"Wow, and I thought my life was complicated," lamented Mac as we followed Maya off to see the rabbit hutches at Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm one afternoon this past August. We had just sat through a little presentation by one of the farm staff on conserving resources in a late colonial kitchen. While the word recycle was not part of the lexicon, the colonial era farmer put today's environmentalist to shame; nothing was wasted. Whether making cutlery out of a ram's horn, a footstool from deer antlers, or kitchen lamps from the boiled down fat of a possum or other farm pest, the colonial farmer maximized every last bit of resources at her disposal.
Comparatively, we live a life of ease and convenience. We also create a great deal more waste.
This month's Green Moms Carnival on conserving resources will be full of great ideas for reducing our waste stream and its drain on our pocketbooks. Hopefully, we'll also raise some questions and inspire some activism on systemic ways to reduce waste. We certainly could be wasting a lot less energy.
One of our biggest sources of pollution is energy. The New York Times this week covered the water polluting implications of our energy use — pollution from coal mines and coal plants threatens drinking water in hundreds of Appalachian towns. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, coal is responsible for nearly half of electricity generation in the United States. Because electricity demand is expected to grow, even if more renewable energy comes online in the next few years, so will more coal.
According to our guide at Quiet Valley, colonial era candles made from the best fats available took hours of dipping a wick and waiting for hot tallow to dry. That candle would last 30 minutes, so was only used to light special occasions. Day-to-day lamps were made from hollow rocks and burning bits of scrap fabric in the cheapest, smokiest fats. Even then, lamps were used sparingly and, instead, the colonial farm day was synchronized with the sun. In our high-convenience society, we flip a switch and brilliant lights shine on our evening activities. Unfortunately, planet threatening carbon-dioxide, soot, mercury, smog-forming pollutants and more billow out of smoke stacks miles away from our pretty little lights.
Yes, turning off unnecessary lights is a good thing – and is a no brainer for saving money, too. Yes, switching to energy-efficient fluorescent instead of inefficient incandescent bulbs is a good thing – and pays back its investment rather quickly. And, yes, yes, yes, installing solar panels or choosing the green energy option offered by many utility companies is a good thing – but not everyone can afford that kind of personal environmentalism.
So, here's where the systemic solutions come in. Last week the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy released an analysis of the efficiency provisions in a bill in the passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and up for consideration in the U.S. Senate this month. Just those provisions in the American Clean Energy Security Act (ACES — H.R. 2454), according to ACEEE, would cut global warming pollution by 15 percent, provide $283 in annual savings for every household in America, and create more than 569,000 new jobs nationwide in the next ten years. Not bad, eh?
Does the bill do enough, though, to really prevent catastrophic climate change? Jury's still out on that but, as I understand it, the global warming pollution caps are pretty darn good but the renewable energy provisions leave a lot to be desired. It's a step in the right direction and one that offers President Obama a credible position from which to negotiate an international climate protection treaty in December. The bill has been under fire from both the hard-core environmentalists who don't think it does enough and the hard-core global warming deniers for whom anything is too much. Unfortunately, it's the later who have members of Congress spooked. As the Senate takes up its own version of the bill, members of the former can make a big impact by rallying behind the need for action on climate change now. The planet really can't wait.
When I was in college, I wrote a paper on why municipal recycling could not save the world. The U.S. solid waste problem is mostly industrial waste, I argued. Always a populist environmentalist, I rejected the notion that individual action alone would be sufficient without government action to force major polluters to clean up their acts. Some very vocal advocates of individual environmentalism have been grappling with those same questions recently.
My conclusion is that the personal is important, not just for the collective effect of millions of green acts, but for the personal connection to the solution such acts inspire. This month's carnival theme of conserving resources resonated especially for me because I recently gave up my full time job, and the full time paycheck that went with it, to redistribute a very finite resource of mine: time. Sometimes, the personal green act not only conserves natural resources but money as well, freeing up personal resources like time.
One of the first things I did with my newly freed time was have a free home energy audit performed by the local utility company on behalf of the D.C. Department of the Environment. A technician came to our home and inspected the windows and doors, heat and hot water, and possible energy leaks. He hooked up a nifty contraption to the front door to create a vacuum effect on the entire house and measured leaky points. We're waiting for our full report but the inspector gave us a few ideas for saving energy that we can implement right away.
My two tips for this month are these:
2) See if your utility company or environment department offers energy audits and take them up on the offer.
It will be good for the planet and your wallet.
This post is part of the September Green Moms Carnival on conserving resources.