Thoughts: Sustainability has a PR Problem

One of the messages shown to students at the start of the current YCISL NIFTI program is that “Sustainability has a PR Problem.” The idea behind this statement is that sustainability messaging has probably peaked. I believe there are two main reasons. Firstly, most people are tired of negative news from the media and news about sustainability gets filtered or drowned out quickly. Secondly, sustainability is usually presented in a significant loss-frame which fractionates attention. People are not motivated to live sustainably under these conditions.

The sustainability issue I have been thinking about to analyze this lack of motivation and poor messaging is the push to EV transportation. Do we need EVs? The answer isn’t clear and obvious. In a mass market, EVs could be a huge sustainability problem with uncertain resilience and reliability leading to un-even benefit. EVs can be inefficient and that has already been demonstrated by poor distance performance when driven at highway speeds – below EPA estimates. And if you have personally had poor experiences with electronics and battery-operated devices, your trust in EVs could be very low. It’s understandable. Cash incentives don’t help because that shows EVs are not a strong compelling choice.

For tens of years, I have watched vehicles on the 280 freeway going at 70 to 85 mph. I learned from college thermodynamics class that the car engine combusts most efficiently in the 45 to 55 mph range. That is why the EPA expresses its mileage estimates at that speed. What people do not seem to realize is that the drop in fuel efficiency is precipitous above 55 mph. It’s figuratively like walking off a cliff. And what about fuel efficiency in stop-and-go traffic or slow traffic or just idling waiting for something or someone? One last behavior that is really inefficient is accelerating the car really quickly which injects fuel into the engine that does not combust and just gets dispersed. All this puts more wear and tear on the vehicle which in itself is non-sustainability.

Is the problem fossil fuel? Only partly. Human behavior is mostly the issue. Some of it is determined by economics where people live quite a distance from work. Or the shift to online shopping is pushing up the number of delivery trucks. Growing consumerism requires more transportation of goods (notice all the Amazon rigs on Highway 5?) and globalized access to goods means longer distances for shipping. In California, public transportation is poorly maintained and relatively inconvenient. Focus on profitability in government and private corporations ensures that human actions are dictated by monetary tides.

California’s messaging on water conservation is also failing. Water resources sustainability is in a loss-frame with new levies and higher cost structures. Affordable innovations for water use reduction are absent. Instead, the conservation message is ignoring reality and the residential needs elevated by shelter-in-place are miscalculated. The reduction baseline is from 2019 which is pre-Covid and at a point in time when many people had already converted to drought-tolerant landscaping, drip irrigation and reduced watering schedules. Instead, we have electronic water meters whose cost is passed to homeowners…so that fees can be collected more quickly.

Sustainability really has a PR problem. We need sustainability design thinking and creativity to improve on this.

Comments are closed.