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I had the good fortune to grow up in a rural area where I spent much of my free time exploring farmland and forests, climbing trees and looking for wildflowers. The family home was an old farmhouse complete with a spring-fed well, cast iron radiators, brass faucets, a claw-foot bathtub, thin insulation in the walls and a coal-burning furnace. My father tended the furnace, constantly loading it with coal, not unlike tending a wood fire; you rarely left home for any length of time because the fire would go out and then the plumbing would freeze.

I also remember our house being on the cool side during winter and my parents were very conservative about using energy. President Jimmy Carter’s call for energy conservation in the 70’s—a time when Americans were asked to conserve energy by turning down thermostats and wearing sweaters at home—was already common practice for us. To this day I cannot leave a room, or feel guilty if I leave a room with the lights on due to the constant reminder to “shut the lights off.” It was the same with our water usage—constant reminders not to waste water because the well would go dry.

Then one day the coal furnace died, which was a good thing. To everyone’s delight an oil furnace was  installed and it made a big difference in our lives in terms of convenience and heating. Then came storm windows and insulation and our house was more energy efficient, and warm.

I learned some valuable lessons from my parents to be conscientious about energy and resource use, and those lessons have turned into concern about the impact of energy use on the climate of our planet. So I read with interest an article in the March 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine entitled, “It Starts at Home”. The author states that “we already know the fastest, least expensive way to slow climate change by using less energy. And with a little effort and not much money, most of us could reduce our energy diets by 25 percent or more. So what’s holding us back?”

The tough issues and calls for conservation from the energy crisis that began in 1973 are long forgotten by the U.S. population. People are driving SUV’s and building houses that are 45 percent bigger than they were 30 years ago. The resulting increased carbon dioxide (CO2) output  is affecting the climate, and the consequences are not good.

By asking the question of what is holding us back from being more energy efficient the article’s author, Peter Miller, and his family decided to experiment by tracking their carbon dioxide use, and attempting to reduce it through energy efficiency improvements. After reading the book entitled, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, they decided to take on the challenge of reducing their CO2 consumption by 80 percent, to “come to a lifestyle the planet could handle”. This meant reducing their home and transportation emissions from 150 to 30 pounds of CO2 per day.

Throughout the article Miller described how his family’s plan to alter their energy needs was working, and included many statistics such as how much CO2 an average home emits each day (150 pounds), a gallon of gasoline adds 19.6 pounds of CO2, a kilowatt hour of electricity emits 1.5 pounds, and every 100 cubic feet of natural gas emits 12 pounds of CO2. Alarming is how the simple act of converting  half of all light bulbs in the U.S. to compact fluorescents would reduce CO2 emissions from lighting by 42.4 million tons a year! If home computers were turned off when not in use, CO2 could be cut by 8.3 million tons a year. If we drove our cars 20 fewer miles each week, CO2 would be reduced by 107 million tons, and if gas mileage was improved by five miles a gallon, 239 million tons of CO2 would be cut each year.

Miller and his family were very challenged in the beginning of their experiment but not daunted by it, and were eventually successful in reaching and sustaining their 80 percent reduction goal. He ends the article with the following statement: “This movement starts at home with the changing of a light bulb, the opening of a window, a walk to the bus, or a bike ride to the post office. PJ (Miller’s wife) and I did it for only a month but I can see the low carbon diet becoming a habit. What do we have to lose?”

It seems that what comes around goes around; 30-plus years ago we were called upon to conserve energy during a crisis, and it encouraged the early development of alternative energy sources, smaller cars—I drove a car in the late 70’s that got 40-plus miles to a gallon—and a conservation ethic. This time around the stakes are even higher but we don’t have all the time in the world to take action.

Resources:

Recommended books from the National Geographic article:

  • The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, by Tim Flannery.
  • Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings, by Jennifer Thorne Amann.
  • Low Carbon Diet: A 30-Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds, by David Gershon.

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