High Energy Use & Consumption Habits

High Energy Use & Consumption Habits

Hearing Donald Trump say to a reporter at a press conference, “I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news,” reminded me of that memorable definition of chutzpah that goes something like this: it’s like when someone murders their parents, and then asks the courts for leniency because they’re an orphan. Could there be anyone more comfortable and cozy with fake news than the man whose very actions and words have inspired the creation of the phrase “the post-truth age?” A man who has consistently questioned whether President Obama was even born in this country? A man who claims he actually got more valid votes in the presidential election? Hello?

And now, just days ago, my jaw dropped when I heard he had uttered the words “I am an environmentalist.” Well, let me quote former president Abraham Lincoln:

“How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg? Four. Saying that a tail is a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” — Abraham Lincoln

Anyway, moving right along …  I would like to comment on a Charlie Rose interview I heard broadcast over the Bloomberg radio station, back in November. It was a rebroadcast of an interview that was conducted February 22, 2016, with guest Bill Gates. At one point in the interview, Gates says “The idea of flipping a light switch and the lights come on or setting the temperature and it’s hot or cold (…)  Americans have the equivalent of 200 humans pushing an axle on their behalf, so that their lights light up and their materials get made and their food gets made. Modern life is that much about energy intensity.”

As soon as I heard him finish the sentence, I thought “No, our sense of entitlement is that much about energy intensity.” In an address to the nation, concerning the state of the economy, on February 5, 1981, President Ronald Reagan stated, “We can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance by simply reducing their allowance.” (He also uttered a very similar sentiment during one of the presidential debates, months earlier.) Why is that good advice when it comes to profligate spending, but not when it comes to extravagant consumption of fossil fuels (or of the earth’s resources, in general)? Setting aside the likely reality that such a thing would be a non-starter in a highly partisan two-party democracy like ours, what is logically wrong — in these ecological crises times we’re living in — with saying, “You can lecture the public about the importance of energy and resource conservation until you run out of voice and breath. Or you can cure their extravagance by simply legislating their compliance.” For example, in addition to considering the implementation of a “sin tax” on fossil fuels, should we not also be considering the possibility of rationing fossil fuel usage?

Here is another example. One that does not pertain to fossil fuels. In an op-ed piece in Newsday, by Michael Dobie (a member of Newsday’s editorial board), published on August 20, 2016, Dobie begins by stating that during a recent twelve-month period, “David Koch’s Southampton estate consumed 22,572,022 gallons of water.” It also states in this op-ed that Koch’s home uses “as much [water] as 141 average homes,” and has been “Suffolk County’s top water hog for five years running.” Wouldn’t it be reasonable, sensible and responsible for the government to step in and say “No, we’re not going to allow you to do this. We’re not going to allow you to jeopardize the ecology of this region!”

The piece also states that a Koch spokeswoman justified the water usage by asserting that the home uses an “environmentally friendly” geothermal heating and cooling system that uses lots of water. My guess is that the high water usage has more to do with the fact that David Koch is one of the top ten wealthiest people on the planet (and has an ecological footprint to match), and has less to do with the geothermal heating and cooling system that his home uses.

The same sentiment expressed above could equally apply to the business sector. That is, “We can lecture the business sector about the importance of energy and resource conservation until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance by simply legislating their compliance.” Here are just two quick examples. In 2011 (June 26), The New York Times published an article (“Atop TV Sets, A Power Drain Runs Nonstop”), by Elisabeth Rosenthal, that began:

Those little boxes that usher cable signals and digital recording capacity into televisions have become the single largest electricity drain in many American homes, with some typical home entertainment configurations eating more power than a new refrigerator and even some central air-conditioning systems.

These set-top boxes (as they are called) don’t even need to be in active use, to cause big energy drains. As it states in the article, “These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day, even when not in active use.” Why did they design the system that way in the first place? One of the people quoted in the article, is John Wilson, a former member of the California Energy Commission who is now with the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation. Let me again quote from the article: “Mr. Wilson recalled that when he was on the California Energy Commission, he asked box makers why the hard drives were on all the time, using so much power. The answer: ‘Nobody asked us to use less.'”

My solution: don’t just ask them to use less, tell them to use less. Legislate! This is still going on*, and it shouldn’t be. How can government not act on something as obvious and as important as this? “Business,” as George Soros has pointed out, “is amoral.” [Amoral, not immoral.] Morality doesn’t enter the equation. Business exists simply and solely to make profit. It doesn’t exist to make the world a better place. As such, it is the job of government, particularly in egregious situations like this, to step in and intercede.

Here is another example, from that same year. In 2011 (Sept. 27), The New York Times published a front page news story (“In North Dakota, Flames of Wasted Natural Gas Light the Prairie”), by Clifford Krauss, reporting on hundreds of fires across western North Dakota, that were deliberately set, to burn off natural gas, so that oil companies could more quickly extract the oil underneath, and “take advantage of the high price of crude.” And yet, this is exactly what many people think can save the planet, the entrepreneurial spirit, the business-mindset, which is unfortunately focused on just one thing: profit.

The article states that every day, this practice wastes “enough energy to heat half a million homes for a day.” The article further states that this profit-driven practice puts as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, “as 384,000 cars.” And, according to the article, “30 percent of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is burned as waste. No other major domestic oil field currently flares close to that much, though the practice is still common in countries like Russia, Nigeria and Iran.”

Again, couldn’t government step in and say “No! Don’t do that!” Or, looking at it another way, imagine if the fossil fuel-extraction industry were government run. Profit wouldn’t be the motivating factor.

It’s like I say, if we can’t reach the very, very low-lying fruit, that is right there in front of our face, what hope have we got at ever being able to get at the more difficult to reach, out of the way fruit, at or near the top? If we can’t accomplish the Captain Obvious stuff we should be doing, how will we ever be able to tackle the far more difficult and far more complicated stuff?

What do you call a quotation printed at the beginning of a literary work? An epigraph. What do you call a quotation printed at the end of a literary work? I don’t think there is a word for that. But that is how I am going to end this. With a quotation. I believe this quotation provides a good lens through which to view what I wrote above, about our sense of entitlement, when it comes to our not-living-within-our-means, high energy-use consumption habits:

“It makes far better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than to attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants.” — David W. Orr

*Correction: The energy drain by set-top boxes has since come down, and this decline is expected to continue. See “National Energy Use of Pay-TV Set-Top Boxes is Heading Down,” Noah Horowitz, Aug. 18, 2016, posted on The National Resources Defense Council www.nrdc.org website.