A Personal Accounting on Environmental Actions

By David L. Brown

Star Phoenix Base is my small personal contribution to the enormous problems facing the human race. It is strictly a “labor of love;” there is little in the future left for me, for I have already reached 65 years of age and have no children for whom to have concerns. However, as I told someone recently, helping to “save the Earth” in even the smallest way might be the only thing worth doing today. Thus, I am applying my skills as a journalist and my lifelong interests in science to helping communicate and put into perspective the many warnings that are facing humanity, first through the pages of my cautionary novel The Star Phoenix, and now through this blog (in which “valiant” effort I am joined by my aptly-named co-contributor Val Germann).

Tonight I decided to write on the subject of what I personally have done/are doing to contribute to solutions, and to muse about what I might possibly do in the future. I have not thought this out ahead, so this article will be somewhat stream-of-consciousness. Rather than reporting, analyzing, or commenting on external facts, I will be delving into my own life experiences and thoughts to make a personal accounting of how I have lived my life vis a vis the environment. This should be interesting. Here goes:

First and perhaps foremost, in looking back upon my life, I have to admit that I have been oft-times neglectful of the resources of the Earth. I have chosen to live in the energy-squandering world to which I was born, and this is no great surprise because virtually everyone else on the planet has done the same to the full extent of their means. It is virtually impossible to do otherwise.

I remember reading a comment by David Brower, long-time head of the Sierra Club and once described as possibly “the single most influential American environmentalist in the last half of the 20th century,” in which he expressed chagrin at the fact that he lived in a house built of old growth redwood and fathered five children. [I am citing this reference from memory as recalled from John McPhee’s book about Brower, Encounter with the Archdruid. Brower was called an “archdruid” by opponents of environmental activism in reference to the fact that the ancient Druids “worshipped trees and sacrificed people.”]

So I have not been a paragon of environmental sainthood, but I am in the company of the vast majority of my fellow human beings. However, unlike most I have long been aware of the problems of the environment and given consideration to the subject literally since my boyhood. It is amazing to me today to recall that when a teenager in the 1950s I drew various plans for energy efficient houses that owed their efficiency to being mostly underground. Why I was concerned about saving energy in those days of ten cent gasoline I am not sure, but the memory of that minor obsession provides evidence of my early awareness that there would come a time when oil and gas would no longer be cheap and abundant.

Regretfully, I never built that house, although thoughts of the idea still linger and occasionally have me sketching or daydreaming. But I am wandering. Let me list the few small and insufficient things I have actually done to contribute to the “saving of the Earth.”

First and foremost, I chose not to have children. I knew early on that over-population was the greatest problem facing humanity, that the resources of the planet were not infinite and that they were being squandered with shameless abandon. I cannot remember the name of the first book on over-population that I read in about 1962 (that was six years before Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb), but it made a deep impression on me and was only the first of many books and articles on related subjects that I have devoured down through the years. My wife and I have no regrets that we did not bring a son or daughter into a world that is now in a state of decline.

My thinking on this, which is probably my greatest contribution to the environment, was affected not only by my reading but also by observing the lifestyles of parents who chose to have large families, an action that seemed rash and unwise to me at the time, if not selfish and suicidal. One example was the Baker family, many members of which went to the one-room country school which I attended from the second through sixth grades. There were a total of eight grades taught in that school, and there was at least one Baker in every grade and more coming every year. The family had at that time 14 children and lived in an Army surplus 20×20 foot canvas tent (they went on to have two more children and to build a three-room cinder block house about the size of a two-car garage). The tent had a dirt floor, an old pot bellied stove in the middle, and war surplus bunk beds two and three high all around the outside. A few surplus foot lockers were used to store their few possessions and to serve as seating. The children bathed in a nearby creek, even in winter when they had to take an axe with them to chop a hole in the ice.

Later, in one of my early jobs I once again encountered a family with an over-developed sense of reproductive motivation and in that case ten children. The father of this litter was my boss, an editor of the magazine for which I worked. His wife and her sister had made a girlhood pledge to each other to have twelve children, and they were neck-and-neck two short of the goal in the race to see who could out-breed the other. Unlike the Bakers, this family was fairly well-to-do, and yet with twelve people under one roof the quality of life could not have been too wonderful. The children bunked in his-and-hers dormitories. I remember with awe how the entire brood went on a camping vacation trip to the Rocky Mountains in the family station wagon — twelve people and camping equipment in a vehicle meant to carry six passengers at most.

So there you have my personal reaction to the population question. But what else have I done for the benefit of the Earth? Well, not all that much really, but more than many. For example, in 1970 I bought my first diesel automobile, a Mercedes 220D, which I drove over 100,000 miles. It got a steady 30 mpg and diesel fuel in those days was around 30 cents a gallon so my fuel cost was about a penny a mile. I bought a second 220D in 1973 which was driven many more miles, and a 300CD diesel in 1979 on which I logged about 125,000 miles.

Today I am driving a less efficient vehicle, a Jeep Liberty compact SUV with a six cylinder engine and manual transmission. This is not an extremely economical car, but its high clearance and four-wheel drive are features that are well suited to the West where I sometimes drive on mountain roads in search of wilderness and to pursue my interest in landscape photography. The Jeep is rated at about 18 mpg city, 22 mpg highway and burns 87 octane regular gasoline, so you couldn’t call it a gas hog.

My wife and I participate in a “wind energy” program offered by our power company, PNM. For a few dollars a month added to your power bill, you can buy “blocks” specifying that you want to use energy generated from windpower. We proudly display the “Wind Power” logo in our front window. PNM describes the program here, and describes it as follows:

The New Mexico Wind Energy Center, the state’s most ambitious renewable energy project, officially went online Oct. 1, 2003. The center is the world’s third-largest wind generation project.

Located 170 miles southeast of Albuquerque and 20 miles northeast of Fort Sumner, the wind center is perfectly suited for eastern New Mexico’s windy landscape. Power production does not require water, produce emissions or generate solid waste.

The wind center consists of 136 turbines, each standing 210 feet high. The facility can produce up to 200 megawatts of power, or enough electricity to power 94,000 average-sized New Mexico homes.

Florida-based FPL Energy owns and manages the facility, while PNM purchases all of its output.

In May 2003, PNM was awarded the 2003 Utility Leadership Award from the American Wind Energy Association. The award recognized PNM’s commitment to renewable energy and its contribution to the advancement of wind energy.

We have also taken the step of replacing nearly all the light bulbs in our house with energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps, those spiral bulbs that fit into a regular socket. These are not cheap, costing up to $5 or as much as $10 each for the largest size, but they use about one-quarter as much electricity as comparable incandescant bulbs and are rated to last more than ten times longer. I have read that if every household in America were to replace just one conventional lightbulb with a compact fluorescent, it would save as much energy as is used by one million automobiles. I have also seen it expressed that each CF bulb saves one ton of coal along with the greenhouse gas that coal would emit.

We have installed about 20 of these bulbs at a cost of around $100 or so, and there was an immediate reduction in our electricity bills. It was surprising, in fact, to see our statements each month reflecting significantly lower usage than in the corresponding month in the previous year. We are happy to see that the bulbs have paid for themselves quite quickly, while helping contribute to energy savings and a cleaner environment.

Another small contribution was our move to all eco-friendly drip irrigation for our landscaping. When we bought our present New Mexico house three years ago, it came with a small front lawn with an automated sprinkler system. Little sprinkler heads would pop up out of the ground and spray water all over the place. If the wind was blowing, much of it would be diverted away from the grass. Water would be flowing down the gutter when the process was completed.

Then there was the fact that the darned stuff kept growing and had to be mowed. One of the reasons we moved to this high desert climate from our last address in Rochester, New York was to get away from things like shoveling snow and cutting grass. That little lawn was pretty and no doubt the sprinkler system cost the original owner a few bucks (the house was less than a year old when we bought it), but I had the whole thing ripped out and covered with gravel. Now our water bills are lower, too, and I had the pleasure of getting rid of the last lawn mower I will ever own.

Well, I promised a stream-of-consciousness piece, and this truly has been. Now what can I say about the future? There are several thoughts. First, we have investigated the possibility of putting in solar panels to generate electricity for our house. A call to a company in Albuquerque that sells and installs photovoltaic systems put that idea on the back burner, at least for now, because they gave us an off-the-top-of-the-head estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 for such a system. Until the cost of solar panels comes down by about an order of magnitude, that doesn’t make any kind of economic sense for us.

I have also been following the development of hybrid and alternative vehicles with great interest. Here again, the economics are not yet there, as I reported in a recent article on Star Phoenix Base [“Efficient Vehicles Must Be Affordable, Too,” posted July 27]. I am intrigued with hybrid-electric models that are coming over the horizon and will quite likely buy one when they are available. These will combine the features of the present generation of hybrid vehicles with more battery power that can cover up to 60 miles without using gasoline and which can be charged from the electric grid (using that enviro-friendly wind power). For longer trips, a gasoline engine will kick in just as with the current hybrid models, but for my everyday commuting and shopping trips I would scarcely ever need to consume a drop of gasoline.

Well, that about concludes my personal accounting. It has been an interesting voyage of self-discovery for me, and I hope you have enjoyed going along for the ride. I guess that overall I have not left too large a footprint on Mother Earth. I will be keeping my brain engaged and my eyes open to the ever-changing world of possibilities. And, who knows, perhaps some day I will actually build that energy efficient underground house that I imagined half a century ago! I’ll let you know.

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