Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

May 3, 2010

Reconnecting To Nature Through Disasters: Bombs, Water, Oil Edition

Category: Climate Change,Save Water – Tom Harrison – 9:41 am

Yesterday, a massive failure of a water pipe serving my home, and two million of my neighbors, threw Boston into disarray. Some sort of car bomb in Times Square (that didn’t go off) has disrupted many and alarmed many more. I have been writing about the BP Oil Spill this week. All are connected — they are more than “catastrophes”: they all help remind us how connected and dependent upon technology we are … and I hope perhaps makes people think for a moment (or longer) about what that means.

Connecting With Nature

I have been a hiker and camped in the wilderness since I was a boy — when you’re climbing a mountain you know how precious water is, but also learn how little of our technology we actually need to survive. This said, I prefer my modern tent, clothing, water purifier, backpack and clothing to what I had forty years ago. But stepping into real, pristine wilderness almost instantly connects me to the systems of the source. I think my strong environmental bent is mainly linked to this life experience.

Millions of us living in the Boston area are using backup water now. It’s far from a catastrophe — the water we’re able to use from other reservoirs is untreated, so we have to boil it to kill the bacteria that might make us ill. I found it remarkable and somewhat heartening to see how quickly we came together to deal with the problem. But for a few days at least, we’ll all have to develop some new habits, put up with some inconvenience, and suffer some economic loss. Will we also stop to think, if only for a moment, that two million of us could have our water supplies and lives affected due to the failure of one pipe? I can imagine much worse scenarios.

The attempted car bomb in Times Square was disruptive in a different way. Little will change, but one can only think the residents of Manhattan had a little chill run up their spine, recalling the impact of terror from 9/11.

In the Gulf of Mexico, a single failure has created a widespread environmental disaster. It will affect the livelihoods of many, and disrupt a sensitive eco-system, likely for many years to come.

Climate Change

We have been talking about climate change for decades now. In the first phase in the 1980’s we began to realize that our domination of nature, through technology and energy was causing a problem. In the second phase by the 2000’s, we realized we had to act immediately to deal with it. Now in the third phase, we are realizing that we have missed our chance to solve the problem and we now also need to take steps to deal with the inevitable consequences.

So let’s consider these current disasters. Needless to say, the events in Boston and New York were trivial compared to the BP Oil Spill. But each stemmed from a single failure of technology that supports our complex infrastructure. Each resulted in a near immediate change in the way we live our lives, whether just for a moment, or perhaps far longer, but change our lives we did. Conveniences and necessities are affected — the impact is greater and longer depending on the scale. Now in 2010, five years after Katerina tore apart New Orleans, the city is beginning to come alive again. It could take years to reverse the impact of the oil spill.

But compared to impacts of climate change that scientists predict, all of these events will be forgotten as blips.

We’re Not Just Surface-dwelling Resource Extractors, We’re People

Take a moment to realize that we survive only when we live as a part of the earth, not just as surface dwelling resource extractors. Our dependence on the proper function of the earth is largely in our hands, and absolutely a matter of life and death. We must take significant action now. Yet we’re dithering on even the most trivial changes.

We can and do come together in times of crisis, and we accept change because we have no other alternative.

The magnitude of the crisis of climate change is vastly larger and longer than any of these current disasters. Yet of course each of these events will cause us to ask, “What could we have done to prevent…” the oil spill, the car bomb, and Boston’s water problem. Committees will investigate. We’ll make changes. These problems are concrete, current, and real.

Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

The problem with climate change is that it hasn’t really “happened” yet, and never will, in any single event. It is abstract, difficult to measure, and hard to tie to any given event. It’s only in the aggregate … after we start seeing patterns (or see something more dramatic and visual), that climate change will become real to most people.

I fear that as we try to figure out how to prevent oil spills, bombs, and water failure, we are missing the much bigger opportunity to take action. If we reconnect with nature, and look around, perhaps it would be evident that the way to stop oil spills is to find a different form of energy. I fully recognize that this will not happen overnight. But I think we under-estimate ourselves if we say that we can make change happen overnight, or even in 10 years.

We’re pretty good at responding to problems. But we’re terrible at doing what it takes to prevent them. Take a moment to think how powerful nature is, on this lovely spring day, and join in the movement of people who are willing to take action and understand that we need to deal with climate change.


  1. I agree with your values and observations.

    Unfortunately it appears we homo sapiens are unable collectively to act altruistically for other species and our descendants. Oil will be exhausted but “not in my lifetime so it’s not a crisis for me”.

    Another amusing yet sad attitude is captured by the god complex. “Man is a god. He has been able to solve all problems and will solve the energy crisis in the future.”

    I have little hope without a crisis that forces change. Regardless, my lack of hope does not minimize my responsibility to act now to live sustainably and work for positive change.

    Comment by Paul Lambert — May 19, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

  2. Wow, Paul — very eloquent. Thank you!

    I concur that it is highly likely, based on our past history, that it will be crisis that forces change. In the past the outcome has been “OK” (notwithstanding a number of rather unpleasant little incidents of genocide and the like) — by OK I mean only that we’re still here. I think it’s likely that the outcome of this one (climate change) may be less than just OK.

    I do have a little hope, however, that some spark of genius will provide not a technical solution to the problem, but that the genius will be the person who finds a way to create the same stimulus that results in real (individual) crisis — the same that causes our fight or flight response. Events like the Revolutionary War, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or even Katerina seem to have triggered a response of the sort we need as a group (not just as individuals). To a lesser or greater degree of success, our responses have resulted in great outcomes, driven mostly by a leader of one kind or other.

    Is it possible that there is such a genius that can create the response while it’s still not so late that the outcome is “less than OK” or even “OK”, or even better? I think it’s unlikely.

    It’s very hard to know what to hope for — something dramatic enough to make us act will necessarily be something that is also horrible. I don’t hope for horror. But I fear that it is some degree of trauma, something pretty bad, that is needed.


    Thomas Friedman wrote an interesting piece in the Times today, suggesting the current BP disaster is something like one of those moments for President Obama. I disagree in this instance. It’s huge, and all, but today the story was about how hundreds of sea turtles will perish. It’s simply not enough.

    I still believe that Obama could indeed be the leader who finds the moment and stirs us to action. He’ll need more than just his natural charisma — he’ll need an opportunity.

    Man, I try to stay away from the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse kind of talk on my “green tips and advice” blog. But it’s hard. I think I hear hoof beats.


    Comment by Tom Harrison — May 19, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

  3. Tom, you sparked a thought and a moment of hope. I remember the pollution and litter of the 1950s. Who was the charismatic leader that motivated us to change? I can’t name one person. There were many people who worked for clean air, clear water, clean highways and other causes related to the environment. It became something of a mass movement. Maybe our response to global warming will be a mass response led by many lesser leaders. Are you familiar with Malcom Gladwell’s book Tipping Point? Change occurs, things tip in a direction, given some controllable inputs.

    Comment by Paul Lambert — May 19, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

  4. Yes, I have read Tipping Point, and think it’s certainly applicable in the case of climate change. One of my recent disappointments is that I had, for a fleeting moment, thought we had reached that tipping point in 2007 and 2008, as oil prices were rising, and politicians of all stripes were talking about energy efficiency, energy security, and yes, climate change.

    People and businesses were responding. Renewable energy was brought online, new coal plant plans were scuttled, a whole TV channel, Planet Green was launched, everyone was making and buying hybrid cars, and so on.

    And then the economy (and oil prices) plummeted. And it was over.

    The “pain” of high gas prices people felt in 2007 and 2008 was quickly eclipsed by the more immediate pain of an economic collapse.

    I started writing this blog in 2005, and thought that this could be my way to be one of Gladwell’s “mavens” — an army of voices delivering the message of change. I continue to have hope. But it’s a long, long battle I think.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — May 20, 2010 @ 7:53 am

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