This post was inspired by a car commercial for an Infiniti luxury hybrid sedan that boasts a 32 MPG highway rating, which means that it probably gets closer to about 23 MPG in normal use around town. I once owned an Infiniti - there’s something about nice leather, quality workmanship, and raw power that is quite intoxicating.
I now drive a Prius, so, like those residents of South Park, I am quite smug about my average 45 MPG, looking down on others driving less efficient vehicles. I’ve also spoken to people who drive the old Honda Insight that get as much as 90 MPG, and new Nissan Leaf electric car owners who have cornered the smug market.
As they say in those TV commercials, actual mileage may vary, mostly based on your behavior as a driver. With your driving habits you can kill the efficiency of a high-mileage car, just as much as you can improve the mileage on a standard one.
I am very conflicted about the idea of luxury hybrid cars. On one hand, they can help convince people that more efficient vehicles don’t require sacrifice. On the other hand, it might just be time for people to consider a little sacrifice. And when you consider what this actually means (driving a Toyota or Honda instead of an Infiniti or Lexus), it’s not much of a sacrifice at all.
From cars to houses
This rather random train of thought reminds me of a couple of luxury homes I saw in California last year. One was completed, the other only partially built; both were seeking LEED certification.
The completed house was large (but not obscenely so), nicely detailed, and located in Tehama, an exclusive golf community in Monterey that overlooks the Carmel Bay, where walking is a rare occurrence. Because of the near-perfect weather, this house had no air conditioning and minimal heating.
It included quite a bit of green bling, including that old standby, recycled cotton insulation. That uber-green material, in one visible location, looked like a Grade II or III install, with no air barrier on the interior side – very green. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to photograph the home due to owner privacy issues and it does not appear to be published anywhere.
The other home was even farther from civilization, and featured rammed-earth walls that appeared to be primarily decorative rather than either structural or providing useful thermal mass. Locally available dirt apparently didn’t have the desired look, so raw materials were trucked hundreds of miles to the site. On top of this, there are sections that are seriously overbuilt, including what appeared to be about 100 pound/lin. ft. wide-flange beams serving as columns holding up small roof sections.
Sustainability comes in second
Both of these homes are quite beautiful, but in both cases it appears that sustainability took a back seat to the design, rather than being integrated into the homes from the beginning, addressing issues such as location and size. Similar to luxury hybrid cars, these homes provide their owners with a sense of being sustainable without requiring any real sacrifice.
It seems to me that unless, as a society, we acknowledge that we have to sacrifice (if only a little), we won’t see any measurable reduction in resource use and will just continue to build fancy cars and buildings as long as people are willing to pay for them.