18 July 2011

Green elephants in the room

Time to grow up and stop whingeing: fuel and power price hikes aren't all bad. We want to use less of the stuff, remember?


By Olivia Rose-Innes

Time to grow up and stop whingeing: fuel and power price hikes aren't all bad. We want to use less of the stuff, don't we?

The following thought comes to me far too often, especially when standing in queues, filling out forms, or demolishing an entire tube of Pringles unaided: my genotype has been fine-tuned by 5 million years of evolution, I have the most complex neurosystem in the known universe, and this is how I spend my time as a member of the elite species?

I have the same thought every time I trundle into the petrol station to fill up before the price rises, again, at midnight. A grubby pathetic oil addict, scurrying off to the pump for a last cheap fix.

Also rather pathetic is the way we respond when we hear about another price hike: Oh **** not again. It makes us feel helpless, cross, and thoroughly sorry for ourselves.

The big bully blame game

It's an understandable human reaction, sure, but not that of a very mature human. Our ire is directed outward – somewhat vaguely at the authorities, Eskom, industry, Them, and all big-time bully-boy spoilsports generally.

Ranting at powers-that-be may feel fleetingly satisfying, and I'm certainly not saying we should stop doing it. I don't like the thought of my money going into anyone else's pockets except (within reason) the very poor either, and I'll whine too whenever I feel it happening. But unfortunately this tends to achieve about the same result as punching a pillow: lets off a bit of steam, shows we're displeased, but otherwise, in practical terms, the outcome is not very helpful.

Such a reaction also ignores, to what I find a quite extraordinary extent, the enormous Green elephant in the room, which stands dolefully by as everyone carps on about money. We're supposed to be doing our utmost to use less fossil fuel because of the global environmental crisis, remember?

Shouldn't we be at least a bit glad that fossil fuel is getting prohibitively expensive? Because cost might be the only incentive that will actually get us to cut back -- we don't seem to be managing to do so any other way very well. Honestly now: if petrol dropped to 10 cents a litre and our electricity became magically free, how do you think that would that affect your consumption?

What might be more evolved and useful at such testing times is to turn that seething resentment inward. Resource use is rather less about the big bully boys, whom most of us have little influence over, and a lot more about each of us. Another blackout, that sickening feeling you're filling your tank with liquid gold – you can choose to experience these as frustrations and inconveniences, or you can use them as spurs to action and salient reminders that our world is finite and increasingly unpredictable.

We forget that even at their current uncomfortable levels, the prices we pay for fuel and utilties nowhere near reflects the true cost in terms of environmental impact.

Little people pack an energy punch

Speakers at this year's Sustainable Living Festival held in Greenie Central (Portland, Oregon, where I've recently been soaking up that city's commendable culture of bicycle activism, organic urban farming and ecoroofs, courtesy of a fair whack of jet fuel to transport myself there) concurred that environmental responsibility, and potentially freedom from bully-boy tyranny, really is up to us little people.

Sure, we need to lean on the politicians and administrators when we can, but the world can't wait for them. Get busy yourself in the meantime cleaning up your own backyard energy-wise – those seemingly mundane actions pack a potent punch. Because the greatest energy drains also happen to be those the consumer has the most control over: personal motorised transport and domestic electrical use.

Dr Matt Shinderman of the Oregon State University Sustainability Working Group, for example, referred to stats from the US Energy Information Administration that showed how energy use is largely within our control. He showed how the recent recession has been accompanied by a related dip in per capita energy use in the States, largely a function of ordinary consumers feeling the economic pinch and reining in their resource use accordingly. The collective impact of the Little People can be mighty.

Power in users' hands

The latest Life Cycle Assessment studies, said Shinderman, which aim to take into account all the energy a product sucks in – from (1) energy used to manufacture it, to (2) energy expended using the product, to (3) energy needed to deal with it once it's headed for the scrapheap – confirm that much of the energy consumption happens at (2). Most of the energy involved in homes and vehicles is a product of their use, not their manufacture. This is good news: (2) is when the product, whether a Hummer or a toaster, is in our hands and under our control, and thus when we can make the most effective dent in how much energy it uses.

Shinderman cited personal vehicle use as the dominant end use for petroleum; it's you driving your car that bites off the greatest chunk of energy. The other intensive energy users are electrical appliances (apart from lights) in the home – these use a surprising amount, as do heating and cooling indoor spaces. All of which offer more opportunity for us to easily make a difference.

If you're living on the breadline, where choice about resource use is non-existent or at best severely limited, fuel and rate hikes are no laughing matter. But the rest of us (who are the ones gobbling the lion's share of resources per capita anyway) should cheer up: maybe we can't control price increases, but we have considerable power to control our energy use.

It can be fun and interesting too, I promise, and even better - empowering. Whenever the petrol price goes up, in the midst of my disgruntlement I give a smug little smile: it can't touch me on my daily commute on my beautiful, clean, slim bicycle.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated July 2011


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