How Do You Make Renewable Energy Sexy? Ask Costa Rica.

How Do You Make Renewable Energy Sexy? Ask Costa Rica.
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Well, I guess that's it then. We're screwed:

"July 2016 was world's hottest year since records began, says Nasa" — headline in The Guardian

"Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun" — headline in The New York Times

"Nasa: Earth is warming at a pace 'unprecedented in 1000 years" — headline in The Guardian

These three results, and many more like it, came from a simple Google search of "global warming 2016".

And if you've been listening to the news, scientists, and other media outlets, we're all about to slowly die a very hot death.

Now, I'm not as "green" as I could be, but I want to do better. Then I read headlines like these and it seems pointless. Hopeless. A complete failure.

Where are the solutions? How can I help?

So that got me thinking: these articles incite fear, desperation, and hopelessness. And by the end of the article you've learned nothing, other than the world is dying, you're the cause of it, and I guess we'll all be underwater within the century.

In search of something better, I stumbled across Monica Araya of Costa Rica Limpia — an independent citizen strategy group. She also recently gave a Ted Talk about Costa Rica and renewable energy. Costa Rica has been running on nothing but renewable energy since 2015, and Monica's next step in this plan is to remove fossil fuels entirely by fixing the transportation system throughout the country. That means no more fossil fuels in Costa Rica — even on the roads. Monica says, "By transforming our choices of cars, buses, and trucks, we’ll increase our quality of life and decrease our dependence on oil. And we’ll be able to build a more ambitious story for the world."

Car and truck emissions account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, and the transportation sector, including planes, trains, ships and freights produce almost thirty percent of total US global warming emissions.

We already know we're killing ourselves with our choices. But Monica confronted that right away saying, "I do believe that pessimism is a comfort zone... The conclusion is there is nothing we can do. And then you [let] yourself off the hook. And I think that's very disingenuous."

I agree completely. But since that's not getting us to change, what can?

Make Renewable Energy Cool and Fashionable

I think changing the message from one of desperation to inspiration is the only way. And Monica Araya seems to agree. She's decided the only way to get us to change is to flip the story from desperation to hope. From failure, to innovation.

Tesla is Pretty Freaking Awesome

Tesla is an astounding example of innovation and hope. I think Matthew Inman a.k.a. The Oatmeal gives a better review of Tesla than I ever could. He calls it his Intergalactic Spaceboat of Light and Wonder, so I think that description alone shows you that the Tesla is pretty damn cool.

And it's catching on. They've enjoyed year over year growth since 2013. They're new, they're fashionable, and they're becoming even more accessible. What I'm saying is, Tesla stands to be the next internet. Yup. That big.

Once something is considered cool or fashionable, it catches on.

Ditching Oil is Going to be Cool

So in a country like Costa Rica, that's already got a lot of great conservation initiatives, like a moratorium on extractive industries and a focus on preserving ecosystems, ditching oil is going to be the next big thing. In fact, creating a competition around who can make the change-over to the most electric buses is already starting to gain traction and excitement.

Everybody's Doing It, So We Should, Too

And that leads right in to the second factor. In high school, there was a time when all my friends decided that wearing Doc Martens was actually fashionable. Now, this wasn't peer pressure. Instead, I saw my friends doing this, and I wanted to do it, too. That's called normative social influence, and it shapes a lot of the choices we make. Luckily, it can be applied to great things, like better technology, instead of just horrid fashion choices.

My Whole Block is Into Recycling

In fact, the trend in recycling has benefitted from this already.

In a 1999 study, researchers found that when people got more messages that "described the frequency and amount of weekly recycling" they began to recycle more.

The study found that "The sudden change was due to the fact that the 'other neighbors' recycling habits had a direct normative effect on the household to change theirs."

Another study found similar results when attempting to increase household energy conservation by using the same normative messaging. The best part was that none of the participants cited the fact that they were copying their neighbors' behavior. Instead, they attributed the change to being concerned about the environment and conservation.

All this to say that normative messaging is a hugely powerful tool, that is generally undetected. We know that we're doing something differently, but we think it's just because "that's the kind of person we are."

Saying No to Oil is Going to be Normal

That means normative messaging can change the decisions we make, and even make us want to make the change. And that's great news for us and the environment. When seeing electric cars becomes normal, it will seem unheard of that anyone would ever drive an oil fueled, carbon dioxide spilling car.

Don't believe me?

Remember when the Hummer was cool? And now, it's widely viewed as both a "symbol of American excess and of GM's strategic missteps". Now, it's just a dead, gas-guzzling behemoth. We don't drive one, our friends don't drive one, and it's not a "normal" thing to see on the streets in most places. And because of that, it's been mostly phased out.

Make the Right Option the Easy Option

Another hard truth we've got to face about ourselves is that we're lazy. We want food delivered to our doorstep, we want to do all our shopping online and have it show up at our house, we want our groceries brought to us. We don't like actually having to do stuff. So when we're talking about the monumental task of choosing something that's better for the environment vs. something that's easy, the easy option almost always wins. So we need to make the easy option the right option.

Energy saving lightbulbs as the default

Take a look at the lights in your house. Are they a special brand? Probably not. They were probably the ones that were on sale. But even if you bought them because they were cheaper than the ones next to them on the shelf, they're actually energy saving, thanks to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

This law made energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs, so that over the course of the next several years our electricity costs were lowered, we avoided having to build about 30 new power plants, and we've prevented tens of millions tons of carbon emissions per year.

The right choice for us and the environment was made the default choice. And the second tier of this proposal, which must be finalized by 2020, has created thousands of jobs to design, test, and produce these products.

Not Using Oil is Going to be Easy

And that's exactly what we need to do with oil and cars.

Monica Araya says, “It’s critical to understand that these young economies want to prosper and want to grow, so the anti-growth narrative I don’t think is going to work here. And that’s why I get somewhere with these audiences, because I respect their aspiration to be a more developed country."

When the right choice means that we're safer and our environment is safer then everybody wins. And making green choices is actually synonymous with economic growth. When we decide to create change, that also means we're deciding to create jobs and industry. And as Monica mentioned in our talk, "You can actually grow the economy while protecting natural resources."

We're Almost There

After talking to Monica, I felt a relief that I didn't know was possible. Even if it feels like we're past the point of no return, we're closer than ever before to making this a reality.

All we've got to do is make electric cars cool, normal, and easy. And then we can start a movement that will actually get us somewhere.

How You Can Help

There's a lot you can do to work toward a better future, and even small changes have a big impact. Here are five things you can start doing, and even resources on how to start!

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