When Jesse and I lived in Berkeley, we knew a lot of people who worked in science and technology. (Ironically, now that we live in the shadow of Johns Hopkins, that's much less true.) Lately I've been thinking a lot about one conversation we had with Jesse's friend Eduardo, whose professional specialty was alternative energy and energy savings. This was at night, over eggs and toast at a 24-hour diner in downtown Oakland, after a very long bike ride. I remember salt-crusted lycra in the glare of the lights, the table strewn with helmets and arm warmers.
So we were talking about energy. In particular, Eduardo told us how he often got called out to consult with rich people who were interested in putting alternative energy systems in their homes—usually they wanted solar panels, for the same reasons everyone does: to save money and shrink their carbon footprint. Eduardo would get in his van and go over to these people's houses. He'd spend a couple hours doing an energy audit, and at the end, present these wealthy homeowners with his findings and suggestions. If you want to save money and lessen your impact, he would say, I recommend that you invest a couple thousand bucks in smart switches: systems to turn lights off when you leave a room, ways of making it so your appliances don't draw power when you're not actually using them, etc., etc. I can cut your energy consumption by half, he'd say, and it will cost you only a fraction of the solar array you were dreaming about. And time after time, he said, the people would look at him and squinch up their eyes. He'd finish, and after a couple beats, they'd say "OK, but we want the solar panels."
At the time, I remember thinking a couple things: (1) If I were a homeowner, I'd hire Eduardo to do an energy audit; (2) I'd like to write a piece of journalism about this, because people should know!
In practice, nothing happened, and a couple years later we moved to Baltimore, where I became a homeowner who STILL hasn't done an energy audit on her home. But I've been thinking about energy a lot this season, for some reason. Probably a confluence of the start of the winter heating season, and a pileup of guilt and curiosity around the near-constant stream of packages that now flows into our house—which just seems to be what happens when you have an Amazon Prime membership, small kids, and are someone who doesn't shop at physical stores much, though it is still quite alarming at times.
Mostly, this energy-thinking is expressing itself in the form of curiosity. I'm astounded by all the things I do not know about energy consumption. And this despite being someone who ostensibly ~cares~, who thinks about climate change a lot, who has been living on her own for 20 years, etc. Here's just a smattering of my ignorance:
• What takes more energy, heating up the whole house with the boiler and radiators, or heating one room all day with a space heater?
• What is the carbon impact of the tiny baby shirt I just bought and had delivered? If you have to buy an item, is it "better" to have it delivered, versus making a trip all by yourself in your private car?
• How bad is flying, really? How can you express the carbon impact of a flight as compared to other carbon-using things I do in my life?
• Taking a hot bath: does is use up the massive amount of energy I kind of suspect it does? How does it compare to running the dishwasher, or the washing machine, or the dryer?
As a metaphor, I find myself thinking about those times when the hard drive on my computer has gotten filled up, and I've had to delete files to make space. On a computer, there's a way to view all your files in descending order of size, which is helpful in finding ways to make room. The space-hogs are often surprising: it'll be some video in an archaic format that you didn't even know you had, or a batch of long-forgotten photos saved at full resolution. These days I find myself wishing I could examine my consumption habits with the same kind of objectivity and precision. Where's the low-hanging fruit? What would reducing my personal consumption by 8 percent really look like? I mention that number because I read recently that an 8 percent reduction per year is what the nations of earth would have to achieve, starting right now, to keep global warming down to a semi-manageable level. And while I don't think that individual action is a valid substitute for governmental action, at all (to continue the metaphor, there's so much fruit that individuals cannot reach), it did get me feeling curious. At the very least, I think that in this time of omnipresent data, this golden age of metrics, people should have more and better tools to understand the effects of their choices.
I've taken some very, very preliminary steps toward looking into this stuff, and if I learn anything interesting, I'll share it.
Till then, happy New Year and lots of love,