Monday, July 7, 2008

The Environment: Please Play Fair

I just finished reading Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent piece in The New Yorker about the Danish island where they produce more energy than they consume.

One thing that made the piece excellent was all the specific numerical information. The island has 11 large wind turbines, and about 12 smaller ones. The island is roughly the size of Nantucket. "Together, they produce some twenty-six million kilowatt-hours a year, which is just about enough to meet all the island’s demands for electricity," Kolbert explains.

There's also numerical information about environmentalism in general. I have to say, I've been hoping for such information for some time. I mean, I don't use those energy-efficient lightbulbs, but I also don't have a car, and I don't have many electric appliances. How does it all even out?

Kolbert talks about the conclusions of a Swiss group, that about 2,000 Kilowatts continuously, per person, is about what is sustainable from an environmental perspective. So, if you had 20 100-watt bulbs burning all the time. That's 17,000 Kilowatt hours per year per person.

In some countries, averages are way lower: the average Bangladeshi, Kolbert says, uses about 2,600 Kilowatt hours per year, which is 300 Kilowatts continuously. The average Chinese person is using about 1500 Kilowatts continously; close to the 2,000 Kilowatt goal.

The US and Canada, Kolbert tells us, are at a whopping 12,000 Kilowatts continuously. That means we'd have to reduce by five-sixths the amount of energy we use.


I have two thoughts. The first is, it's hard to say from reading the article where my own Kilowatt usage is, but one thing that seems clear is that air travel is my main problematic indulgence.

One round trip between Zurich and Shanghai uses up 800 of that yearly 2,000 target maximum. I make several trips per year on airplanes, and even though they're typically shorter, the number surely adds up.

The second is, I'm not fucking reducing my consumption until some other people reduce theirs, too.

People talk about environmentalism as if it has to be consistent with freedom and autonomy; people can just choose environmentally good alternatives for themselves, as they see fit.

But honestly, there is no way I am curtailing my consumption from, whatever, 12,000 to 10,000 Kilowatt hours by reducing my air travel, while there are plenty of people with second homes on the beach, personal airplanes, and vacation spas for their dogs.

I'm just not. I'm not a big energy user, but I'm not going to become a small energy user 'til some other -- richer -- people step up to the plate.

Western world, consider yourselves informed, and warned. You gotta play fair, or the rest of us aren't going to play at all.

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