Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
August 17th, 2006

Europe All the Time, New York When It Needs To

On a recent trip to Europe I was reminded of the fact that Europeans are so much more conservation oriented and energy efficient than Americans.  The lights in hotel hallways are off until you walk by the sensor or push a button; they go on for two minutes and then go off again.  Motion sensors everywhere that turn lights on in hallways, stairwells and public spaces. In Munich I saw something for the first time: public escalators that don’t move until someone walks onto it and passes the motion detector.  All over downtown Munich there were non-moving escalators, waiting.

Then of course are the small cars, the tiny two-seater sedans that even if not electric must get close to 50 miles per gallon. Then of course all the bicycles.  In Berlin, and much more so in Munich it seemed like the preferred mode of transportation. At a couple of suburban train stations, I saw literally hundreds of bicycles that had been left by train commuters. [Guess there is also a difference in the level of theft].  Everywhere there were bicycles.

All of this made a real impression on me.  It made me again realize how energy indulgent we Americans are.  Lights always on, escalators always moving whether they are being used or not, frigid air conditioning that drives people to wear sweaters inside during the summer,  and everything big, big, big.

The week after I came back from Europe I took a trip to New York City during a record heat wave.  This was the one a couple of weeks ago when, for three days the highs were 95-102 degrees.  This was two weeks after another heat wave when overuse of the electric grid had caused a black-out in some areas.  To avoid another black out, Mayor Bloomberg launched a major communications effort to ask people to turn off lights, to lower the output of air conditioners and to do what they could to lessen electric use.

Guess what? Everybody seemed to respond. ‘Can do’ New Yorkers rose to the occasion.  I remember one day when I went into three different, large office buildings and half of the lobby lights were off in every one.  That same day I noticed that some of the track lighting in two different restaurants had been turned off.  I was in several different office suites, and all of them had a noticeable number of ceiling lights switched off. So when called upon Americans can act energy intelligent.  Granted the actions were to avoid something bad, another black out, but people did seem to get a sense of purpose in these actions; a ‘we’re doing our part’ kind of feeling.

Having just returned from Europe I couldn’t but help see this through that filter. Hey, maybe the most energy indulgent country in the history can change and act with the intelligence of the Europeans.  Treat energy as a valuable rather than disposable resource. It is a valuable resource.  We have only decades of petroleum left.  We need to stretch that timeline as much as we can to buy time to make the discoveries and create the innovative inventions that can move us to no longer need petroleum and to operate on renewable sources of energy.  Humanity can have an incredibly bright future, but only if this problem is solved.

There were two ingredients in the New York experience that perhaps Americans need to break their energy habits: fear and hands on, well communicated leadership.  The fear of another black out and Mayor Bloomberg’s omnipresent messaging won the day in New York.  Americans need to visualize what life would be like with $7 gas and regular black-outs.  Truly see that vision and use it as motivation to act differently. 

As for the concerned, hands on and visionary leadership, we all look to Washington to hopefully find some.  Mobilize the country to win this effort similar to the home front mobilization during WWII.  Provide a vision, and therefore create the innovation, similar to the man on the moon effort.  To paraphrase a 60s song about alienation: where have you gone John F. Kennedy, our nation casts it leaderless eyes to you.

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