Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

June 14, 2009

Being “Used To” Our Lifestyle Makes Change Seem Difficult

Category: Conservation,Sustainability – Tom Harrison – 2:58 pm

This weekend I saw the TV show Wa$ted and the documentary Born Into Brothels — two entirely different shows, but I think I saw the heart of a problem we have: we have become accustomed to a way of living that will be difficult to part with.

Wa$ted is a TV show — they come into your house, find how you’re wasting energy, propose and install solutions, follow your progress for a month, give the first year’s annualized savings in cash. The episode I watched resulted in a modest reduction in energy consumption by the family, and several refusals to part ways with some of their things. Born Into Brothels is about a photographer living in Calcutta who realizes the plight of the children of sex workers, gives them cameras, knocks down numerous barriers to help get the kids raised out of abject poverty, and has both success and failure.

These are very different shows, but it helped me see that regardless of outcome, even when the result is positive, people are resistant to change.

Without doing a disservice to Born Into Brothels, which is incredibly inspirational, I was struck by one aspect: the photographer successfully managed to get past all of the social, bureaucratic, and political barriers to help several of the kids she was working with into schools that would certainly have provided an avenue of escape … but in the end, all her work was thwarted by mothers who were unable to accept this change, taking their children out of schools. It is heart breaking.

Wa$ted made me groan — a couple was simply “way to used to their SUVs” to give them up. However in the end, the changes made in their household were expected to save $2,800 annually, and the couple was applauded for reducing their global energy footprint from something like ten times a sustainable level down to eight times (these numbers may be off). Sure, the family was able to reduce their consumption, but by an almost trivial level. Their level of consumption, comfort and waste, even afterward, is huge.

The most immediately striking thing for me was that compared to the poverty of Calcutta, Americans live an unbelievably comfortable life. We have clean water, food, education, mobility, and space — lots and lots of it. The families in Calcutta lived in confined,cacophonous, chaotic squalor. To be sure, these are polar opposites. I would not want to live like the people in the film, even if is it possible. Indeed, millions of people are able to live at all in these conditions suggests that there is indeed a lot of scope for change in our lifestyles.

The Things We Need and Cannot Do Without

Yet in America hear people saying “I cannot” make a given change, or “I need” some convenience of life, a larger house, and so on, and that people describe themselves as “green”. My family has made many, many changes to be green … but honestly haven’t made any sacrifices in our quality of life (on the contrary). Yet using the global footprint calculator, we still use almost three times as much resources as the earth can sustainably support. Every change takes a little “getting used to”, to be sure. But of the many things we though we “needed”, we could do without most of them. We need to continue changing.

Actually the picture is different — in effect many of our changes have been investments in longer-term consumption reduction. For example, we just spent several hundred dollars getting the house properly insulated. Within a couple of years, this investment will pay for the cost in savings … and our house will be more comfortable. Our monthly expenses on energy alone have fallen, rather dramatically.

Over our lifetimes, we have gotten very used to our American way of life. At first, all change seems like reduction.

The reality is that change is hard, even if the result is a change from a bad situation to a better one. In Born Into Brothels, many of the children were unable to break free from lives of poverty because the change, even from horrible conditions, was too much to bear.

I would only hope that we can consider that the changes Americans and other industrialized nations can make may seem hard, or that we’re parting with things we “need”. But the truth is, these changes are very minor adjustments. All change is hard, but some change is easier than other. And in the end, you’ll be living a better life.


  1. I hate to be pessimistic, because I am not, but I have little hope of the transition being anything but jarring, at least. I think, for many reasons – including that many people don’t fully grasp the problems, that the political will is not there world-wide to respond with a safe margin of time in a sustainable fashion to the impending crisis. Many things will happen that I can’t imagine or don’t think now are possible. Perhaps we will get a handle on many of these pieces. But I’m guessing that the needed reduction in population will not be nicely handled. Maybe increased infertility and cancer from environmental pollutants will help. Maybe as the cost of living increases people will choose to have many fewer children (as we are now an overwhelmingly urban species, where more kids can’t really help out on the farm). I don’t think it will be all apocalyptic mayhem though. I think we will patch things together, and ingeniously solve problems in lower tech, or at least lower energy ways. I am also a bit of a Luddite, and unlike Zane, like envisioning a bit more of a return to some local, small, sustainable, more agrarian communities. But I totally agree with him on many of his points for a happy path, and I know that he likes to grow food in his yard too :) I do think it is important to maintain our world-wide connectivity and information exchange – it is what makes the world light and livable. We may not be able to fly across the globe anymore someday, but I’m not sure I want to live in a world where it isn’t easy to know how people are living or communicate with people across the globe. I also live in Alaska which makes my personal take on things a bit different from the average lower-48 American, but I am sure there are many takes on things depending on bioregion, etc. Without a huge population boom here, water is not an issue locally, except that given we need a lot more local agriculture to support our population sustainably, and early summers will likely get dryer, we will need to appropriately develop ponds and impoundments for snowmelt, and/or catchment to get us through to the rains on individual farms. Most of the solutions are out there in books on permaculture, ecological design, etc.

    Many people have written about appropriate paths and solutions in a non-fictional way, it would be neat to see novels and fictionalized accounts though (books or movies) that can personalize the path and draw in the average joe and joette.

    This article discusses how we may have fewer years than we think to peak hydrocarbons (not just oil), and that there may not even be enough quickly recoverable coal to reach our worst climate change predictions. If all hydrocarbons are soon to be very very expensive, then so will the transition to solar, nuclear, enhanced geothermal etc. And it is apparent we have reached the end of cheap energy, even if the above analysis is wrong.

    My happy ending involves much greater communalism. It involves the building, ASAP, of neighborhood community centers – probably libraries – to fulfill the old roles of the cathedral, long house, etc. These would be built with oodles of insulation and big enough to fit the local feeder community. They would have appropriate construction and technologies to stay comfortable without big energy inputs. They would have internet and books and communal kitchens and meeting space and solar panels and efficient electric lights etc. They would be a place where the neighborhood populace could go and have a feast and listen to a talk and read about how to grow potatoes and be warm and comfortable without everyone heating and lighting their homes all day with expensive fuels or scarce wood or whatever. Then everyone can trundle home in the evening and pull up the down comforters and snuggle into bed in less cozy homes. To be funded by taxes or donations or dues or who knows?

    I think one thing we need to do is start to prioritize where our energy goes. My list will be different from yours, but maybe we can reach some consensus about where not to spend our energy as it grows more and more expensive. For example: I would be ecstatic if people weren’t in personal autos, but I’m ok with fuel in trains/buses and my CSA farmers’ truck right now. Many people can agree on frivolous energy uses – much plastic surgery, stock car racing, etc – it’d be nice to start channeling that into building the systems we will need to have a good life in the coming decades.

    Back to the original post – I think most people can change when they really need too – emergency situations generally bring out heroic, unaccustomed behavior. I just hope enough people who see the writing on the wall change enough before an emergency so that the nucleus of strength and resourcefulness is there to reradiate out into the contracting society and channel it to a happy ending. I think this is happening – small pods of people in every community are thinking about the problems and implementing solutions that can be expanded as needed.

    Comment by Michelle Wilber — June 17, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  2. I guess I’m fundamentally optimistic that sustainability will become a non-political issue in time, hopefully soon, because ultimately, it’s not much of a philosophical or “values” debate, it’s a practical problem, and short of a population collapse, in the long term it’s not going to go away, no matter how much we ignore it or take half measures. The real political opposition is from the incumbent industries which benefit from unsustainable behavior, and I have to hope that our recent financial debacle has sensitized people to the dangers of trusting incumbent industries to do the right thing…

    RMI is great. I’ve read a lot of their stuff. They’re another source of optimism.

    I love growing some of my own food, and turning my own compost pile, and being able to completely build and un-build my bike, and cook my own meals, and brew my own beer, etc. Part of what I’ve tried to do is replace external entertainment with functional activities. Doing these things is fun! I don’t think that makes me a luddite. Wanting to remove all cars from the city doesn’t make me a luddite either, even though 200 years ago, there were no cars in the city. Those cities also sucked, in different, manure-sewage-and-dead-horse ways. The future might look like the past in some superficial ways, but I suspect that if you were to somehow drop either Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Edison into the pedestrian, bicycle and transit NYC of 2050, they would be hopelessly confused.

    Speaking of NYC… have you seen this passive-house co-housing thing in Brooklyn? That, to my mind, is a lot of what the future looks like, and I think it sounds a lot like what you’re describing Mickie.

    David Rutledge, an electrical engineering prof here at Caltech, has been doing the round with a “peak coal” talk. I think it’s dangerous, because I think he’s likely to be wrong, as we do not yet have a really good global inventory of coal resources, and because his meme plays well to both the apocalyptic Peak Oil crowd, and the climate delayers. When really, the point of his talk should be: regardless of how much coal we have, we must stop burning it now, as other positive feedbacks will at some point take over.

    Now, why on Earth can’t I get this much discussion going on over at my blog?

    Comment by Zane Selvans — June 17, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  3. So it sounds like Zane is the optimist and Michelle is the realist and I am just a curmudgeon :-).

    For me, it is truly hard to envision a “soft landing” scenario for climate change. The report on climate change from earlier this week kind of sinks that point home with best case scenarios resulting in some rather dramatic, near-term changes. But don’t get me wrong — when we have eventually taken our licks, I can see that the world will, necessarily arrive at a much more sensible, sustainable, community oriented point. I like the vision as it seems sane, humane and more … mature.

    And, to make another non-curmudgeonly observation, I don’t think the main issues will tend to be a result of energy shortages. The science I have attempted to understand suggests that there is rather an abundance of clean energy, several orders of magnitude more than we use now available to us — yeah, sun, wind, and geothermal. There are many issues to be solved before we can recast our technologies so that we can actually replace our current dependencies on fossil fuels … but I do think the magnitude of that problem is the kind that, given sufficient incentive, humans are remarkably good at solving in the blink of an eye — as Michelle says, when there’s an emergency, we manage to do in hours or days things that would usually take months or years.

    The specter of climate change creates some of the incentives we need, I think. And that’s why I don’t think there’s really that much of an issue with peak oil and certainly not peak coal — it’s not supply constraints that create the issue — it’s the great abundance of coal (and to a lesser degree oil) and our profligate consumption of it that make climate change the more immediate issue.

    The cost of energy is certainly an issue now, and it probably got people motivated to listen a little in the first place. It’s quite possible that in the shorter run it will become an issue again, at least with oil. But if we really attack renewable energy issues, including distribution, storage, and the transition, along with commensurate reduction in waste, I can easily see a path to energy equilibrium.

    So maybe al of this hopefulness is what’s bumming me out so much. I think we can solve the root of the problem. But I don’t think we yet have the necessary political will or momentum to do the job. And as we dither, Rome burns, as it were.

    It’s the next 20 years or so that worry me most. The effects of climate change will start to create a lot of global political instability. Famine, draught, pestilence, floods and all sorts of other Biblical sounding things are not likely to make the world a more stable place.

    If we seize opportunities (e.g. various carbon pricing methods, conservation, invention) and we head off the most terrible impacts by planning in advance I think we could really make the world a less turbulent place.

    It’s a big “if”, though…

    Comment by Tom Harrison — June 17, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.