Last year, Americans consumed 385 million gallons of gasoline a day, more than in 2014. Despite the broader selection of good electric cars, U.S. sales of electric cars declined from 2014 to 2015 to less than 0.6% of total cars sold, while sales of gas-powered cars and SUVs set records. President Obama’s 2011 goal of 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015 fell short by more than 600,000 vehicles.
As long as there is strong consumer demand for gasoline and gasoline-powered cars, oil producers and gasoline refiners will continue drilling for oil and refining gasoline and enjoying consistent profits and popular support while doing so.
By contrast, sustained and consistent reduction in the demand for gasoline will eventually cause oil production and gasoline refining operations to grind to a halt, regardless of what Congress or Shell Oil decide.
How can a major reduction in consumer demand for gasoline be brought about?
Changing attitudes is the key. There still is minimal social, cultural, or moral pressure to reduce personal carbon emissions. Even in progressive circles, the purchase of a gasoline-powered car (with the possible exception of a giant SUV) is still viewed as a value-neutral choice, despite the fact that a gasoline-powered car will typically spew a hundred thousand pounds more CO2 (and much more toxic air pollution) over its lifetime than its electric equivalent. Few people are aware of the enormous CO2 output of a gasoline-powered car (about 20 lbs. per gallon used). No one is judged negatively for causing carbon emissions 10, 100, or even 1000 times over the already-high U.S. average of 17 tons of CO2.
With the notable exception of Pope Francis, few opinion leaders are providing moral leadership pushing individuals to reduce their carbon emissions. Our environmental leadership generally, while thundering against corporations for putting profits ahead of the planet, says nothing about consumers buying a new gasoline car instead of an electric one which would offer similar utility and much less carbon pollution.
To the extent there is social pressure relating to gasoline avoidance, it generally goes in the wrong direction. Those who buy electric cars are dismissed as impractical tree-huggers, practicing a foolish form of “personal virtue.” Decisions to purchase low-carbon technologies are typically framed in the media and elsewhere as cost-benefit decisions that are only worthwhile if they are demonstrably less expensive (or cooler, in the case of Tesla) than conventional technologies. This cost calculus stacks the deck against the electric car, whose cost of ownership may be slightly higher than conventional technologies, especially in an era of low gas prices. (Such strict cost accounting is rarely applied, however, to designer handbags, far-flung vacations, and the myriad of other costly luxury items that adorn affluent consumers’ lifestyles.)
For all of the above reasons, there have been few sustained efforts to convince consumers to purge gasoline from their lives. It is time for a new approach.
Advertisers have long known that people purchase products that are congruent with their self-image and the image that they want to project to others. Living without spewing unnecessary carbon into the air can become an integral part of people’s self-concept and personal brand just as not smoking or not littering is now, if people can be helped to see the effect of their gasoline use. Artists, actors, screenwriters, advertisers, teachers, religious leaders and others who shape public discourse and morals must communicate that we “own” the carbon we emit, and stigmatize the unnecessary use of polluting fuels.
When unnecessary polluting with gasoline carries social stigma, people will seek to purge gasoline from their lives. The rise of the electric car and growing mass-transit systems makes avoiding gasoline use increasingly feasible for most people.
Changing the moral and social lens associated with the purchase of gasoline is achievable. The rapid change of attitudes on gay marriage and marijuana legalization are examples of the way in which long-established social attitudes can shift quickly. If gasoline use can be reinterpreted in the culture as dirty, harmful, and wasteful, major purchasing shifts will follow, and the end of the gasoline era will be at hand, regardless of what Shell, Exxon, or Congress do.