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We Need to Rethink Energy Efficiency | Energy Efficiency and Conservation

In an interesting interview on Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal speaks with environmentalist thinker Stewart Brand.  According to Ryssdal, “Brand is as close to an iconic figure as the sustainability movement has. Forty years ago he came up with the idea for the Whole Earth Catalogue, kind of a how-to-guide for the environmentally minded. “Whole earth” became a byword for sustainable living. And Stewart Brand became known for this idea that human progress depends on some deeply individual ideas about technology and development. That perception of him may be about to change. He’s got a new book. It’s called “Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto,” in which he outlines solutions to the climate change problem that might catch some of his old friends off guard.”

This interview shows how drastically the environmentalist movement has changed.  As Brand talks about, in the past the environmentalist movement was about going back to the land.  This usually meant living on a farm and growing your own food without having much impact on the ecology of the land.  Cities were seen as the least environmentally friendly aspect of human civilization, endangering the local plants and animals.  But then the environmental movement drastically changed as the “aggregate effects” of our actions on a global level took precedence.

These days Brand strongly claims, “By and large, cities are probably the greenest thing that humans do.”  Wow, how things have changed!  Even though cities have a huge impact on the local ecology, city living has much smaller impact on a global level.  This global impact, especially with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, has become so much more important to environmentalists that their idea of a green lifestyle has completely turned around.  Cities are now seen as green.

For example, consider my lifestyle in San Francisco.  I’m not a green conscious person at all, but my lifestyle is as energy efficient as it gets.  And I don’t mean energy efficient in terms of having a certain kind of air conditioner or washing machine.  I’m talking about the energy required for a person to comfortably live his or her life.  My lifestyle requires less energy, and this is a product of living in the city.

I wake up in my 450 square foot studio apartment each morning.  Right off the bat, I saved energy by having less space to light, heat and cool overnight.  After breakfast, I walk to the bus stop and ride the bus for 15 minutes to work downtown.  On my lunch break, I walk to one of the hundreds of restaurants near my office to grab take-out.  At the end of the day, I walk to the bus stop and ride the bus back home.  Back in my tiny studio at night, I once again use less energy than the average American because I have less space to light, heat and cool.

According to Energy Star, lighting, heating and cooling take up 58 percent of the annual energy bill for a typical household.  By having much less space to light, heat and cool, my life requires much less energy than the average American.  My energy bill is $15 per month, which is $180 per year, compared to $2,200 for a typical single family home.  If we generously assume that a typical single family home has 5 members, the annual energy bill is $440 per person.  Therefore, I use nearly 60 percent less gas and electric energy than the average American.


Now let’s look at mode of transportation.  The transportation sector produces the second largest portion of green house gas emissions in the United States (28%).  Within the transportation sector, passenger vehicles take up 61 percent of green house gas emissions.  By riding the bus to work, my city lifestyle is part of the 1 percent of green house gas emissions in the transportation sector that buses take up.

I am not writing this article to brag about how green my lifestyle is.  I actually do not aspire to be green and firmly believe that my individual energy use has no impact on the big picture.  I am writing this article to show how living in the city leads to a lifestyle that requires less energy.  We need to rethink energy efficiency.  We need to focus on energy efficient lifestyles as opposed to energy efficient air conditioners and washing machines.

I was watching HGTV the other day.  They were showcasing a 5,000 square foot LEED certified home.  Yes, it had energy efficient air conditioners, televisions, windows, insulation and more.  But the lifestyle of the family in that home was not energy efficient.  A comparable home in the city would be a lot smaller and require a lot less energy per person.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average home size in the United States was 2,459 square feet in 2008, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970.  The 1970 number will likely be doubled in the near future if the government does not rethink energy efficiency.  We need to encourage energy efficient lifestyles and discourage the construction of behemoth homes whether they are LEED certified or not.  The government needs to focus on bringing middle-class people back into the cities and reverse the urban flight that has taken place since the end of World War II.  Just like the environmental movement has turned around, we need to turn people in the suburbs around and send them back into the cities.

How can we accomplish this goal?