Saturday, May 24, 2008

One Guy's Tips for Reducing Home Energy Consumption

I came across this article recently in Mother Earth News: "Easy Projects for Instant Energy Savings". In it the author, Gary Reysa, offers the eight best projects you can do around the home to increase your energy savings. Using just these eight tips, his family was able to reduce their electric usage by more than half. It would be well worth your time to check out the article, as well as Gary's own website, for lots of useful information.

But something about the article rubbed me the wrong way. It was the fact that he was missing the Number 1 Tip for Reducing Home Energy Use: MOVE TO A SMALLER HOUSE. (If it seems like I'm shouting that's because I am.) Let's look at his numbers. In the article he states that he was able to reduce his household energy use from 93,000 kWh per year to just 38,000 kWh. Quite a reduction, but I'm distracted by his numbers more than anything. Ninety-three thousand kilowatts! How is that even possible? I added up my electric usage for the past twelve months and it was 9,305 kWh. And I have electric heat. He never states anywhere in his article the square footage of his house, but I have to imagine that it's at least ten times the size of mine. How else do you get an electric bill of that magnitude?

Who needs a house that's ten times bigger than mine? A polygamous sect, maybe, but not the average family.

And even his reduced energy usage (38,000 kWh) sounds obscene to me. In the article he boasts about how he's reducing the emission of greenhouse gases (two pounds of carbon dioxide for every one kWh). That's 55 tons of CO2 emissions he's keeping out of the atmosphere every year (see footnote). Bravo, of course. But on the flip-side, he's still contributing 38 tons of CO2 per year. How can that be a good thing?

My intention is not to make Mr. Reysa look like a bad guy. He obviously wants to make a difference. It's commendable that he is sharing what he's learned with so many others, through this article and through all of the information available on his website. I sincerely applaud what he's doing. But I want to ensure that the bigger picture doesn't get lost.

House sizes in the U.S. have increased dramatically since the 1970s. According to the Census Bureau, the average new home in 2005 was 2434 square feet, up 46.6% from 1660 square feet in 1973. Even if you want to buy a smaller home, they're getting harder and harder to find. Builders aren't building small homes anymore. And in the old town centers around here, the cute old cottages are being scraped off and replaced by oversized monstrosities that look ridiculous on their tiny lots.

Perhaps our current economic woes and the mortgage fiasco will help reverse the trend towards larger and larger houses, but don't count on it. The building industry has convinced us we need: a living room and a family room and a game room; an eat-in kitchen and a formal dining room and maybe throw in a breakfast nook; four or five bedrooms for a family of four; a home office; a home-theater room; and a five-piece master bath with walk-in closets. Until we let go of the kind of thinking that has us saying "Okay" to all of this nonsense, builders will keep producing it. It's up to us as individuals to demand responsible housing options and persevere until we get them.

Footnote: After writing this I noticed some inconsistencies with the figures. In the Mother Earth News article the author claims only to have reduced his CO2 emissions by 17 tons (on his website he says 18 tons and his other figures are a little different too). Yet by my calculations based on 2 pounds of CO2 for every one kWh (a figure he cites in his article and which I confirmed to be true, albeit as a rough estimate since it varies from power plant to power plant) he should have reduced his emissions by 55 tons.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tracing the Rise of Ego and Materialism

I want to gain an understanding of the history of ego. My guess is that ego didn't exist, or only barely existed, in hunter-gatherer and tribal groups. The more egalitarian and interdependent a group, the less need for individual ego. With the rise of agriculture and permanent settlements, we started to have specialists and an elite caste. That's probably where ego first began to evolve significantly, especially among the kings and pharaohs. The commoners likely still lived in a collective mindset, but the elite were beginning to individuate and thereby develop egos. They were the first to have the luxury to do so.

The pyramids and other monuments to the elite were massive structures of self-edification. The pharaohs were announcing, "Look, I'm somebody!" Eventually, ego (and a sense of self) spread from the elite to, well, just about everybody nowadays. Today, we're all building massive structures to the self --what else do you call these hideous gargantuan things we're filling our suburbs with? "Hey, look at me, I'm somebody" we all seem to be announcing.

James Howard Kunstler, in his book about peak oil and other imminent catastrophes (The Long Emergency) said something that got my attention. He was talking about how fossil fuels allow each of us (in the West) to live as if we had hundreds of slaves at our beck and call. In other words, we live today like little pharaohs. Fossil fuels elevate all of us into significant somebodies (or so it would seem).

But what exactly is this connection between ego and materialism? As you become a separate somebody, what happens that makes you start grabbing for things? As you're separating from a tribal identity, you're also separating from Nature. Where once you were an interconnected part of the whole, now you are separate and just an insignificant dot. You can't go back to the old way once you have an awareness of self, yet there must remain in you some glimmer of tribal memory and a yearning for that kind of connection and belonging. Grabbing at stuff --it's really an infantile maneuver. We heap up all of this stuff around us as if to reassure ourselves that we're really somebodies, not insignificant dots afterall. We want to stand out and be noticed because ultimately we want to belong again. We can't fuse back into our collective unconscious; we know too much. We're human sapiens sapiens after all --we "know that we know". There's no going back.

Stuff becomes an extension of self. It makes us look bigger. It makes us seem powerful. Think about what happened when the horse was first domesticated. A warrior on horseback was "bigger", he was more powerful. His self expanded to include self+horse+(usually) bronze weaponry. That bigger self could command far more resources than those smaller selves who didn't have horses. The horsemen could dominate and thereby control more wealth and resources. Obviously as individuals they were no more special or powerful than anyone else, but by using things outside of themselves as artificial extensions of themselves (horses and weapons) they made themselves look bigger than they were.

And, in a nutshell, isn't that what ego is? Simply making yourself look bigger than you really are? It starts to seem really ridiculous that after all these thousands of years, we're still doing the same childish thing. I guess in the whole sweeping span of our evolution, a few thousand years is nothing, though, so long as we're not stuck here forever.

Why should we want to look bigger than we really are? Here's the trajectory I think we're on: as we've moved from tribes to city-states to global civilization, we've been moving from a mythic collective identification with the cosmos to the individual isolated dots we now are to (our next step) a supraconscious return to Oneness. This is a theme I'll be returning to in greater depth as this blog evolves because it's so important. This egoic stage, this grossly materialistic stage, while very dangerous is also vital and necessary. We needed to become isolated dots in order to recognize what we had always been immersed in. We needed to become Subject and Object, Self and Other condense into separate dots out of the collective soup from which we were born in order to see ourselves and to know ourselves for the first time.

Making ourselves look bigger is our childish attempt to get at our True Identity. Our True Identity is huge; I think we know that intuitively. But we make the mistake of thinking that our identity is only a physical one, so we heap up physical stuff. These external things are not us, unless you look at it all spiritually and then everything is us. But that makes us all one being , all equally powerful. And then there is no point in egotism because who are you going to boast to, and about what? Once we evolve into the next paradigm, we will have shed that childishness.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Are We Going Soft?

I got to thinking about this question earlier in the month. On the 1st of the month I was driving my son to school. Out of the blue he said, "Yeah, we get to turn on the air conditioner today!" What made it odd was the fact that it was 4o degrees and snowing, with a coat of ice and slush building up on the windshield and visibility down to a few car-lengths.

My son claimed that (on a very muggy day back in February) I had promised him we could turn on the car AC on May 1st. My vague recollection is that I said June 1st, and only maybe June 1st.

What I know is that we humans love comfort. We seek it everywhere. So much of our materialistic urges seem to be centered around procuring comfort (and security, probably in equal measure--an issue I'll get to another day). Climate-control, the ability to adjust our living environment to a narrow range of comfort, is just one example. We spend now such a large proportion of our days indoors (is it 90%?--I need to check the statistics). We go from our climate-controlled homes, into our climate-controlled cars, then to our climate-controlled workplaces, malls, gyms, churches, etc. So the bulk of our lives are spent in a very comfortable, but narrow temperature range, maybe roughly 68-74 degrees Fahrenheit.

My question is, over the long term, what might this do to the viability of our species? One thing is for certain, over our long history we have shown ourselves to be creatures of extreme adaptability. We can be found on the coldest tundras, in the hottest deserts, in humid rainforests, temperate regions, on mountain heights --pretty much in every climatic zone. There may be no other species on earth as climatically adaptable as us humans.

Now, obviously if we looked at individual cases within our species we wouldn't seem quite as adaptable. You couldn't take someone from the Amazonian rainforest and transplant them onto the Canadian tundra, or vice versa, without causing those individuals significant physical stress. As individuals we are adapted to our local conditions. But even those conditions, minus central heating and air conditioning fluctuate quite widely. Where I live, over the course of the seasons and years and decades, I can experience -20 degree temperatures and 105 degree temperatures. In the tropical rainforests even, between daytime highs and nighttime lows, there can be significant variability, far more than in our climate-controlled world where we might only experience a range of less than 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

If we continue over many generations to live in air-conditioned comfort, might we eventually begin to lose the higher and lower ranges of our climatic adaptability? And if so, then what happens at the end of the carbon era if we haven't found adequate energy substitutes? Or what happens if war, or an asteroid or any other circumstance destroys our ability to artificially heat and cool our environment? There is no promise that our civilization will always continue in its present form. In fact it's a given that it won't. (For an interesting look at the fleeting nature of societies read Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) So, what might happen to a species adapted only to a very narrow temperature range when it is suddenly forced to face extreme temperatures? I admit I don't know a whole lot about human physiology, but I do know that temperature extremes stress the heart at the very least. And obviously there's heat stroke and hypothermia. What other effects there might be I simply don't know.

I'm just speculating, and I think it's important that we all begin speculating about the ways our lifestyle choices now impact not just the present but the far reaches of the future. It's so easy to grab for comfort without thinking about anything other than our immediate desires, but responsible and mature humans must think through the far-reaching implications of all of our choices. If we choose to remain adaptable (by spending far more of our time outdoors, or by foregoing air-conditioning, or setting the thermostat far lower in the winter) we may sweat and we may shiver, but we may be doing a very great service to humanity in the process.

What are other ways in which humans may be going soft?