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    Conserve or I'll Kill You

    You've probably heard that Hawaiian James J Lee apparently hated Discovery Channel's programming so much that he took hostages at their offices in Silver Spring MD. Instead of shows featuring the large Gosselin family with eight children, and the even larger Duggar family with 19 children, he felt they should air, "programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility." He also wrote that the show, Planet Green was "about more PRODUCTS to make MONEY, not actual solutions."

    Lee was shot dead, but has left arguments resonating through the airwaves. Doug Feaver at the Wash Post's dot.comments blog notes:

    Such a conversation would not be complete without an attack on former Vice President Al Gore and the scientists who have warned about global warming and overpopulation. Those attacks, of course, bring responses. Meanwhile, the complex questions about how best to treat the mentally ill and protect the rest of us from those very few who become violent wait for another day. Over 1,000 comments have been filed since the situation began yesterday.

    I've never seen any of Lee's hated shows, but I don't doubt that Lee's description of Project Green was accurate. We do watch Living With Ed, in which Ed Begley rides a stationary bike to generate electricity for toast, then arranges tours of the homes of celebrity friends such as Jaclyn Smith, Jackson Browne and Larry Hagman, all of whom have installed expensive first-cost energy-saving solutions to maintain their sumptuous lifestyles.

    Let's face it, TV is about advertising and moving product - not saving the world. That's no surprise. But maybe Big Science is about moving product, too, because in this study quoted by The Infrastructurist blog, basic conservation by curtailment of energy use gets no respect at all.

    How You Think You Save Energy Is Not How You Save Energy, Study Shows

    It turns out that the ways we think we’re saving energy are totally different from the ways we can actually save energy. Or so say the results of a new study out of Columbia University, Ohio State University, and Carnegie Mellon. [gadzooks even my alma mater!]

    According to the researchers, basically every trope that we follow about how to save energy is in fact wrong: “Participants estimated that line-drying clothes saves more energy than changing the washer’s settings (the reverse is true) and estimated that a central air-conditioner uses only 1.3 times the energy of a room air-conditioner (in fact, it uses 3.5 times as much).”

    In addition, the study pierced one of the biggest energy efficiency myths of all: that simply not using an appliance or device as often will save more energy than replacing the appliance for a more efficient model. Oh, and that turning off the lights has any real impact whatsoever.

    Many of the commenters on The Infrastructurist, and other blogs, were duly outraged, but no one put it better than the first comment by Chris G:

    The problem with this story, the study and also the story on treehugger about this is that they all imply doing the things people are doing makes no difference at all. And that, some study aside (we know how great studies are in infrastructure right…) is not going to help.

    Unplugging or switching off power at the outlet to your modem and router each night WILL save electricity. Turning the lights out will save electricity. Driving more slowly WILL save gas. Using a clothes line WILL save energy and also your clothes will last longer.

    So to say these actions that people are doing won’t save a thing is not good.

    What people need to do to really save energy are bigger than what this study really says. This study is about “go out and spend money” more than it is about saving energy. You want to stop driving. You want to have only one car instead of two and eventually get to none. You want to curb your habits of lifestyle more than just buying more efficient appliances.

    Sure if you can, get more efficient appliances. But this is the real problem with cars vs trains played out again. No car with more MPG is going to out do not using a car. A more efficient car is an excuse to feel better and doing your share while not changing anything of meaning. Same goes for a more efficient clothes dryer. The appliance you stop using is ALWAYS more efficient than any appliance being used.

    So this study basically says, our way of not changing is better than your way of not changing, so go spend this money for new appliances.

    Just for grins, I'll throw in this article, too:

    Libertarians Are Wrong About Infrastructure, News at 11



    The point Lee thought he was making is correct. The world's current economic, resource and environmental crises all boil down to one thing: overpopulation. And, as I've written in these pages before, the only effective solution is a universally agreed system of population control. Earth cannot sustain the number of people we've put on it. Period.

    There's a secondary problem: North America. Here, for now, the land is resource-rich and productive enough to sustain the current population -- or it would be, if we weren't consuming (mostly wasting) at a rate about 10 times our actual numbers. And sucking the rest of the world dry in the process.

    Biking to work and line-drying your clothes aren't the ultimate solutions, but educating people to understand they need to do their part is a crucial step toward accepting the massive government intervention that we really need. Some of it could and should be done already, such as urban planning to cluster residences and employment, and reliable, safe public transport rather than building new highways. But so much more is needed.

    So Discovery does play a useful role in sensitizing the public, even if it avoids tackling the underlying problem that Lee rightly understood. Unfortunately, taking hostages is a poor way to get your message out. Instead, it all gets branded left-wing crazy talk. I know whenever I get the urge to take a hostage or two I just log on to dagblog and vent. It lets me stay more or less sane. Until the next time.

    I think the biggest difference that small contributions can make is that they change the overall mindset of individuals. In a country like the United States, where getting any new initiatives through the government is about as easy as pulling a watermelon through a straw, public opinion matters. If the public is conserving on an individual level, they will be much more likely to support big conservation and climate efforts on a macro level.

    There is nothing wrong with small, incremental efficiencies, though I doubt they will make anything more than incremental differences.


    What is needed is national-policy-level transformation, from the energy infrastructure on up, and the resistance to that from both the general population, who likely won't want to give up driving three blocks to pick up something they can carry home in one hand, and from the corporate community, who do stand to lose big and will fight such changes with all the means ($$$) at their hand, will be both widespread and energetic.


    It's about overcoming inertia.


    Make the small, incremental changes if you like, I've made some, to be sure, just don't mistake them for the substantive changes we need.

    Useless energy efforts bug the hell out of me. Call me a sucker for intellectual honesty.

    But the real problem is not the empty conservation itself but the waste of resources used in trying to convince people to engage in empty conservation. I wish that environmentalists would stop spending time and money to persuade people to build urban gardens, buy local tomatoes, or set up kitchen composts. Instead, they could be focusing their voices and energy on promoting global warming education and pushing for solutions with the only hope of real impact, e.g. fossil fuel taxes and green technology investment. The rest are just kindergarden exercises.

    I disagree but somehow my comment about it got misplaced above. Micro-conservation matters because it changes the mindset of the population. Without that, trying to move big changes through is difficult.

    I think you both have valid points that aren't necessarily in conflict.  In the long run, minor conservation measures just don't match up to the problems we face, especially since consumption grows exponentially, but in the short run a shift in consciousness is probably necessary in order to begin making big changes.  To the extent that getting people involved in thinking about it raises consciousness about the full extent of these issues, I believe that it can have the effect you describe so long as those marginal measures are not seen as a substitute for doing what's really necessary to solve the problem.

    The conflict is in available resources. You can focus your energy on persuading people to conserve in small but ineffectual ways, or you can focus your energy on persuading people that we need to global change. The environmental movement, in my opinion, has for too long wasted too much energy on the former to the neglect of the latter. It was not until Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth that global warming became a central part of the popular dialogue on environmentalism.

    I think you're probably right about that. And DF is right that we should do both. But there's the conundrum. Your way wouldn't be as successful without my way but we've been trying my way for a long time--it's met with limited success and we may be running out of time. Basically, we're screwed.

    As DF alludes to, however, it's not necessarily a zero-sum game. I agree there are those who waste goodwill in how they attempt to persuade people to take environmental issues seriously, but asking them for small sacrifices can actually help them to accept the bigger sacrifices. Long ago I used to be a dance instructor, and one thing we learned was that if we gave away our introductory package (consisting of, among other things four half-hour lessons that would normally cost about $200 total), new students would often give up after the first half-hour lesson. However, if you charged them $10 (again, for a package worth more than $200, and that cost the studio more than $100), they were much more likely to stay for all of the lessons, and you'd be more likely to convince them after that to start paying real money for future lessons.

    Perhaps so, but I still maintain that the environmental movement's balance is way off.

    I'm not convinced that small efficiencies are necessarily ineffectual. When the price of gasoline began to skyrocket a few years ago, a lot of people began driving less, and more slowly. It made a big difference in the amount of gasoline sold, and the Saudis took notice. Then people got used to the higher costs. Some started buying hybrids and everyone started driving faster again. The longterm mindset just wasn't there.

    The recession has forced even more demand destruction. Some people are undergoing forced conservation curtailment, like moving out of their houses into small apts, or in extreme cases, into their cars. The well-to-do are still driving like gangbusters, still using A/C, etc., but their numbers are shrinking - which is why there's a Tea Party.

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