One thing that unites the environmental lobby with those who oppose them is that by far the best way to help deal with the fast approaching Energy crisis in the West is to concentrate of conservation and energy efficiency. There are two ways to reduce the cost of energy – reduce the price or use less. With crude oil prices at record levels, and few predicting that they will ever fall back from these highs, the attractions of using less energy for the same amount of utility is obvious. The key words here are “…the same amount of utility”. To ask individual consumers or their families significantly to change their lifestyles in order to reduce energy consumption is both unrealistic and impertinent. True if some people choose to be overtly “Green” and so organise their lives that they place the minimum demand on scarce and diminishing non-renewable energy resources that is commendable. But most of us are not so altruistic and it is unreasonable to expect that we should be.

So if in the main we want to maintain the utility of our lives what actions should Governments take which allow us to do this whilst at the same time substantially and progressively reducing the impact that we have on the environment and on scarce resources? As always there needs to be a bit of carrot and a bit of stick – but there also needs to be a huge and courageous act of will on the part of Government to achieve their goals when many of the measures may, initially at least, be unpopular. Let’s start with Gas prices. There is outrage in the United States that gas prices have reached over $4 a gallon but, by world standards, that is ridiculously low. In the UK we pay $8.70 and across the channel the price in France and Spain is around $8. The Germans pay over $9 and the energy rich Norwegians and Dutch over $10 a gallon.  The difference between Europe and the US is, of course, duty and tax. Higher prices won’t reduce consumption overnight; the demand for gas is not that elastic. But over time higher prices do lead to changed behaviour. People buy more efficient cars or use them less or switch to public transport – which brings me, improbably, to Las Vegas!

If ever there was a metropolis that was symbolic of excess it is Las Vegas. I visited the city for the first time for many years recently and it really is the most extraordinary place – a weird and wonderful collection of temples to the worship of money, and the utility that money can bring. The term “conspicuous consumption” could have been invented by a visitor to Vegas for it aptly summaries the ethos of the place. I loved it! I’ve no idea how much it costs to power bright lights and the rest of the gaudy monuments but I suspect that the per capita energy consumption of the city must be one of the highest in the world – and all in pursuit of the frivolity of enjoyment. There is, no doubt, an economic and an employment case for Las Vegas – but in truth it is just an adult playground with the emphasis on fun. And if leisure is a utility, and assuming that the Vegas style of leisure is relatively harmless, than why should this utility not be maintained? 

Before I went to Las Vegas I bought a couple of guidebooks and did some background reading online and elsewhere. I discovered, to my surprise, that the capital of consumption and free enterprise actually has a public transportation system and, in particular, that it has a Monorail. You don’t have to use gas-guzzling cars and taxis all the time – you can take the rail. But I was told that nobody did do this – that it was a white elephant and that Vegas visitors ignore it. Well that may be the conventional wisdom, but the facts were different. Not only is the Monorail very good and very reasonably priced but, when we were there anyway, it was pretty busy as well. You can’t go everywhere by Monorail, of course, and there is clearly a potential to expand the system with new lines and expansions to the existing line. But it’s a pretty good way of getting around – and it’s quite a fun attraction in its own right as well. And, of course, it is commendably “green”. Every journey made on the Monorail saves gas and saves climate-damaging emissions. A small contribution maybe but even in Vegas if you provide a transport method that works and is affordable people use it.

So the message from Las Vegas, and even more so from the New York subway, and the Washington or San Francisco Metros is that if public transportation is clean, efficient, safe and affordable people will use it. Which brings us back to Government action. Americans should pay more for their gas – much more. But they should only be expected to do this if alternative transportation can be offered that maintains or improves their utility. America grew in the twentieth century on the back of the ubiquity and the low cost of using an automobile. The twenty-first century imperative should be gradually to wean citizens away from the car, and certainly away from the SUV or the Hummer, and towards other methods of transport that allow them to keep the lifestyle they enjoy, but without destroying the planet into the bargain. It its subtle and understated way Las Vegas is showing the way.

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