Who's Best for Earth? That Would Be Me.

By Sandra Tsing Loh
Sunday, April 20, 2008

LOS ANGELES Why oh why is this city not the solar energy capital of the world? Why?

This is but one of the many abstruse philosophical questions that torment me now that I am 46, perimenopausal and prone to lying awake at 2 a.m., mentally Google-Earthing, Google-Earthing, Google-Earthing. Deep into the night, while others are sleeping, I -- a college graduate, a Democrat and a Californian, that classic trifecta of eco-angst -- ponder the sprawl, the snarl, the smog. . . .

And when I zoom in on the middle of it, the ghostly cross hairs ratcheting down, there is my home town of Los Angeles: green-celebrity-filled, teeming with affluence and punishingly sunny. So sunny that last summer's Southern California heat wave triggered widespread power outages. Stifling 90-degree nights blew our family of four apart into a Jonestown-esque mandala, each body seeking rest in a different part of the house, all of us stripped to our underwear, clutching spray bottles, hugging wet pillows, every window flung wide.

Which got me to thinking (picture me waving my arms in emphatic semaphore): Why don't we do a cosmic jujitsu. . . and use the sun. . . to make the power. . . to run our air conditioning? Do you get my drift? Do you follow me? I think you do. The sun!

I felt as though I'd lit on the most California Natural solution of all. Let my Prius-driving, edamame-snapping colleagues top this. Which I knew they'd probably try to do. Because ultimately, what each individual decides "going green" is, is as shape-shifting and American as Melville's great white whale. The green movement holds a recycled-glass mirror up to the soul. And we all see a different reflection.

It's true that our style of California eco-dreamin' can seem simple, one-liney, almost Zen. Ed Begley Jr.'s eco-koan, from his book "Living Like Ed," is: "I believe we need to live simply so that others can simply live." But going green is something you feel the truth of, in your heart. You have to. Put the brain in charge, and soon you'll be kneeling paralyzed by indecision, like Hamlet with Yorick's skull. Particularly when you consider what the lowest eco-footprint societies all have in common: (1) high poverty, (2) high infant mortality and (3) short life expectancy. Forget living simply, we shouldn't be living at all!

Think too much about living simply, and you may begin to live very complexly, engineering your own personal Third World country, possibly in Vermont (a hotbed of sinewy eco-bachelors fond of tinkering with things like batteries powered by their own pee). Vermont naturalist Richard Czaplinski boasts that he has an "ecological footprint the size of a hare." He lives on his own private Walden with a funky cabin, scythes, fuel-sipping lamps, old VW license-plate lights and, of course, diligent composting that supposedly produces a cubic yard of poo a year.

Reformed weapons designer and "Radical Simplicity" author Jim Merkel urges us to ask further: "Does my employment . . . restore the earth, further damage the earth, or is it neutral?" And what about the act of making money itself? After leaving his job, Merkel made his new goal setting his income "below a taxable level. Then not a single cent of mine would rain bombs and bullets onto peasants who live near coveted resources." Of course, some taxes go toward bridges, schools and libraries but . . . eh, once again, too much eco-thinking. Headache coming on.

Which is why what came to me in the middle of that fateful night was . . . solar! Simple, natural, plentiful, not creepy!

And the timing of my eco-vision was perfect: After seeing "An Inconvenient Truth," friends of mine had announced that they felt moved to act immediately, to start a monthly salon where we could discuss what we all could do to stop global warming. (In my L.A., all socializing has a purpose: sample new Thai marinade, test-drive teak gazebo, make plan to stop global warming.)

And so, jabbing pita chips into hummus, seven of us began a game of eco-one-upmanship involving incandescent bulbs, hemp clothing and madly conflicting theories about water use. I stabbed at my colleagues with my larger, I thought, pita chip: "Why not solar? Let's all go solar!"

So okay. The first rebuttal was that, even in 2008, it's too expensive, although "expensive" is relative. Never mind Angelina Jolie and her private jets; Los Angeles is a city where even non-celebrities drop $300,000 on remodeling a house, $40,000 a year to send the twins to private school (and that's kindergarten) and $5,000 a year on "hair" (roots, highlights, color, straightening). By comparison, converting our homes to solar would cost . . . $10,000? $80,000? "Even with rebates," groused Paul, an engineer, "it could take you 10 years to recoup!"

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