that we can’t replace the intense concentration of fossil fuels with renewables.”

    It’s not clear what you mean by that.

    Solar and wind energy can easily provide vastly MORE energy than we now get from burning fossil fuels, and they can do so indefinitely, with no pollution.

    On the other hand, solar and wind energy are widely distributed and freely available throughout most of the world — particularly in the USA — so it’s true that they are not “intensely concentrated” in a relatively few places where they can be profitably extracted and sold in the way that fossil fuels are. Which of course makes the entire business model of the fossil fuel corporations obsolete.

  11. Christopher S. Johnson says:

    But KC, there *IS* a difference between efficiency and conservation. They really are two different things, and while I applaud sweater wearing and conservation, people need to know EFFICIENCY means getting the SAME amount of light, hot showers, and cold beers, as before, but using a mere fraction of the energy. Sacrifice is noble and realistically necessary but EFFICIENCY isn’t about sacrificing anything. There are zero discomforts and coal plants still get shut down. The LED lightbulb and modern refrigerators are perfect examples of this. A smart grid would be another.

  12. KC Golden says:

    Yeah, I hear you Christopher, and I make that distinction too. But we often make emphasize in order to increase the comfort and engagement of folks who don’t accept the moral imperative. And by doing so, we implicitly undermine the imperative, when I think we need to start running toward it.

  13. Mark Shapiro says:

    Absolutely correct: “there *IS* a difference between efficiency and conservation.”

    And both are valuable.

    And both work very well together with renewables to produce clean energy. And better sex.

  14. Lisa Boucher says:

    I agree with Gail — because the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) for wind and solar power is too small to replace fossil fuels without a significant decrease in total energy consumption.

    But you don’t need to take our word for it.  Richard Heinberg has been saying the same thing for at least 12 years.  His latest book is The End of Growth, in which he continues his theme of Powerdown.

    In 2009, Heinberg wrote Searching for a Miracle — which is available here for free.  The 83-page report refutes the idea that our modern industrial society can be sustained with wind and solar energy:

    Contrary to the hopes of many, there is no clear practical scenario by which we can replace the energy from today’s conventional sources with sufficient energy from alternative sources to sustain industrial society at its present scale of operations.  To achieve such a transition would require (1) a vast financial investment beyond society’s practical abilities, (2) a very long time — too long in practical terms — for build-out, and (3) significant sacrifices in terms of energy quality and reliability.

    Perhaps the most significant limit to future energy supplies is the “net energy” factor — the requirement that energy systems yield more energy than is invested in their construction and operation.  There is a strong likelihood that future energy systems, both conventional and alternative, will have higher energy input costs than those that powered industrial societies during the last century.  We will come back to this point repeatedly.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well reality is in the process of biting humanity on the bum. That ought to get our attention.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Democracy’ is nothing but a cover for elite plutocratic rule. That’s what Churchill, an elitist to his bootstraps, meant by ‘Democracy is the worst system apart from all the rest’ (to protect elite privilege). Democracy in any meaningful sense is impossible in mass societies of millions where real, ie economic, power is intensely concentrated, not equitably distributed.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I hate to tell you, but if you visit New Zealand you will find ‘better sex’ pronounced as ‘bitter sux’.

  18. James says:

    Very insightful post, however I do find serious fault with one of your central findings. Please see the below link.

  19. Adam says:

    Truth! Good stuff here

  20. Tom Carlson says:

    Check out Penelope Cruz making energy efficiency sexy in a sweater: