The One Negative Thought I Still Intend to Think


The other night, as part of an attempt to understand and control my life, I considered the question, "What do I spend most of my time thinking about and wishing for?" I first approached this question by making two lists: one of the positive thoughts I typically think ("what can I sew or knit next?" was on that list) and one of the negative thoughts I typically think.

As you might expect, the negative list was much longer. Well, maybe you wouldn't expect that.... Maybe you are one of the people who is happy, and who thinks a lot about how happy you are. And actually lately I'm fairly happy.... But happy to me doesn't require all that much thought. Happiness, when you're feeling it, is not a problem to be solved. But unhappiness IS a problem, requiring a solution, which must be found.

So I have tended to think a lot about things that make me unhappy, and not always in terms of finding a solution--sometimes just in terms of how much a particular situation sucks. And I resolved to work to curb that impulse. As I wrote in my journal, it's quite true that certain dreadful things have happened or are slated to happen, "but is reminding myself that really what I want to focus my energy on? Well, no, except maybe for the 'global warming is BAD' part."

Yesterday I had coffee with a friend and we talked about some of the measures we take to reduce our carbon footsteps and how people find them ridiculous. There are, of course, additional things she and I can do--the next car I buy will be much more efficient than the one I'm driving now, for instance--but still, after reading an article about how much energy common household appliances use, I started doing things like unplugging my vcr when it's not in use and uplugging my microwave when I leave town so that the "energy bleed" is gone (because things like tvs and vcrs can use as much energy in "stand-by" as when they're operating). And some people think I'm nuts. How can one person make that much difference? Well, one person can't. But one person trying to make a difference times six billion--that can have a big impact.

Whereas, when I meet someone who isn't so concerned about global warming that it occasionally keeps them up at night, I think, "WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?"

I admit it: I've ended friendships with people because their attitude to the environment was intolerable to me. I can hardly bear to visit one of my sisters, even though I enjoy her company very much, because her household uses as much energy as some third world countries. And I have friends I email regularly who never respond to my statements about how upset I am about global warming, and I just think, "What planet do YOU think you live on?"

But I am finally starting to figure out that people hate rants, so I've refrained from writing about certain things--like this news story (which you won't be able to read unless you have that "Times select service, because it's way old) about how very beautiful and exceptional parts of Arizona--the "sky islands," fragile and wonderful ecosystems at high altitudes--are being destroyed by global warming. Or this story about how much energy is consumed by meat production. (And no, I am not a vegan, but reading this story did persuade me to persist in my efforts to reduce the amount of meat I eat.) Or this article about the droughts facing large portions of the US.

But this morning I read this story discussing a paper by half a dozen prominent scientists (including James Hansen, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the first scientist to warn the US Congress about global warming) announcing that the earth stands in "imminent peril." The situation is absolutely dire with regards to global warming--we have only a few years to prevent massive and devastating climate change, change so severe that the civilization we have built will not survive, because our infrastructure is designed for THIS climate, which is going away.

How can people not think about this, most of the time, as the basis for other thoughts?

And then there's this whole computer business.... turns out that personal computing devices, including not just computers but cell phones and blackberries (not to mention flat-screen tvs, which use TONS of energy), produce as much CO2 as the aviation industry. Not only that, but the average life for most computers is a mere three years. Makes me glad that I used my first computer for seven years before upgrading, and used my second one for six before upgrading. See? When I want software and such that's compatible with my old computers so I can still use them (because after all, they do still work), I'm not just being a luddite; I'm being a conservationist. And that's not an excuse created after the fact; I have kept my first computer for 13 years because I couldn't see the point in throwing it away when it still works.

But at least there is an effort to get computer manufacturers to go green, to produce machines that use less energy and to build the machines to accept upgrades rather than being replaced.

And then there is this effort in my home state, to make college campuses greener. This heartens and encourages me. But it ain't enough.

Why don't we all think about this, all the time? And not just global warming, but our impact on the entire world. As this editorial from the NY Times on the dramatic disappearance of many bird species in the US states, " The Audubon Society portrait of common bird species in decline is really a report on who humans are.... We look around us, expecting the rest of the world’s occupants to adapt to the changes that we have caused, when, in fact, we have the right to expect adaptation only from ourselves."


I keep wondering why the government isn't MANDATING some drastic changes. Because come ON! There are just too many people who WILL NOT believe it's such a problem, and also so many people who think it's a problem but can't be bothered to make changes (I have to admit, I could do a lot more). The whole thing freaks me out, and I don't want to be around to see how it turns out. Because I am not that optimistic about it. Whenever I think of the future I think of what it looked like in "Children of Men." And then I'm really glad that I don't plan on having children who will be around to see that.

Global warming is an interesting conundrum. According to many geologists we already in the middle of a natural warming trend. I read an article recently in either Scientific American or Popular Science that proved using Hyrbid cars in cold climates (like ours) are LESS efficient than traditional gas powered cars (batteries just don't work well in the cold). Some have even FAILED emissions tests in certain states.

The engineer in me looks at Ohm's Law and figures those LED's in my VCR and Microwave aren't using much of any power (I have even resorted to watching the electric meter spin under different circumstances).

I spent half of my life growing up in the Adirondacks, I consider myself a conservationist (I was appalled that bottles aren't returnable in PA, nor is there any recycling picking up in my apartment complex). I have always believed in the "you carry it in, you carry t out" theory. I just think our "solutions" are no better or even worse than our than what we already have.

So many car companies are bragging about 30 mpg, the 2002 Saturn SL1 gets 35. New York has outlawed the sale of more efficient and environmentally friendly Diesel cars (that can even be run unmodified on filtered fryer grease restaurants pay to get rid of ). We want to innovate, but the best innovations (ie. fuel cells) are being held back. I'm still not sure our government holds the answer, especially when they answer to companies who only want money.

A good friend is an environmental engineer, he believes we have to concentrate more on bio-diesel, fuel cells, and sugar ethanol (not corn it actually takes too much energy to convert corn). So I sit confused and hope someone with vision will come to power.

Where do we go from here?

Sorry this turned into an entry of its own.

The engineer in me looks at Ohm's Law and figures those LED's in my VCR and Microwave aren't using much of any power (I have even resorted to watching the electric meter spin under different circumstances).

I have no patience with this. It is perhaps true that one single LED doesn't use that much power in and of itself, but most American homes are full of them, and all together, the LEDs in an individual home can use quite a lot of energy. Multiply that by every household in the US, and you've got a serious energy suck.

As for hybrid cars being less efficient than regular cars in cold climates, that is as may be--I'll try to find the data you mention. But you don't need a magazine article to help you understand that smaller cars use less energy than bigger ones. I was part of a car-pooling ring when I bought my current car, so I bought a car that is larger than I really need. I have never done it myself, but I understand the impulse of people who pee on the doorhandles of SUV's parked in the lots of suburban malls.

The same sort of obviousness applies to basic energy reduction strategies like setting the thermostat lower in winter and higher in summer, or turning off lights that aren't in use. The number of people who refuse to do even these small things just staggers me.

California, which has far more people than Texas, uses half as much energy--even with all the huge homes in Beverly Hills and the people who drive everywhere. So obviously green measures can be truly efficacious.

I'm not suggesting we all return to a rural agrarian lifestyle. I am suggesting we be more careful and deliberate about the energy we use, consider the impact of our behavior on the rest of the species that live on this planet, and make sacrifices. I don't see how that constitutes a conundrum.

I do admit there is one reason I enjoy high gas prices, and that is knowing that the assholes in the Hummers have to spend $65.00 a day on gas, and they deserve it for owning such pointless automobiles. Sure smaller cars do perform better, but building hybrids to get an extra5 or mpg under optimal conditions?
We all know that Europe has been ahead of the curve for years, their gas prices have helped them build extremely efficient cars not only without extra hybrid hoohah, but also at reasonable prices. They also use diesel cars, and while you may not like the smell, they produce less greenhouse gases. Here in the US we use "green" as marketing tool for more to sell more expensive products that don't really solve anything.
Sure I turn off lights when I'm done with them. I actually don't mind the dark. I'm a cold house person, so keeping the thermostat low is easy, my parents raised me to have a good conservationist mindset. They also raised me to be skeptical, and right now I'm highly skeptical of the "green" marketing and the idea that you must pay a lot of money for supposedly efficient things.
In the end, Hybrid cars still need oil, unlike fuel cells, and bio-diesel. They are but a mere compromise to keep OPEC happy. I don't care much about keeping OPEC happy, they certainly like to screw me.
Another note, batteries are heavy, therefore Hybrids are heavy, making them more like a bigger car. We need some people to stand up for real answers, and stand against big Oil.
Also check out LED light bulbs, they are expensive, but never really burn out and use almost now power. They are even better than the compact fluorescents (which I do use).

Just this morning I heard a thing on NPR about fuel efficient cars. The guy from the American auto industry came on and said that the reason they don't make more fuel efficient cars is that Americans won't buy them. I almost threw the radio out of the window.

You could probably listen to it on their website if you were in the mood to throw something, too.

The reason that the American auto industry is going under is that they're not responsive to the times, or what people want. Americans are deserting the American automobile industry in droves, and buying much more efficient, affordable, and greener cars made elsewhere. Maybe I'm naive, but I really do believe that the average American will make a green choice, if they are offered one.

Whichever car company comes up with the first truly green car will make a fortune. Don't those companies know that clinging to the internal combustion engine as they know it now will only ensure their ultimate demise, in more ways than just the business way? Why wouldn't a company want to foster a business that would not only take advantage of innovation but would sustain itself? I just don't understand these guys.

After 9/11 I read somewhere that the atmosphere was measurably cleaner when the planes were all grounded for however many days it was. Scientists were saying that it gave them hope that global climate change could still be slowed or stopped. I'll try to find that article for you if you're interested.

Sorry to run on so.

We have actually done something about all this. We have solar hot water (have had it for years) and put in photovoltaics six months ago. We have had years and years of free hot water. And now electricity with spare KWs to go back into the grid! Some day those extra KWs will power our battery operated car. This could happen in two years if the car manufacturers get off their butts. In the meantime we drive our old beater, and we don't drive much.
We got fairly good tax incentives for the solar hot water and photovoltaics, and they have added value to our house. We need better incentives, though, because to my regret I do not see many people doing what we have done. Several neigbors have the hot water panels, but the electrical array seems too expensive to many.
Our electricity rates are very very high here, so we figure between the solar hot water and the photovoltaics we save $300.00 a month.
And we take many other conservation measures as well.
But, living in Hawaii, we do fly a lot, although we have cut back considerably on that in the past two years.
It seems to me that most homeowners in mild climates could do what we have done.
I feel sorry for my friends on the Mainland who have to pay a fortune for heat and air conditioning in some of the harsh climates we have in this country. It seems to me they would have every incentive to conserve. It will take lots of innovation and dare I say it, sacrifice.

Bravo, Hattie--the kinds of things you talk about here and exactly the kinds of things I mean. Having lived in Arizona most of my life, I have often thought what a wonderful thing a solar-powered car would be.

I've also read about how much cleaner skies were after 9/11, Juti--and that one consequence was that air temperatures warmed perceptibly because currently all that pollution actually filters out some negative rays. We've really set up a situation where we're just about screwed, but that still means we've got to do SOMETHING.

Hope my thoughts on global warming didn't leave me one of those friend you don't want to talk to anymore...

So this post answered the question I posed in a comment on a previous post about your current efforts or interest to "go veggie." It's good to see that you are still trying to 'cut back' for environmental reasons. If you are interested in a great book on the subject, I would recommend MAD COWBOY by Howard Lyman. He is the cattle rancher turned vegan whose appearance on Oprah caused her legal brouhaha with the Texas beef industry. Although it was a while ago when I last read it, I beleve that his "environmental concerns" centred mostly around the destruction of vast amounts of vegetation caused by grazing (if memory serves correctly). In any event, it's a good book and so thin you could probably get though it in a night (based on what you have mentioned about your reading habits in previous posts).

Some very stimulating information in the links you provided. Thank-you. For my own part, I have always considered myself somewhat of an environmentalist; first of my family and peers to promote recycling, preferring to keep something I might re-use rather than contribute to the land fill and have to buy another one, changed many of my light bulbs to the compact flourescents (as some of the other commentors mentioned), and I also use motion sensors in some places so that when I'm not there, the lights go out behind me. :) I hadn't really considered the LED's on the VCR and microwave, but I'm happy to report that I have just unplugged all unused devices which would continue to "suck" energy in stand-by mode (like my microwave which I haven't used in days and one alarm clock which is still blinking 12:00 since our last power cut a few weeks ago - clearly it is unnecessary!).

Another thing I hadn't considered too much was my computer. All the "experts" say it's better for your hard drive and operating system if you leave it on. Sure, my monitor is set so that it sleeps after 15 minutes of non-use and the hard drive after 60 minutes, so I'm using less energy than if I had a screen saver going overnight (and I know some people who do). And sure, I unplug my entire surge protector when I go on vacation (mostly in case of brown outs). But why leave it on? At least 50% of the time when I come back to use it, I see a blue windows error screen and have to reboot anyway. So I'll be turning it off when not in use from now on, and I have also just reduced those sleep times to 3 minutes for the screen and 15 minutes for the hard drive.

I was very impressed with Professor Gore's presentation in AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH which I bought after reading your glowing praise. I first watched it with my parents, who I'm proud to report have been faithful recyclers for over a decade (I like to think I had something to do with that) even in their retirement (when many cannot be bothered to take the extra moments it might require). When I purchased it and suggested that we watch it (which was shortly after the Academy Awards) I proudly announced, "I believe this is the most important movie of the year, and possibly ever made." A statement I have re-iterated to several others since then. I was very impressed with the "eco-packaging" even though it might not look as nice as the others on the shelf. In any event, I'm going to watch it again now (as I seem to need a refresher)... with my TV's sleep function set in case I happen to doze off and my computer and lights shut off for the night.

Thank-you for being a voice for this silent cause. Great to see that many of your regular commentors agree. It certainly has created a large number of comments and fairly long ones too. At least some of the inhabitants of our fragile planet are doing what we can. While I understand why you intend to keep thinking this negative thought (for those who turn a deaf ear to our pleas), I will also be thinking of it as a good thought... for those who hear your gentle reason - and change. :)

hi TS--I'm happy to reassure you that your views on global warming aren't going to make me want to blow you off. The attitudes of the friend I stopped wanting to communicate with were extremely different from yours: he not only didn't really think it was happening, he couldn't see any reason to make ANY effort to converse energy, because after all, one of these days, after Armegeddon, God will restore the earth to its paradisical glory, and there will be plenty of oil, forever and ever, amen. You and I might disagree on the best way to protec the planet, but at least we don't endorse rampant consumption, on the grounds that while god expects us to treat our bodies as sacred, he expects us to see the earth as both an endlessly self-replenishing piggy bank and a toilet with a drain that opens into outer space.

Hi RK--thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I will definitely check out Mad Cowboy. One of the reasons I stopped eating pork for many years (I am sorry to say I fell off that wagon, but I think I'll get back on) was the damage the hog farming industry did to the environment in Iowa. It was pretty awful. So I think I will probably find Lyman's argument a pretty easy sell.

Holly, I've been away for a while and I find this feast of blog entries -- it's hard to decide where to begin commenting! Thank you for posting this. I know we've discussed this topic before and I think there is no fundamental disagreement on it between us.

Rebecca asks why government doesn't do something to mandate these changes, and I think that's a good if very difficult question that we should also be asking ourselves every day. Government does the things that are in the interests of the people in government and the people most able to bring pressure to bear on them...of course that's a simple-minded way of putting it and we also have to ask what "interest" means (after all, not drowning in a flooded-out city in the wake of a hurricane might be in my interest) and how power is structured and organized in a particular society...

Which leads me to on of my peeves about the "debate" on the environmnent, conservation, and climate change. The problem is that it is very difficult to engage the question of what parts of our civilizational infrastructure we want or need to keep, versus what parts ought to be jettisoned. I agree with you that individuals need to do more to conserve. Toronto has a pretty good recycling programme and here in England, they are now beginning to discuss picking up garbage every two weeks in order to encourage more recycling and less use of landfill. And in my house, we have replaced most of our incandescent lightbulbs with low-energy compact flourescents -- though these raise another issue, concerning the effects of their disposal in landfills when they do give out.

So sometimes governments do things to encourage people to do a better job of reducing their environmental impact. And diesel cars are indeed pretty common in Europe and frankly, no one would notice them: they run just about as quietly and as cleanly as non-diesel and they are more efficient. So high gas taxes are indeed encouraging more conservation.

But at the level of the civilization, while I would certainly encourage anyone who needs to buy a car to buy a more efficient one with lower emissions, why do we need cars? I don't mean that as a rhetorical question: I come from Colorado, and lots of people live on farms or in the mountains or in remote communities and actually need their cars or trucks for very concrete reasons. But cities in the US had to be redesigned to accommodate cars. Governments made very specific decisions -- such as Eisenhower's decision to build an interstate highway system because he admired the autobahn so much (which helped destroy rail transport in the US) or the decision by courts to ignore the anti-trust implications of Goodyear purchasing the LA trolley system so they could tear up the tracks and encourage people to buy cars -- which re-shaped people's everyday lives so that we came to need cars. But in older cities cars are a total nightmare -- the congestion in London or Paris or Rome is unbearable. It's hard to understand why public transport and urban design (small shops near residences, e.g.) for even small cities or medium-sized towns can't be modified to get rid of cars. Or why the environmental costs of big-screen TVs can't be included in the pricing, rather than letting the producers and consumers of those things externalize the costs to the environment.

Anyway, sorry for ranting. I for one wouldn't mind seeing occasional postings or responses concerning tips on what individuals can do in their houses and workplaces to cut down on energy use (another nice thing in England: the power outlets on the walls are almost always switched, so it's pretty easy to completely shut down electronics rather than leaving them in stand-by). But I worry about the long-term implications of addressing the threats of climate change only at the level of the individual consumer; bigger, political and cultural changes need to be on the agenda, too.

It's hard to understand why public transport and urban design (small shops near residences, e.g.) for even small cities or medium-sized towns can't be modified to get rid of cars. Or why the environmental costs of big-screen TVs can't be included in the pricing, rather than letting the producers and consumers of those things externalize the costs to the environment.

Yes, Spike. Yes, yes, yes.

On modifying urban planning and design, Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities was very influential some time ago and seems prescient in many ways today. Janet Abu-Lughod's New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America's Global Cities also details the social and political economic forces shaping large scale urban policy and development in the USA.

On disposable computers and other electronics, well, I love my iPod but I've also noticed that you can't replace the battery in them once it no longer takes a charge. So in about two or three years, it will die and have to be sent to a landfill or to China where people cooking over woks will melt down the recoveralbe metals while breathing poisonous fumes and send the rest to a Chinese landfill instead. Same with cell phones, monitors, etc. How did you dispose of your old computer? I was living in Toronto the last time I had to get rid of an old one and they had a big section in the recycling center for them. But honestly, I don't know how they recycled them or what happened to the materials that couldn't be recovered usefully.

I'm active LDS, work for Audubon with the folks who put out the report you cited here on declining birds, and work on global warming issues. I've lost count of all my friends who have left the church, don't talk much about my work at church, and spend way too much time in the blogosphere. Such is life. At any rate, just a shout out that I've enjoyed the time I've spent reading your blog today. Thanks for sharing. And caring.

hi Spike--

I still haven't gotten rid of my old computer, though I did call around and find someone who picks them up and recycles/reuses them. I'll just strip the harddrive of everything I care about before I drop it off, and he can use it as he pleases.

Hi Birdchaser--

Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad to find another Pennsylvania blogger. It matters a lot to me that you as someone who devotes your professional life to thinking and caring about the environment finds value in what I have to say on the topic.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on June 19, 2007 8:51 AM.

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