Pollsters are seldom shocked by the responses they receive, but Tom Bowerman and Ezra Markowitz of the Eugene, Ore.-based nonprofit PolicyInteractive were genuinely amazed by the results of their 2008 statewide survey. They asked Oregonians to opine on the wisdom of reducing their level of energy consumption. To their amazement, they found 88 percent agreed with the sentiment. Over a series of follow-up polls, they attempted to shake that number, but they never got less than 74 percent agreement. Bowman recently discussed their “exploratory research project” and its implications for the climate change debate. Here are some of the answers offered in our interview:
What do people really want? “What we found is a longing for a cultural model which is substantially different than the one we set down 75 to 100 years ago. This transcends all ideological divides. Everybody’s on board with it. There’s unease when we survey the direction of the country; people say things like, ‘We’ve painted ourselves into a corner, and we don’t know how to get out of it.’
“Looking across all the polling results we have collected over the past two years, it appears that lowering consumption levels through downshifting, working less and spending more time with family may in fact be complementary narratives in the Oregonian, and perhaps the American, mindset. This shift in priorities could potentially yield lower consumption demands and thus greenhouse gas emissions.”
Is this less-is-more mindset reflected in people’s behavior? “We readily acknowledge that there is quite a distance between attitude and behavior. But attitude does count for something. It’s the precursor to behavior in many cases. It’s ground zero for long-term behavior shifts.
“We have shown that the public is favorably disposed to consume less and, in fact, there is some evidence that Americans began reducing their own consumption prior to the current recession. We believe such widely shared beliefs represent a possible opening toward conciliation between groups within the American public that are at odds with pressing environmental and social issues.”
Why aren’t policymakers embracing this impulse? “Revenue flows to public coffers comes from property taxes, income taxes and, in some states, sales taxes. The policymaker is struggling with how to create more business and more growth (to get the tax revenue they need). They want to grow our way out of climate change with a ‘green economy’ rather than thinking about our consumption patterns. But other countries consume considerably less than we do in the U.S., and they have higher self-reported levels of well-being and produce substantially less greenhouse gas emissions.”
Does this mean people are open to a consumption tax? “No. What I tell policymakers is if they want to work on an inverted utility rate structure or improve fuel-efficiency standards, it certainly appears you have support. But the idea of a broad-based consumption tax does not appear to be a salable product to me. People’s confidence in the ability of policy constructs to solve our problems is very low.”