Let’s measure environmental impact in units

Greetings from multiple stops between Colorado and Lake Michigan. Vacationing by minivan, we’re experiencing firsthand the new meaning of highway robbery.

Beyond the shock of $200 pumped in one day of cross-country cruising, I’ve witnessed a surprising consequence of fantastic fuel prices. On roads adjacent to towns and farms, we’ve discovered America’s new lawn ornament: the “for sale” pickup. Thousands of Ford 150s and Dodge Ram 3500s, from Cheyenne to Madison, perch on lawns with window signs scrawled on cardboard “sweet Bose stereo,” “flexible terms,” or “deluxe towing package” as owners fed up with fill-ups throw up their hands and toss in the towel.

What a difference a few years make. A three-year-old Hummer, the post-9/11 symbol of American extravagance and muscle, sells for 30 percent of original value.

Dollars, the clarion of our free enterprise system, deliver messages in the clearest terms. When dollars speak, people listen and act. Dollars now shout to vehicle owners and buyers and, as a result, we compare vehicles differently. Assuming 10,000 miles driven per year and $4 per gallon, a 10 mpg difference between vehicle A and B is worth $4,000 cash annually. Five years ago, most buyers would not have bothered with the math.

While no comfort to those feeling serious economic pain, the cloud of pricey fuel has a silver lining. Finally, our nationwide inefficiency impacts us in ways we feel and, therefore, will act upon. We’ve been like the smoker who ignores for decades “these will kill you” printed on each pack. But now, a flight of stairs leaves him gasping, so he resolves to ditch the Camels.

We do not yet receive all the unambiguous communications required by our changed world. For example, we learn of possible environmental consequences through language too abstract to guide decisions. We get fuzzy and conflicting statements like “ACME, a carbon-neutral company,” “phosphates might work their way into the water supply,” and “compact fluorescent bulbs save energy (but contain mercury)” that leave us scratching our heads. What precisely do excessive dependence on oil, carbon footprints and greenhouse gases mean to the average American?

We need a clear and universal measure of environmental impact such as calories for foods, miles per hour for speed and square footage for living spaces. Such a measurement would combine every important environmental consideration, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average combines prices of multiple stocks. The resulting figure would be affixed to everything we buy, such as Energy Star ratings on today’s appliances. Then, when such measurements link to dollars, Americans will have the metrics necessary to purchase and consume in ways that minimize damage to our environment.

Our new metric needs a name. Let’s go with GORE Units, short for Global Overall Ramifications for the Environment. Imagine knowing in advance the GORE Units (or a more serious name) of paper versus plastic bags, tap versus bottled water or driving versus flying to Green Bay.

Many people will ignore our new ratings, as many ignore cancer deaths caused by tobacco, but for those recognizing our world has changed, such information would empower more meaningful choices than regular versus unleaded.

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