Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Save, Baby, Save!

For the past several weeks, I haven't written anything about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It just seemed too big, somehow. My blog tends to focus on the small and individual: the day-to-day choices we can all make that save us money and help the environment at the same time. I couldn't think of a good way to approach the BP crisis from that angle.

Luckily, George Lakoff, writing on, has done it for me—in a way that really should have been obvious to me, if I'd thought it through. He points out that, while it's easy to make BP the villain here, disasters of this kind are pretty much inevitable with deep-water drilling. We don't need better safety measures; we need to use less oil. They key observation he makes is that each barrel of oil yielded by drilling can only be used once. Each barrel saved through energy efficiency, by contrast, can be saved many times:

Take insulating a building. It will save a certain number of barrels of oil this year. And the same number next year. And the year after that, and after that, year-after-year! The barrels of oil saved multiply! Without the insulation, those barrels of oil would have to be drilled year-after-year, drill and drill and drill versus save and save and save. Every year, as energy is saved, fewer barrels are needed.

Lakoff argues that if we invested the same kind of money in saving energy as we now invest in finding new sources of fuel, we might be able to eliminate offshore drilling entirely while creating "real, good-paying, non-exportable jobs." He proposes looking for energy savings in every aspect of our society: "our buildings, our cars, our public transportation, our industry, our military bases, our homes." Agriculture, he suggests, could shift toward means of growing that use less petroleum-derived fertilizer and pesticide, and toward "localization of food production" that will reduce the amount of fuel used to transport crops to consumers.

Saving energy on a large scale will require major, far-reaching changes to our nation's infrastructure. But that doesn't mean that the smaller choices we make as individuals have no impact. On the contrary, it's those very choices—when multiplied by a large enough number of people making them—that have the power to tip the balance of the entire market, to convince big corporations that it is in their financial interest to do business in a more sustainable way. If enough people choose to buy organic and local produce, then more farmers will want to grow their crops in that way and tap into that market. If enough consumers start choosing small, fuel-efficient cars, then more auto makers will take interest in developing small, fuel-efficient cars—which in turn means there will be a wider selection of such cars, which in turn will attract more attention from consumers, and the snowball picks up momentum as it rolls down the hill. A virtuous cycle, if you will. Each dollar that I, as a consumer, invest in efficiency does more than save me money and fuel; it's also an investment in a movement toward sustainability for society as a whole.

Energy efficiency is the essence of ecofrugality: making the best possible use of resources. As Lakoff puts it in the conclusion of his article:

Money is fungible: A penny saved is a penny earned.

Oil is cumulatively fungible: A barrel saved is a barrel not needed, year after year after year.

You can't get more ecofrugal than that.

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