Can One Household Save the Planet?

By Liza Mundy
Sunday, February 15, 2009

I'm in the corner of our family room, by the TV, looking to take a first baby step toward making my houshold greener. Everything I've read on reducing your carbon footprint says it's best to start with something easy, and what could be easier than unplugging electronics? These days, many gadgets require energy to run even when they are not, technically, running -- drawing "standby power" to keep digital displays glowing, among other things -- so the green solution is to yank them when unused. The Web site lists unplugging as among the "5 Easy First Steps You Can Do Today," and loads of other experts recommend it.

Yes, it should be easy enough to do this, I am thinking, leaning over the sharp-edged Scandinavian cabinet to see where the TV plug is and trying not to knock over the pile of DVDs precariously stacked beside it. Oh, and there's the cord for the DVD player -- I'll need to unplug that one, too. Nearby is my cellphone charger, so, okay, three cords to unplug every evening; that's still easy. I'll try to remember to disconnect them before I take the dog out and pack lunchboxes for tomorrow. Except, wait, I charge my phone at night, so I should unplug that in the morning, about the same time I plug the other ones back in.

And what about the cordless phone, which I am just now noticing, and which must be drawing a bit of power to make that red light stay on? If we unplug the phone, it won't work, so I better leave that one connected. Ditto for the oven and microwave, both of which have digital clocks -- a minute apart, I notice, meaning they are sucking power from the grid in order to give me conflicting information. Since they are both encased in cabinets, I'd have to get a saw to unplug them, and, worse, I'd need to reset the clocks every morning.

Moving upstairs, I see my husband's laptop. If we're going to include that one in our unplugging project, who has to crawl under the table to do it, he or I? Think I'll leave that one to his conscience, and ditto for his BlackBerry charger. But here in the spare bedroom I confront my own laptop, which I hate to turn off, much less unplug, because after three years of heavy use it has become so agonizingly slow that turning it on and off involves enduring any number of virus scans and wretched cannot-connect messages, as well as mysterious warnings about some sort of hidden window. Plus, it's plugged into a power strip with a printer, modem and wireless router, and if I turn the whole strip off, we'll lose the wireless signal, as well as the use of several lamps also plugged into the strip.

Hmmm. I hope, as we embark on a Family Carbon Reduction Project, that the other "easy first steps" are a bit less complicated than this one.


The easiest step of all would be to sit back and let the Obama administration solve global warming, along with all the other crises that face the new president; to wait while the clean-coal and there's-no-such-thing-as-clean-coal forces hammer out a compromise; to listen as the experts decide whether the way to curb our national addiction to fossil fuels lies in biofuels or more hybrid cars or new rail lines, and then buy whatever new technologies the engineers come up with.

It would be easy, in other words, to assume that one household is but a drop in our steadily warming ocean and that my own behavior is irrelevant in the face of thinning sea ice, rising temperatures and drowning polar bears.

"We can't solve global warming because I [expletive] changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective," is how Barack Obama himself put that idea in a conversation with campaign advisers captured on tape and provided to Newsweek. It is a puzzling comment -- everyone changing to energy-efficient light bulbs is collective action -- but conveys a sense I think many of us have: that we cannot hope to significantly affect a problem of this magnitude just by changing our own habits.

In fact, there are experts who think that asking people to tinker at the edges of their own lives isn't going to get us anywhere. The ecologists and population-control activists Paul and Anne Ehrlich have written an open letter to President Obama about the climate crisis, urging that our entire economic structure be altered, our consumptive way of life transformed. "If everyone does a little, we'll achieve only a little," is how the Cambridge University physicist David MacKay puts it in his book "Sustainable Energy -- Without the Hot Air."

But many climate-change activists are far less dismissive of individual action, arguing that even small changes can have a real impact. "One person installing compact fluorescents doesn't make a difference, but if millions do it, it can make a huge difference," says Tracy Fernandez Rysavy, lead editor at Green America, a nonprofit group that promotes eco-friendly practices for consumers and businesses. She maintains that "if every home in America replaced one light bulb with an Energy Star compact fluorescent light bulb, it would save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, preventing the greenhouse gas emission equivalent to 800,000 cars." Changing one light bulb, then, "really does have an impact."

Yet even the small stuff can be a surprisingly hard sell. Currently, just 20 percent of light bulbs purchased are the energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Habits are hard to break, and -- as I would learn -- the most powerful incentives do not always push you in the right direction. Green solutions tend to be costly, and the economic crisis hardly makes this an auspicious time for people to buy energy-efficient appliances or cars to save the polar ice caps.

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