Friday, July 11, 2008

The geography of green consumerism

Why does Berkeley have so many Priuses?
Jun 16th 2008

BUYING green is all the rage: barely a day passes without the rollout of a new “environmentally responsible” product. This week it's the waterless car-wash, an energy saving computer monitor and a biodegradable dish-rack. Ignore, for a moment, whether green consumerism is a contradiction in terms. Pass over the question of whether these products actually deliver the benefits they promise. Who buys them—the rich, the idealistic, the penny pinching or the guilty?

Perhaps energy saving cars, light-bulbs, computer monitors and building materials appeal to those who value their future environmental benefits. But evidence suggests that, despite tangible financial rewards, most people do not make even small environmentally sound changes at home, such as installing energy-efficient light bulbs or not leaving the television on standby.

By and large, then, these green products are aimed at the environmentally concerned. Matthew Kahn and Ryan Vaughn, economists at the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote a paper analysing the patterns of green consumerism in California. They noticed that Berkeley, California, just a few hours up the coast, has lots of Priuses, organic food, solar panels and public transit—and no Hummers.

Messrs Kahn and Vaughn built a database of every certified green building, sorted by zip codes. They looked at where hybrid vehicles were registered, and constructed a measure of each zip code's politics based on analysis of party registration and voting records on two binding statewide environmental initiatives.

They also controlled their results for factors such as age, income and ethnicity, allowing them to see environmental commitment all the more starkly. Malibu, for instance, has many Prius owners; Beverly Hills has few, but both are largely wealthy and white: it is no stretch to deduce, then, that Malibu residents tend to be greener than those of Beverly Hills.

When they average their measure of greenery by zip code, across entire cities, and then rank the results, the usual suspects come out top and bottom. Of 349 places in California, the ten greenest are Albany, Berkeley, Fairfax, Belvedere, Piedmont, Mill Valley, Larkspur, Portola Valley, Sausalito and Palo Alto. Folsom and Bakersfield rank near the bottom. And mapping their index by zip code across the entire state gives a graphic representation of where California's greenies live.

All of this raises the question of why the politically green huddle together in the same sorts of locations. Dr Kahn speculates that small initial differences in spatial attributes, such as being close to a beach or public transport, may create the initial seeds of green communities. “This in turn attracts ‘green businesses’,” he explains, “such as tofu restaurants and bike shops, and this in turn attracts more greens.” The process culminates when greens have enough political clout to elect politicians and enact green regulation that further enhances their community’s attractiveness to environmentalists.

Though greens are a small minority in America generally, concentrated in certain locations, they can have a strong influence on local policy. California itself is quite green relative to other states, and taking unilateral steps, which are much stricter than federal mandates, to mitigate its greenhouse gas emissions.

While green clustering could certainly cause hot spots in green consumerism, let us not neglect other possible factors when it comes to the Prius. What we know of work on social interactions suggests that the chance that any person will buy a Prius is likely to be related to the probability that his neighbour buys one. Of course, competitively purchasing the latest green products to keep up with the Joneses is hardly environmentally friendly. But that, as they say, is another matter entirely.

Here is the link to the report referenced in the above article. Page 6 shows the results.
Green Market Geography: The Spatial Clustering of Hybrid Vehicle and LEED Registered Buildings


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