Does being green conflict with American culture?

taking the wheel
Is an obscure hobby called "hypermiling" an especially "American" way to go green?
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

When "In the Loop" got listeners together to talk about environmentalism a few weeks ago, I kept thinking about what one person had to say on this topic:

"I think it's really hard for us to be green, because in a way it contradicts how we define ourselves as Americans," she said. "We define ourselves as independent people who value privacy. In order to be independent, we get in our individual cars and go where we want to, when we want to. We buy places out in the suburbs that are five acre, ten-acre lots now so that we have our privacy. And we don't want to give that up."

Without a doubt, our American cultural touchstones are a potent weapon for those directly opposed to the environmental movement. Here's Rush Limbaugh, in a radio show where he called environmentalism a threat to America and our Constitution:

Limbaugh: "Anti-freedom" and "gloom and doom"
Rush Limbaugh is among those who artfully use American values to argue against some environmental measures.
This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License, by "Infinite Jeff" at http://www.flickr.com/photos/infinitejeff/6183202/

"It is anti-capitalist; it is anti-freedom; it is pro-big government; it's pro-total control over as much of life as these people can engineer and one of the things they do is live in the world of doom and gloom."

Now even if we don't agree with Rush, he plays upon values most Americans share: economic freedom, personal control over our lives, and optimism.

And in subtle ways it's no surprise these instincts hold us back. When environmentalists cry "danger," that glances off many Americans like Ron Stoffel, a mild-mannered accountant from Minneapolis who responded to our questions on the topic.

"That's not a good thing going forward, to be 'the sky is falling, doom and gloom.' People want to understand what the issue is and how big it is, but to blow it out of proportion doesn't help either their image or what they're trying to get people to change. By scaring people -- I don't think that's the right way to do it," Stoffel says.

Ron Stoffel
Ron Stoffel is put off by much environmentalist rhetoric.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

Is it at the heart of the American character to be skeptical like that?

"To a certain extent, yes," Stoffel says. "And that may get back to how the country was founded -- that you don't want to get forced into something."

For the environmental movement, the task is to play the "American values" game as well as Rush Limbaugh -- and get folks like Ron Stoffel on board.

Lynette Zelezny is a professor of psychology at California State University Fresno who coauthored a paper on this very topic. "We see a great opportunity for the environmental movement to actually reframe the strategies of marketing environmental messages to Americans," Zelezny says. "We've really missed the mark in the past, which is one reason we feel it's been unsuccessful and is floundering currently."

In the language of psychology, Zelezny says the average American is "ego-centric" rather than "eco-centric." So: Don't talk to them about sacrifice and the common good -- many Americans hate that; talk about energy "independence." Don't dwell on ominous predictions; talk about taking control of our future. Talk less about saving our great green home and more about saving green on our power bills. And don't talk about catching up to the rest of the world; talk about beating them.

Hypermiler Kevin Moot
Kevin Moot isn't aiming for speed. He's one of a growing number of Americans indulging their competitive urge by shooting for ultra-high mileage.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

"This is a remarketing of the strategy, in trying to produce environmental behaviors but not necessarily for environmental reasons," says Zelezny.

Now, the movement might take a lesson from an obscure but growing hobby -- something called "hypermiling." Count Kevin Moot, of Bloomington, among its aficionados. "There are people who are speed freaks, and people who are fuel economy freaks," he says. "I'd probably fall into the latter category."

I went for a ride the other day with Kevin in his Honda Insight hybrid. Kevin works in tech support. He is no raging environmentalist -- never has been. Good old American values like competition, self-reliance, and control inspire him, and other hypermilers, to take their gas mileage very seriously: modifying their cars, sharing tips with each other, and overhauling their everyday driving habits.

"I'm driving in the right lane here, and there's a few cars passing me on the left," Kevin says, as he takes the Insight out for a spin near his home. "I'm going probably 10 miles below the posted speed limit, and I'm accelerating very slowly at this point."

Kevin's car is freezing, and his windows keep frosting up because using the defroster can kill your mileage. Hypermilers overinflate their tires, block their radiators, avoid using their brakes when possible, and will even turn off their cars on the highway to ride the tailwind created by semis. Not that Kevin does any of these sometimes-illegal things.

"I can't say anything that can be used against me in a court of law!" he laughs. "But the people who get over a hundred miles per gallon in a (Toyota) Prius or a Honda (Insight), that's exactly what they'll do."

Here's the thing: Hypermiling is a sport. And many of the athletes are hardly hippy tree-hugger types. Kevin competed in an MPG "race" this summer in Wisconsin, where saving the earth took a back-seat to red-blooded American competitive instinct.

"It was surprising how pumped-up people got. As the day went on, there was a leaderboard of who was getting the best mileage at the time. And I think when it got up to about 150, people were just, 'How can it get any better than this?' So obviously there's a huge competitive factor in there."

Kind of the opposite of NASCAR, but with the same kind of adrenaline rush.

Psychologists tell us one of the deepest American instincts is control. For hypermilers, it's not about sacrifice -- it's about seizing control of a new aspect of your life. It's a kind of control that doesn't exist yet for most of us who don't have a constantly changing MPG meter on our dashboard. For people with today's hybrid cars, it's that mileage reading -- not the speedometer -- that becomes the object of our American urge for personal control and achievement.

We wouldn't all be as obsessive as the hypermilers. But that mileage meter is a pretty remarkable example of how a specific change in our daily routine -- a small evolution in how information is presented -- can redefine those same American values that hold us back.

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