Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Try being conscious for one whole day... it's harder than you think

I am reading Flat, Hot and Crowded, by Thomas Friedman, his follow-up to The World is Flat. I'm reading it on a Kindle, as an experiment, and I posted a little review of that experience on Scholar's Space. I'm only 1/3 of the way through it, but the book already has me fired up. It focuses on the relationship between our politics, our addiction to oil and the environmental consequences. It's as much a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth as to his own World is Flat. It's probably less effective than Truth in that it's a book, not a movie, it's Friedman not Gore, and Gore already settled the issue of whether we can afford to act like there's a debate over the reality of climate change (we can't). But it's quite effective for me personally, because it makes clear that policy change at the highest levels is job one -- individual action alone will never pull us out of this tailspin. And besides, I think the heart of the book is yet to come, in his proposals for what to do about it all, which Truth didn't really tackle.

Policy change and political leadership is vital. I'm on board. Obama makes me hopeful that the world has a chance. But individual and small group (one might say fringe group) action has been the only option for decades now and there's no reason to slack off. Tree-huggers and recyclers (when recycling wasn't a curb service), vegetarians and natural and organic foods producers, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, etc., all have played their parts in bringing the nature of the environment consequences of our actions to public attention. So have lawsuits to stop ill-advised governmental action. But the time for environmentalism as the opposition has long passed. Friedman believes that national, international, indeed global environmentalism is the only way we're going to save everything else -- our religions, our politics, our economies, our philosophies, in other words, ourselves -- because we're quickly approaching the point where the changes we've already set in motion will become unmanageable. Adapting to the magnitude of change we'll see will be impossible, not just for polar bears, but for us, the masters of adaptation.

But governments usually won't act when action requires tough choices that will not go over with an electorate, because getting re-elected is the politicians' job one. So, is failure "baked into the system" as Friedman describes inevitabilities? Wouldn't a benign king be better able to reorient the American people than a democratically elected government? Perhaps. But it's also true that if the governed themselves demand the actions and are willing to do what's necessary, because they understand the consequences of failure to do so, not just for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren, there's hope.

At this point, in month two of my extremely cool year off, I can easily devote a day to environmental consciousness, to see what it means to be unconscious about energy use and the consequence of my choices for the environment. I can note all the ways my choices waste resources, exacerbate environmental degradation, ignore my responsibility to future generations. I can see where I don't even have choices to be responsible. I think you have know where you are before you can map your route to somewhere else.

So that's what I did yesterday.

I'm still reeling from what I learned. I should have held a clicker and clicked every time I noted that something I did could have been done more consciously or not at all. The number would have shocked. And I think of myself as fairly aware and conscientious. I'm almost ashamed to put this stuff down on paper, er, I mean, in digits (ah, digits instead of paper -- another unconscious choice?). But I will.
  • Lights on when there's plenty of natural light in my house.
  • Lights left on when no one is in the room.
  • Blow-drying my hair when it dries just fine by itself.
  • Devices left on when I'm not using them (Kindle, for example).
  • Charging a device longer than it needs to be charged.
  • Backing up my MacBook every hour instead of every day or even every week. Is anything I do that important that it needs backing up every hour?
  • Leaving the heat on for my cat when I leave to go to work.
  • Going to work.
Ok. I need to explain that last one. I telecommute most of the time. Everything I do for the Libraries, just about, can be done remotely. I only work 10 hours a week. But I think it's important to go to the office at least once each week for 4 or 5 (ie, almost half) of my hours. Here are the extra things I consumed because I did not work at home:

Approximately 1 hour spent in the bathroom and bedroom getting ready (lights, hot water, extra heat), 8 mile commute in car that gets 24 miles/gallon, parking on campus (increasing demand for land used for parking), turning on 3 lights in my interior, windowless office, 8 mile commute back home, opening and closing electric garage door. We could quibble about some of these things, around the margins, but really, I wouldn't have done most of this if I had just thrown on some clothes, come downstairs and sat down at my computer and did the same thing I did in the office. I would have dressed warmly and kept the heat at the same temp I left it at while I was gone (65). On the other hand, I got to see people I attended a meeting at the iSchool; I bought some Girl Scout Cookies; I went up and down 4 flights of stairs about 6 times (I did not take the elevator!!!). Face to face is a good thing. But it costs a lot and we don't think much about that.

Things I wondered about as the day wore on, but don't know the answers to: What kind of fuel was Austin Energy (and UT?) burning to give me my electricity? Where did it come from? Do I have a choice to ask for clean energy? Can I pay more for it if it costs more to produce and deliver? Is eating a Lean Cuisine for lunch more or less destructive than heating a can of soup or making a salad of veggies from California, Mexico and Florida? What about my breakfast? How is my yogurt made? My granola? My honey? Where did my computer come from? Where will it go when I don't want it anymore? What about our new "single stream" recycling service? Is it really recycling everything we put in that nice big blue recycling can?

Enough consciousness for one day. Now it's day two. I decided to continue for the whole week, maybe the whole month. That will give me time to investigate the answers to some of the questions my actions raised yesterday.

It's so fabulous to have a year off. It gives me time to start small in the search for an effective use of my time. There is an awful lot I don't know about environmental conservation and how it fits into the global economy, and into domestic and international politics. Friedman's book makes clear that we need action at the highest levels, but I know in my bones that you can't expect support for that action from people who have no idea what you're talking about. We don't understand how or why we use energy, or even why we should care. I'll focus on that this month.

Trying to change the way our government thinks about our willingness to make sacrifices for the children of the future or trying to change the way we think about those sacrifices so that we can elect people who will make the tough choices -- it's all indirect. Everything is indirect. There is no direct path to environmental salvation. The political web is like the environmental web - extremely complex. No matter what I do over the next 20 years, it's only going to be a small thing, a tiny thing, but so long as I am engaged, that's the most I can do."Every difference makes a difference." I just don't want to be a part of the problem. Or, I want to minimize the extent to which I am a part of the problem.

No comments: