The Next Big Fad

How a cute cartoon can fight climate change

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As the Copenhagen conference approaches, our instinct may be to let politicians resolve the planet’s fate. But we’re also realizing more and more that we can’t just rely on politicians. Each of us needs to cut our individual energy usage. Dramatically. Now.

I’m the first to say that cutting down on the pleasures and convenience of heat and electricity is hard. It’s too easy to put off my goals for another day, or to console myself about the ways I do conserve. What will it take to get us all really saving?

Knowing us Americans, maybe what we need is… a new fad! Something fun. Something that will spur some friendly competition. Maybe even something a little bit cute.

When I was a kid I got a Tamagotchi (otherwise known as a “virtual pet”) for my birthday. For those of you who don’t remember the Tamagotchi fad of the mid-nineties, the toy consists of a keychain bearing a tiny battery-operated screen where a pixilated little creature “lives.” You “feed” the pet and care for it in other ways by pressing buttons.

I was a negligent caregiver. After leaving my first and only Tamagotchi to fend for itself one weekend, I returned to find the creature utterly dead, staring blindly from the screen with dead X eyes. I had killed the Tamagotchi. Though I could reset it for a new life, the fact that I was responsible for the thing’s death really got to me. I think I might have actually cried.

How could I be so moved by the death of a few pixels? I think it’s because the thing had a face (though admittedly a rather simplistic one), and because its fate depended on my actions. 

One smart company, TellEmotion, has devised a way of connecting this human weakness for a cute face to the goal of energy conservation. The system connects real-time energy usage data to the image of an animated polar bear on a computer monitor. When energy usage is low, the bear is happy. But when usage rises, there’s trouble. Icebergs crack and break. The bear starts to sweat. And if you’re really bad, the ice disappears altogether, leaving the poor bear flailing in the water.

So far, the technology has been put to use primarily in college dorms, which competed with each other to be the most efficient. The company says that as much as 60 percent of energy consumption is behavioral and can be reduced through behavioral changes. But to change behavior, people need information and motivation. And it appears that a cute polar bear and some healthy competition is exactly the kind of motivation people need. Schools saw reductions in energy usage by an average of 10 percent. 

Wouldn’t it be fun if every family, every business, had a virtual energy “pet?” We could all compete to see whose animal fared the best. Maybe in addition to polar bears there could be sea turtles, salmon, pikas!

In the midst of the virtual fun, perhaps we’d all think more about the real animals out there, trying to survive, and the real people whose lives are affected by the energy we use. In the end, though, what matters is what we do. If it takes a new fad featuring cute animals to make us use less energy, let’s jump on that bandwagon.    

More ways to monitor energy:


A kit allows you to modify any real-time power meter to tweet the daily kilowatt hours consumed by the user’s Twitter account. 

The Power Hog

This energy “piggy bank” demands a coin to power an electrical device, allowing you to monitor energy and in the process force your kids to pay for their TV time. Cruel but compelling.

 Basic Energy Monitoring

Outlet monitoring:

Plug your cell phone charger, TV, and other individual devices into monitors like Kill-a-Watt, GreenSwitch, and Wattson, which run for as low as $15.

Home monitoring:

The HomeJoule, Power2Save and other such monitors track total energy usage in your house, and run upwards of $100.