Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanksgiving 2006

The feature article in last Sunday's Washington Post Magazine struck me as a perfect pre-Thanksgiving topic. It described an environmentally-based "intentional community" called Earthaven, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Its members practice a low-energy lifestyle to a degree that few of us would willingly embrace, but which they apparently regard as virtually inevitable, based on current trends of environmental damage and oil depletion. The article serves as a reminder of the degree to which the rest of us treat reliable and plentiful--if no longer cheap--energy as an entitlement. We might reflect on that during Thanksgiving celebrations reflecting our remarkable abundance, in global or historical terms. At the same time, I wonder how healthy it would be to focus on energy and its environmental consequences to the extent that the Earthaven'ers have done.

While I'm not about to give up cars, air conditioners, television, and the other trappings of modern life, I respect those who are willing to live out their convictions about reducing their impact on the planet. As I read the article, though, I found myself tabulating the items in their community that wouldn't be available if the whole country followed this path. Laptop computers and rooftop solar arrays, for example are the fruits of a high-energy civilization, not subsistence farming. Although I wouldn't characterize Earthaven as a survivalist community, I was nevertheless reminded of the post-apocalyptic fiction I used to read, in which the survivors of some global disaster cherish their remaining technological tools, knowing they can never replace them. As the article's author points out, it's just not possible for all the world's inhabitants to live this way. We need large-scale agriculture and large-scale industry to support 6 billion people, on our way to 8 or 9 billion.

As much time as I spend focusing on energy and the environment, I hate to think what would happen if everyone were equally focused on these topics. There's got to be a middle ground between obsession and indifference, though, where Americans can incorporate energy and environmental factors into their decisions, without dwelling on them morbidly. The means of doing this, consistent with our market-based society, is to translate their impacts into transparent financial terms. Give people real-time electricity metering with time-of-day pricing, and let them see how much power that plasma TV or old refrigerator is really using, and how much it costs. Give them tools for identifying and offsetting or reducing their greenhouse gas emissions; TerraPass is a great first step in that direction. Posting lifetime greenhouse gas emissions on new car stickers, alongside the EPA gas mileage estimates, couldn't hurt, either: 20 tons of CO2 in 100,000 miles for a Toyota Prius, 40 tons for an average sedan, and 75 tons for a large SUV.

The Earthaven concept is admirable but unrealistic for most of us. That doesn't preclude a moment of gratitude this Thanksgiving for the electricity or natural gas that roasted the turkey, and the petroleum products that fueled the plane or car that took us to grandmother's house--while remembering the contribution that each of those made to warming the earth. That might sound corny, but even a modest increase in energy and environmental awareness might alter our behavior, which remains the biggest near-term factor in addressing our energy and environmental problems--more than any new technology.

Happy Thanksgiving to my US readers. New postings will resume on Monday.

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