How Science Is Being Used Against You

You may not want to waste energy or burn fossil fuels, but you’ll soon discover that the deck is stacked against you. Everything is designed to use more and more fuel. Take your car for example. You may think that switching to biofuel or even driving an electric car is doing the environment a favour. But every operation performed during a simple drive to work burns unnecessary petrol.

For starters, stopping at a stop sign uses more fuel, as you must re-accelerate your car from a standstill. Think about how this effect is multiplied over thousands of vehicles that are stuck in peak hour traffic, twice a day. Cars also tend to be the most fuel efficient at the ‘sweet spot’ speed of 80-95 kph. Anything over that and you’ll begin to use more fuel, as your car encounters greater wind resistance when travelling at higher speeds. In fact, you’d consume 15% more fuel by driving at 100kph instead of 90 kph.  

While I wish I could point the finger and blame some policy-maker for engineering an evil system designed to waste as much fuel as possible, the reality is that this is the result of decades of sheer negligence. As fuel is still relatively cheap, it’s much easier to cut corners on making thoughtful, eco-friendly designs, and to just burn more fuel instead. Fuel is the expendable in our economy right now.

There are also other (rather clever) ways to get us to consume more fuel beside what’s in our cars. You don’t need to be a psychology major to know that us humans don’t like petrol stations. They’re usually loud, filthy and have that intoxicating scent of unleaded petrol to them. Not to mention, there’s nothing nice about having to fork out a whole heap of cash to pay large petroleum corporates every time you fill up. There’s loads of research to back this up. A 1994 study by researchers at the University of Denver showed that people have negative feelings toward petrol stations and positive attitudes toward ATM machines. Go figure – who doesn’t enjoy being handed bundles of 20 and 50 dollar notes that seem to appear out of thin air?

To make us feel comfortable spending more money at the petrol station, petrol pumps have been specifically designed to look like ATM machines – diffusing the anger we feel toward petrol stations and creating a more positive relationship like we would have with an ATM machine. No matter how hard we try to change our personal consumption preferences, or how far technology advances, the world around us is designed to slow our fight against change.

There was a recent survey conducted by the ABC which asked readers how far they would go to adjust their behaviours in response to our increasing population. Some said they wouldn’t have kids, others claimed that they’d be willing to relocate from the city to the country if their friends did the same. On the other hand, some weren’t prepared to compromise their current living standards.

As much as I dislike the idea of having to dictate human behaviour – for example, how many kids people should have, where they should live and what kind of car they should drive – the notion that we should solely rely on the advancement of science and future technologies to solve our issues is nothing but a cop-out. Science doesn’t progress linearly, and it doesn’t always improve our living conditions. A simple example of this is given by a 2015 report from Microsoft, which showed that our new digital lifestyle is impacting our ability to focus. Human attention span has shortened from twelve seconds to eight seconds since the turn of the millennium.

Technology can also be lost. While being interviewed, when asked why he sets such ambitious targets for his companies, Elon Musk commented that technology may not always be an “upward slope”. Just like the Egyptians ‘lost’ the knowledge and technology to build the pyramids and read hieroglyphics, and Romans the ability to build aqueducts and indoor plumbing, we too could lose the technological advancements that we have made in recent years.

The key message I want you to take away from this article is that changing your personal behaviours will not have the dramatic impact that you think. No matter how many of us go vegan, sell our cars to use public transport or take shorter showers, there will still be wastage of the earth’s natural resources in virtually every aspect of human life. Since we can’t rely upon science to solve these issues, we need to call upon smart policy.

We’ve seen this work before. Innovative urban planning, like redesigning the public transport systems in Dakar, Senegal and Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, can reduce GHG emissions, increase economic productivity, encourage women to work and reduce social inequalities.

Looking at this issue in an Australian context: sure, people could make the difficult decision to move from cities to regional areas, but a national high-speed rail network would allow people to maintain their city lifestyles and jobs without having to live there. You could also shower as infrequently as you want, but unless the government insists on utilising renewable energy and recycled water – technologies we already have – there’s not much point making an effort. We all want to see improvements made in the world, but the power to implement these changes is above us. It’s out of the hands of science too. It’s up to our policymakers to lead the change we want to see.