Keeping Down with the Joneses

“Keeping up with the Joneses” is a well known phrase in America. First coined in 1919 and made popular in the 1950’s, this phrase captured the essence of how many Americans attempted to match their neighbors’ purchasing power. This sentiment has even made its mark in American music as Janis Joplin so frankly stated “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.”

‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ captures something deep and profound about commercialism and materialism, and also reflects something even deeper about the American psyche: Americans are intensely competitive. While perhaps this sounds a bit extreme, remember our entire economic system is based on competition. We compete against the clock and we even compete against ourselves.

But when it comes to energy consumption and efficiency in the United States, competition rarely enters into the equation. Even more worrying is the real threat of complacency and inaction by many of us who feel incapable of making an impact on the big picture of society’s energy use and demands.

How can Americans compete with each other when it comes to energy conservation? The answer lies in how we keep score, and like in the game of golf, the lowest score wins. Forget about keeping up, in order to win, we must start keeping down.

When it comes to cars, the term is “miles per gallon.” When it comes to energy use in houses and other structures, the term will be “energy cost per square foot” and the lower the better.

As we measure the “energy cost per square foot,” or E$/ft2,we must recognize there are important factors that will affect your E$/ft2. Some of these factors include the type of house, number of people living in the house, climate, and accessories like sprinkler systems or outdoor lighting.

iCAST is embarking on a research project to find out the average E$/ft2 of the many types and sizes of houses in America. But we can start competing today against our neighbors and direct the American competitive spirit in a positive direction.

You can start by using your last month’s energy bill and divide that by the square feet of your house. Then work your way up to an “annual” number for E$/ft2.

Advance competition in this arena will come about when utility bills include your E$/ft2 as well as your zip codes’ average. These simple additions will show individuals how they stack up against the competition. The game will get tougher over time as we become wiser energy users to beat our neighbors and win the game.

Our radio talk shows, teachers, and community groups will start to run competitions as we learn new tricks to reduce our energy use. Taking a competitive approach to solving our energy problems is an idea as American as Thanksgiving or apple pie.

Competition will pave the way toward lower energy use, less pollution and fun conversation. The deal here is that we can all compete to win.

To start playing ‘keeping down with the Joneses,’ just post your E$/ft2 in the comment section below.

Herb Rubenstein is the chief operating officer at iCAST, the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology in Lakewood, Colorado. iCAST is a leader in promoting energy efficiency and sustainable approaches to economic development. Jordan Karnes is a freelance writer.

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