By Donella Meadows
–March 3, 1994–
Out there in readerland some folks live at an amazingly high level of environmental consciousness. For example, here’s part of a letter I got recently from a concerned Vermonter named Gretchen.
“I live on a steep hillside that no one wants to mow, and I’m using sheep to keep the land open. They fertilize the land as they eat. I use their wool to make felt hats. I make their skins into pelts. And I sell and eat the meat of the lambs. It all seems very Green.
“But I give them grain that has been grown in the Midwest using oil-burning tractors and inorganic fertilizers. The grain is trucked to New England, burning more fuel. I drive to the store to pick up the grain, though I try to combine that chore with others. I purchase hoof shears and fencing and medications, all of which had an energy cost in their production and then were transported to this area. I truck the sheep to slaughter. I truck the meat to customers. If I sold the sheep and bought a sickle-bar mower, might I consume less energy?”
The defining moment when a person becomes an environmentalist often comes when one suddenly sees the long chain of ecological consequences that accompany one’s every action, decision, purchase, and sale. When Gretchen drives her truck she sucks oil out of Alaska, through Prince William Sound, into a toxic-waste-generating refinery, and by truck to Vermont, and then she spews out local air pollutants and global climate change. Her fences started in a mine and will end in a dump. The pesticides used to grow her sheep’s grain may have polluted groundwater in Iowa or poisoned a migrant worker’s child in Texas.
If you’re the kind of person who takes responsibility for your actions, that expanded vision changes your life. You begin to treat fuels and materials with deep respect. You choose them carefully and use them efficiently. All of which is wonderful — unless you drive yourself and everyone around you nuts worrying about incalculable details and emitting a subtle or not-so-subtle scent of self-righteousness.
In Gretchen’s letter I detect not a whiff of self-righteousness. The only person upon whom she is laying a guilt trip is herself. But you don’t have to put out blame for others to feel blamed. The earnest frugality that comes with environmental awareness is enough to trigger the already well-honed internal guilt in many of us. A good deal of anti-environmental backlash comes from the need to escape that guilt.
So, I need to remind myself and Gretchen and all who have come to see themselves as walking cascades of environmental destruction, of three things:
1. Keep up the good work! An expanded awareness is better than a narrow one. You see more, so your decisions will be more realistic, more practical, and wiser. AND at the same time:
2. Lighten up! Every creature lives by taking resources from the earth and returning wastes back to the earth. That’s no excuse for abusing the privilege, but we don’t need to paralyze ourselves. The planet is abundant and forgiving. It can support a lot of people living good lives, though not too many people living heedless lives. More important than decisions about sheep versus sickle-bars are decisions about having children and about our overall rate of consumption of energy and materials.
3. You can’t figure everything out! If you’re tying yourself in knots comparing the environmental consequences of plastic versus paper grocery bags, you’re sweating too much small stuff. Worry about decisions where the figuring-out is obvious — trading in your 15 mpg truck for a 30 mpg one, for example, or carrying a canvas shopping bag so you don’t have to use plastic OR paper throwaways.
I just thought of a fourth item for this list: 4. Trust your common sense! Gretchen includes a clipping from a “Dear Abby” column in which a woman in California asks whether it’s cheaper to run the air conditioner 24 hours a day, or to turn it off when she’s away at work. Abby says, “According to my air-conditioning expert, the best way to operate air-conditioning equipment is to set it at the desired temperature and leave it there.”
“Who is Abby’s air conditioning expert?” asks Gretchen. “How can the average person make intelligent decisions without data?”
The average person can use common sense — which tells you that it’s probably easier on the equipment to keep it running evenly, but that the flow of heat into the house is higher, the cooler the house is. So if you keep the air conditioner on all day, you have more heat to dump than you would if you shut it off part-time.
I made a quick calculation (using STELLA, for you figurers out there in readerland), which shows that common sense is correct in this case. But the energy saved is surprisingly small. If you turn off the air conditioner from 6 am to 6 pm, you save only 8-10% of the energy you would use if you run it all the time. You can make a much bigger difference than that by insulating your house very well.
So, Gretchen, given their production of wool and meat and fertilizer, common sense says that your sheep are better for the planet than the sickle-bar — though it would be hard to figure that out exactly. The question of how to live a good, sustainable, responsible life will never be quantifiable, not fully, not finally. The important thing is to live in the question, doing your best. If we all do that, and if there aren’t too many of us, the lives we come up with will be good enough.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994