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President-elect Barack Obama wants America to kick its addiction to foreign oil. He also wants the energy industry to go "green" and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide it produces — CO2 that causes global warming.
Cutting back is easy enough when energy and oil prices are sky-high. But as Obama said on a recent CBS News 60 Minutes program, our memories are short.
"This has been our pattern: We go from shock to trance. Oil prices go up, everybody goes into a flurry of activity, and then the prices go back down and suddenly we act like it's not important and we start filling up our SUVs again." As a result, Obama added, "We never make any progress."
People who promote energy efficiency are starting to realize that it may take more than high prices to get consumers to change their habits. The recent drop in gas prices drove home that realization.
Instead, they say they need something more fundamental to motivate people. So efficiency boosters are turning to social marketers to find out how to change energy consumption habits. Social marketing is the use of public media to get people to make the right choices for society.
But what works? One effective tactic: fear of death. Social marketers give themselves high marks for getting people to stop smoking. But energy is different. As social marketer Merrill Shugoll of Shugoll Research explains, Big Oil is not the same as Big Tobacco. People need energy, she says — they don't need cigarettes.
"Fear doesn't always work," Shugoll says. Clear, consistent information about where energy comes from and how its use affects the environment is what people need more of, she notes. But that means knowing more than how many kilowatt hours a refrigerator uses in a year.
"People buy on emotion, and they justify with the facts," says Maria Vargas, a director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program.
Energy Star certifies and labels energy-efficient appliances, and the program uses information from social marketers to craft its message. According to Vargas, if you want to change consumers' behavior, you have to appeal to their hearts. She says the Energy Star program not only quantifies how much you can save in dollars and cents with an efficient refrigerator, but it also tells consumers that each individual can, in fact, help protect the environment by using less energy.
Rozanne Weissman of the Alliance to Save Energy, an efficiency advocacy group, says people also want to feel that they're making an intelligent choice in addition to saving money. The Alliance's Drive $marter Challenge campaign offers such tips as inflating your tires properly and avoiding jack-rabbit starts to get people to save gas.
"People want to be smart about their choices," Weissman says. "They want to know more, and they want dollar signs attached to [driving] tips so they can make a determination to their own bottom line."
Social marketers say there are some things to avoid when you're trying to make people change their energy appetites. A big one is the idea of sacrifice. President Jimmy Carter tried that when he put on a sweater and told Americans to turn down the thermostat. It didn't work.