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There’s Just One Good Way to Sell a Green Agenda: Make It Attractive.

We need to move toward a lower-energy future, but we can’t present it as a punishment.

Several years ago the great urbanist Carol Coletta made the observation that you can never create social or political progress by telling people to eat their spinach. Instead, you have to portray your program as an attractive, aspirational vision of life. She highlighted how the GM Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair had created a vision around an automobile-centered world that convinced the public that the car was the future they wanted.

Today, too much of the climate change agenda comes across as an “eat your spinach” message. It’s about lower levels of consumption, a more austere lifestyle and other things that may be good for you, but aren’t necessarily good to experience. The green energy transition, for example, is built around a future of reduced consumption that has also meant higher electricity prices and poorer grid reliability. Making real progress requires inducing millions of Americans to perceive that energy transition is a positive for the average citizen.

There are places where that has happened. I was prompted to write this column by the case of the electric car. There’s no problem selling the public on electric cars. In fact, they are very desirable, sexy even. I trace this back to the original Tesla Roadster, which was a hot car. Even today, new electric vehicles like the Rivian truck have cool designs that appeal apart from their power train.

But electric cars are also great to drive, being quiet and wickedly fast. And plenty more benefits are likely to come. Ford’s new electric pickup truck features a “frunk” or trunk space in front where the engine used to be. And its battery can be used to power one’s house for short periods of time in the event of a power outage. The technology is already good, and in the future could be amazing.

It’s similar for biking trails. Originally, some proposals like rails-to-trails were opposed by neighboring homeowners who valued their peace and quiet and didn’t want strangers in their backyards. They quickly learned that trails were not only a great amenity to use, but one that raised their property values significantly. Today, biking trails are extremely popular, even in suburbia. People can see how they legitimately better the quality of life. People want biking trails even if they don’t care about climate change.

Both electric cars and bicycling are low-carbon transportation modes that address climate change. But they are also things that people want on their own merits. They are aspirational lifestyle enhancers.

Contrast this with green electricity. In the past decade, electricity prices have gone up and reliability has gone down. Grid reliability has deteriorated so much that growing numbers of people and businesses are installing backup generators. According to the Wall Street Journal, the share of homes with backup power has gone up by a factor of 10, now reaching 5.8 percent of homes valued over $150,000. Rolling blackouts are a new fact of life in some places. And there are warnings of future electricity shortages.

It would be a mistake to blame all of this on the transition to renewable power sources. The marketization of electricity generation and distribution seems to have played a key role. The problems with this have been known since Enron manipulated electricity markets in California 20 years ago. Yet, the retirement of traditional fossil fuel generating stations and the rise of intermittent green electricity sources obviously has to be playing some role. And the deployment of green energy is dependent on some of the previous changes such as marketization.
Urbanis Carol Coletta pointed out how the GM Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair created a vision around an automobile-centered world that convinced the public that the car was the future they wanted.

The fact that our electric system has gotten objectively worse feeds consumer resistance to green policies in general. Who wants green anything if it means a decline in quality of life?

We need to take a page from the electric car playbook and make green energy cheaper and more reliable than conventional forms. This is part of a movement within the center-left technowonk community called the “abundance agenda.” The idea is that the left should be pushing a supply-side policy of energy abundance, not austerity. The abundance agenda responds to Coletta’s challenge by imagining a world in which electricity and housing are both plentiful and affordable. Having a desirable vision of that, and speaking about the future in terms of that vision, is the first step.

We do of course have to make good on that vision, and not at some far distant future point. Ideally, as with the first Tesla Roadster, we can create proofs of concept with real buzz that gets people excited. This already seems to be happening at some level with home solar panel systems.

According to a study from BloombergNEF, the coming year is expected to see three times as much capacity in residential solar installations as commercial ones. Significant tax credits make solar installation a financial winner. Now we need better from utilities.

Similar techniques need to be applied for any change we want to make in society. We have to show people why life will be better. We need to give them a vision of how it will be better. And then we have to deliver on it. Electric cars and biking trails are great templates to study for how to pull this off.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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