August 16, 2007

The Hidden Cost of Doing Little Things to Save the Planet

Filed under: House Blog, Politics — marcstober @ 1:29 pm

My father always made a big deal about turning off certain appliances when we weren’t using them; now I’m the dad and it’s my job. Recently I’ve seen a lot of articles (even a new book on the topic) about how doing little things–like unplugging cell phone chargers (I’ve seen this in a few places recently) and turning off or unplugging other appliances that draw small amounts of current (I like the term “flea” power)–can save a lot of energy.

I just came across an article in the Wall Street Journal (an news outlet which, like PBS, I find worth paying for to get a perspective that differs from the rest of the media herd) that confirms what I’d thought all along: devices that don’t do much generally don’t use a lot of energy.

This is important because efforts to encourage people to do things that are easy, like unplugging a cell phone charger or reusing a plastic bag, are likely to consume our psychic energy and make us feel good without doing things that, from a scientific basis, could really make a difference. It’s the unbreakable laws of thermodynamics from basic physics: things that create a lot of light, heat, and/or movement consume a lot of energy. A light bulb that could burn your hand while illuminating the room is a lot bigger problem than some device with a little LED that gets just a little warmer than room temperature.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to do the big stuff: either it’s expensive and hard to know if it’s worthwhile, or it would require unacceptable changes in life. Right now I’m trying to find someone to insulate my attic, which I’ve decided, even at a cost of more than a thousand dollars, is the biggest difference I can make; even getting someone to come give me an estimate is a hassle. But keeping my house uncomfortably cold, or not using the car, are not realistic options. Newer houses are better insulated than mine will ever be, but tend to be bigger—according the WSJ article above, they have more than 45% more space to light and heat than those built a generation ago.

I’m not going to lose sleep worrying if I’ve done enough little things to save the planet; I’m going to lose sleep over the big ones.