Like many of you, I’ve been following the West Virginia coal mine tragedy with a heavy heart and a feeling of sadness/compassion for the families who’ve been impacted. In truth, we’ve all been impacted…and we’re all somewhat to blame. Half of our nation’s electricity comes from burning coal, so every time we plug in our latest gadget, we’re demanding that more coal be mined. This is a reality of our Great American Lives that we don’t much like to talk about.
So, it’s been suggested to me that maybe a tragedy of this magnitude will “wake Americans up” to their electricity consumption. That we’ll be so impacted by the horror and sadness of this that we’ll either stop using so much electricity or we’ll embrace renewables with a renewed fervor. I’m afraid not, and here’s why:
– At last count (and this was a couple of years ago in our Energy Pulse 2008 study) only 30% of the population could correctly name coal as our primary source of electricity. So the majority of us don’t even see our connection to what’s just happened in West VA.
– Based on all of our ongoing research with consumers, it’s very possible that most Americans may see a situation like the one we have now as sad, regrettable and tragic…but just one of those things that happens occasionally. Kind of like flying — planes sometimes crash, but it doesn’t stop most of us from getting on one.
– If you head down the environmental path, 97% of the population doesn’t make the connection between coal fired power plants and climate change. And that number has stayed the same for the last three years in our Energy Pulse research.
So it’s unlikely that this tragedy might move Americans to use less electricity and, therefore, more coal. I did see a story yesterday, though, that I thought could be motivating for consumers: The Today Show ran a piece that pretty bluntly painted Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, out to be quite corrupt, living a lavish lifestyle off the backs of the guys in the mines. We Americans hate that sort of thing. Our sense of fairness kicks in and we begin demanding that things be different. Think how we reacted to the bonuses on Wall Street in the middle of the recession. Or to Enron. Or to Bernie Madoff. We don’t like it when people get rich off of what looks like unfair and/or unethical acts.
So, while I certainly don’t advocate vilifying anyone for marketing purposes, I do think it’s possible that consumers would be more motivated by a message that suggests that we shouldn’t keep contributing to Don Blankenship’s coffers than they would be by a message that suggests that our electricity consumption is somehow to blame for the disaster. That’s just human nature for you.