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Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010 04:11 pm

Strategy for the weak-willed environmentalist

The standard advice for anyone wishing to reduce their energy consumption tends to include turning off the lights, walking instead of driving and turning down the heat.

Turning off the lights when I’m not in the room? Check. That one’s pretty easy. Walking everywhere? Wearing five sweaters all winter long? … Fail and fail. Some days I can do it. But on others, it just ain’t gonna happen. Excuses are just too easy to come by: My ice cream will melt by the time I walk home or I can only fit so many sweaters on top of each other.

The bad news: I’m wasting energy, and so are a lot of other people, some of whom are even less environmentally conscious and far less prone to sacrifice in the name of Mother Nature.

The good news: We can all conserve more energy with one-time choices than we can with total behavioral changes. Saving the planet is really more about using better technology, researchers are saying, than it is about giving up our comforts.

Carpooling to work with one other person, for instance, saves about a quarter of the energy that can be saved by driving a more efficient car. When it comes to keeping the house warm in the winter, we would use 5 percent less energy than we would otherwise use if we improved attic insulation, versus the less than 3 percent saved just by turning down the thermostat every day. New CFL light bulbs can save 4 percent, whereas turning off old bulbs each night will only save half of one percent of the energy otherwise needed. In other words, using more efficient technologies reduces our carbon footprint much more effectively than just using old technologies less. 

Unfortunately, the word isn't getting across, and those who are inclined to take only one or two steps, fail to take the right ones.

While weatherizing the house or buying a hybrid car can cost money, such actions come with a major plus – they only require easy, one-time changes in behavior (most of the time there are savings in the long-run, too, as the electric bills are lower). Curtailing our driving or turning up the temperature on the air conditioner, on the other hand, require constant psychological willpower. Do I really want to sweat profusely in my hot home when I get back from work? Do I really want to ride my bicycle to the market through the rain? Kudos to all those who are able to say “yes,” but I’m pretty sure my answer will probably be “no” on an unfortunately regular basis. 

So, to make up for my willpower shortcomings – which I will continue to try overcoming, I’ve decided to adopt just one hard and fast rule: Pick the best technology.


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