Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

March 12, 2006

The Limited Supply of Mental Energy

Category: Editorial,Tips – Tom Harrison – 2:19 pm

Ignorance is bliss. I do a number of things that I suspect are wasteful, without actually knowing. This is nice, because I can continue to do them without really feeling badly. Perhaps this is not bliss, just denial. Whatever it is, it works for me. I can live my complicated life without a nagging sense of not doing enough.

I can, however, accept and incorporate new information. Gradually. I think I am probably representative of a group of people who are concerned, but also busy, rushed, pulled in lots of directions and kind of can only deal with a few big things at a time. If it comes too fast, I’ll turn off; it just takes too much mental energy to deal with. Sound like anyone you know?

I can only take new information in small doses because there is so much information out there and it all presents these huge, cumulative nationwide or worldwide numbers. None of our individual actions really make any difference in the big picture. And the more I make changes in my life to reflect the reality of the new information, the more things I find (ok, actually my wife finds them) that will have an equally big cumulative impact if everyone did them, but will have minimal impact if I were the only one to make the change.

This is both our biggest issue, and biggest opportunity. Small, individual actions cost a little, even if just the mental energy to change. Yet there’s no apparent benefit unless we all do them. Does one person really make a difference?

And I hate to admit that I am a little greedy … why should someone else get to have the little conveniences that I am denied? The good feeling I get by being a do-gooder helps a little, but I don’t get anything from feeling “superior” to others. Mostly I just get a little more concerned that as I am learning these things, slowly, and beginning to incroporate new habits into my life I am increasingly aware that the rest of the country is not.

Today’s item is grocery bags.

I look at the total number of paper and plastic bags we accumulate over the course of a year and conclude that it’s probably about 100 of each kind. Ok, we’re all aware of the grocery bag thing — it’s not new, and “paper or plastic” is one of those questions that keeps the issue in our minds. But our actions may allow us to reduce this number, perhaps by half.

Is it worth it?

Or the real question is, given the number of big things I could do out there, compared to the smaller number of things I can realistically handle without overloading, which one should be my next?

The only real answer is, I’ll pick the next one I think I can do. So far, none of the changes we have made have really affected the quality of our lives in any negative way. It’s not so much a matter of whether something will actually be good, doable, or how much benefit it will create. It’s just whether I have enough mental energy to learn a new good habit.

It takes mental energy to take on a new behavior. And in my head, there’s always a shortage of that kind of energy, too. Fortunately, it’s a renewable resource.

Bush says we’re addicted to oil. Well, that’s far from the only thing! So, like a good 12-step program, I’ll just take it one day at a time.

1 Comment

  1. Tom,
    This is the one that I think should be next – Light Pollution. It is completely reversible and does not require hazardous waste disposal or personal inconveince. I got this article from a friend dated March 1, 2008. It is verh interesting, particularly when you find developers using the night sky as a marketing tool. I hope you will read it. Chris Luginbuhl helped us write our ordinance.

    Are Arizona’s dark skies in jeopardy?
    Kathleen Ingley / Mar. 1, 2008 / The Arizona Republic

    Fifty years ago, Flagstaff banned advertising searchlights. The city where astronomers discovered Pluto had made another startling discovery: The night was disappearing. Light pollution was wiping out the view of the stars. A bright urban sky can be 1,000 percent brighter than the natural night sky.

    Over the years, Flagstaff responded with one of the world’s toughest lighting ordinances. Go up at night on Mars Hill at the edge of town, site of the historic Lowell Observatory, and you’ll see the city lights below. But there’s almost no glow above the horizon. And then look south. The Phoenix metro area, more than 100 miles away, puts a long, pale smudge on the edge of the night.

    Darkness is among Arizona’s greatest and least understood assets. With clear desert air and remote mountains, this is one of the best places on earth to see the heavens. Astronomy and its offshoots are a key part of our economy, A star-studded sky is part of outdoor recreation.

    We understand the need to protect Arizona’s spectacular landscape, wildlife habitat, water supplies and air. But too few Arizonans realize we have to protect our dark skies. And even fewer know how to do it.

    Chris Luginbuhl is on a mission to get rid of “light bombs,” unprotected fixtures that throw out an explosion of illumination in every direction. As an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory outside Flagstaff, he has a professional interest in keeping excess light from going up into the sky. But he also shakes his head at the waste: “It’s remarkable how much light we spray around. It’s like taking 100 dollars of resources and throwing away 50 every time.”

    What’s also remarkable is the simplicity of good lighting. Use the right amount of light, put it in the right place and use a shielded fixture that focuses light where it’s needed, instead of letting it go up or sideways.

    Making all the outdoor light in the U.S. “night sky friendly” would save up to $5 billion a year in electricity, the National Park Service estimates.

    Recently, Luginbuhl took me on a lighting tour of Flagstaff. The first lesson is that brighter isn’t better. It just creates glare.

    Our eyes have two types of photoreceptors: cones that react quickly to details and colors, and rods that are much more sensitive. We depend on rods to see at night, but they take a long time to recover from bright light – which is why it’s so hard to see the road after leaving a glaringly lit service station. For an aging population, with older eyes that are sensitive to glare, better lighting makes sense.

    The key to visibility isn’t intense light, but even light. The Coconino County jail is a model. Instead of the stark white spotlights, the movie cliché for the clink, it has strategically placed, well-shielded fixtures that blanket the grounds in a mellow light.

    And few sports fields require the dazzling white lights that are visible for miles. Check out Flagstaff’s Thorpe Park, where shielded fixtures were installed last year. Softball fans were dubious, but players can actually see the ball better without light bombs in their eyes.

    Brighter isn’t safer. It can even be more dangerous. We stopped at a building with a typically blinding white security light. “Look,” said Luginbuhl. He went up the brilliantly lit sidewalk and then stepped into the shadows. “Can you see me now?” He was virtually invisible. “Now hold up your hand to block out the light.” Without the overpowering light, I could spot him lurking by the door.

    The National Park Service ranks the night sky as an important cultural and natural resource. Visitors agree, eagerly participating in stargazing, ranger-led moonlit walks and nocturnal wildlife viewing. The NPS Night Sky Team, created in 1999, measures and monitors darkness in parks. Nearly every one they’ve checked has some degree of light pollution.

    “The distance that light pollution travels is astonishingly long, particularly in the arid West, where there’s not a lot of trees to block the street lights within the city and the air is fairly clean,” says Chad Moore, the team’s program manager. “From the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, you can see Phoenix, as well as Las Vegas.”

    Scientists are just starting to investigate the impact of nighttime lighting on animals. Hatchling baby turtles get confused on their way to the sea. Nocturnally migrating birds become disoriented. Lights can alter everything from the mating activities of frogs to communication among coyotes.

    The effects extend to human health. New research suggests that living in a neighborhood that’s brightly illuminated at night can interfere with the production of a tumor-suppressing hormone in women, raising the risk of breast cancer.

    Up on Kitt Peak, Buell Jannuzi keeps worried watch on the northern horizon. This mountaintop on the Tohono O’odham Nation has the largest collection of optical telescopes in the world. The national observatory there, which Jannuzi heads, is celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

    Tucson, 56 miles to the southeast, controls outdoor lighting well enough so that there’s been just a slight increase in sky glow despite a large jump in population. But in the past five years, the expanding Phoenix area, 120 miles north of the peak, has come to outshine Tucson.

    “How do we educate everybody to understand that light that goes up doesn’t do anybody any good?” Jannuzi wonders.

    Of course, no single overlit parking lot, ballfield or billboard can obscure the stars. This is death by a thousand cuts. Today’s telescopes, with their giant mirrors, use very long time exposures to detect the faint light from distant stars and galaxies. Excess light conceals those tiny traces. Think of how you lose a weak radio signal if a strong station starts broadcasting at a nearby frequency.

    Arizona is a world leader in astronomy, with more than $1 billion in capital investments and more under construction. That’s spurred research and business ventures in other areas, such as optics. Failing to protect those intellectual and economic assets, with so much promise for future development, would be breathtakingly shortsighted.

    Developers certainly know the value of starry nights. A dark sky is now an amenity and a marketing tool in places like Scottsdale’s Hidden Hills.

    Unlike other types of pollution, this is completely reversible.

    We need to strengthen the state law on lighting, update local ordinances and beef up enforcement. Average Arizonans need to understand light pollution, so they pick appropriate fixtures and report violations.

    Some six out of 10 Americans live in places that don’t get dark enough at night for their eyes to switch completely from cone to rod vision.

    Astronomer Luginbuhl suggests we get reacquainted with darkness. “It’s nice to cultivate a relation to natural night. It’s not something that’s broken and needs to be fixed.”

    Comment by Debra Norvil — March 2, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

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