A perfectly good Wall Street Journal article on green living that I will complain about anyway

I was all set to snark this Wall Street Journal article on ways to lower your carbon footprint. But it’s actually a really good article, so I’ll mostly leave it alone.

My minor beef is with the way the article is framed as one of those “here’s the real deal” pieces, promising to cut through the wildly impractical or dubiously effective conservation tips on offer from other sources, as well as dispense with the all the confusing mumbo jumbo around energy statistics.

The article then proceeds to offer up exactly the same common-sense conservation tips you’re likely to hear elsewhere — drive less, use CFLs, turn down your thermostat, buy Energy Star appliances — with a healthy side order of mumbo jumbo about the carbon intensity of your regional power grid.

But that’s fine. It’s great, actually. These are really good tips, and the reason they get floated so frequently is because they truly are the most effective ways for regular folks to cut down their footprint. I even learned something: conscientious recycling can actually reduce your household emissions by about 10%. So go read the article and then do what the Wall Street Journal says.

Minor beef #2: the article includes the obligatory mild scolding from an environmentalist who informs us that whatever we’re doing, it’s not the right thing.

In broader terms, Jeffrey Harris, of the Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of business, environmental and government interests, thinks more people should ask, “How much do we need to live a quality lifestyle?” He thinks that question inevitably leads to others, such as, “Do we really need oversized cars and oversized houses?”

He believes people’s focus needs to move beyond energy efficiency, even if conservation is necessary. “The focus has to be on consumption,” he says, “because the atmosphere doesn’t care about efficiency, it responds to the volume of greenhouse gases put into it.”

Those are fine questions to be asking, but the focus should be on reducing greenhouse gas emissions however is expedient. I’m not even sure what that last quote means, but I’m pretty confident the atmosphere doesn’t care how big our houses are. It cares about how much fossil fuel we burn to power them. So three cheers for efficiency.

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  1. Anonymous - November 14, 2007

    I agree with your take on the article, but can’t say that I find offense in the quote from Jeffrey Harris. If we as a society are to prosper long-term, we will eventually have to greatly decrease our consumption of natural resources. Reducing what we use today through best-practices on efficiency, coupled with changing attitudes and expectations around consumption, seem to be the best way to go. The two aren’t, in my view, mutually exclusive or contradictory.

  2. Dennis - November 14, 2007

    I beleive that we need to look closely at what we have control over right now. Turn off the lights! Every night in America there are literally millions of buildings and signs with their lights on. Do we need this? These offices and stores are closed, and whether or not these bulbs are energy saving they still account for huge amounts of electricity being used.

  3. Steve - November 14, 2007

    Your statement that the atmosphere doesn’t care how big our houses are is incorrect unless you disregard all the added carbon emissions from harvesting and transporting raw materials and building MacMansions. Operating efficiency is only one item on the list of housing emissions. This is similar to the error in buying a new hybrid and disregarding the carbon load of new car manufacture. Steve

  4. Adam Stein - November 14, 2007

    Anon —
    You put your finger on what I don’t like about the quote. If the two aren’t exclusive or contradictory, why say the focus has to be on one of them? If I had to choose one to focus on, I’d take efficiency over consumption any day. But we don’t have to choose, so the quote is unhelpful. And yes, I’m quibbling.
    Steve —
    I don’t much think this matters to the larger point about the merits of efficiency. Most of us aren’t constructing new houses.

  5. Deb - November 14, 2007

    I’m not constructing a new home, but my husband and I are considering a move to an existing home to be closer to my parents and assist with my mother who has Parkinson’s. Initially, we were looking for the BIG “dream” house. However, over the past several months of heightened awareness of the carbon footprint of the “mansion” vs the “space we really need” we’ve revamped our strategy and cut our square footage requirement in half! The added benefits of reduced energy and maintenance costs (not to mention less “stuff” to fill the home) are easy on the wallet as well.

  6. Steve C. - November 14, 2007

    This may be a digression from the subject. But in reading some previous concerns about the sizes of our modern trappings and how harmful this way of life has become, not only to the environment but in how our culture has defined “the pursuit of happiness”. I am guilty of acquiring more material goods than maybe I should have or are necessary, and having acquired them, place less value in them now than I thought I would gain. I find myself sometimes spending much energy in maintaining these acquired goods to where I may have become a slave to them. There is quote in Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richards Almanac” where he illustrates the material wealth cycle much better than I have, but ever since reading that I am beginning to rethink where I place my values.

  7. Jeff - November 14, 2007

    I’m not a fan of the quote simply because it is counter productive to the purpose of the article. In any attempt to woo individuals with big cars and houses (your typical Wall St. Journal reader) to be more environmentally conscious, one needs to be political. It’s basic pursuasive writing, and the motivational tactics employed need to consider the audience and purpose. Telling wealthy people they need to give up their house and car will be viewed as sensationalist and destroys the credibility of the rest of the article to the reader, undermining the purpose. Moral: tread lightly in matters of change, go too far you will instill fear and lose support.

  8. michael - November 14, 2007

    The environment does care about how big a house is Adam. When a two acre piece of residential property is approved for a 20,000 sqft home and subsequesnt driveway and pool and terraces, the land is strained. Like you, I’m not really sure about the intent behind the words chosen in the article. My beef can be found floating with the social attitudes that bring a family of three and a dog to build a 20,000 sqft house…because they can? Often, the mindset that drives these decisions also drive cars and trucks getting 8mpg…because they can. I have one client who bragged that a regional gas company had to custom design and build a gas meter for their home, one that is capable of moving nearly 2,000,000 btus of natural gas. Land, sea and air, it’s all connected as you know.

  9. Diane - November 14, 2007

    I was listening to the American Public Media series “Consumed” on Marketplace last night (I think). And a woman who has studied this things (I’m sorry, I don’t remember where she teaches/ researches or what her name is) says, yes – we have increased our efficiency in so many things, but because we are consuming so much more, the gain in efficiency is lost.
    So, perhaps we’re arguing over terms, here – efficiency is certainly an excellent way of saving energy, and the atmosphere certainly only cares HOW MUCH, not from whence – but making engines more efficient hasn’t helped enough, because we have put more cars on the road and driven longer distances, dwarfing the gains from efficiency.

  10. michael - November 14, 2007

    …perhaps we should look ahead 50 years Diane, and define ourselves by that bench mark. The problem here is that a solution fit for 2060 feels radical today…but radical today is what we need. There are too many of us on this planet. Sometimes I wonder if, when we’ve exhausted all of our potential efficencies, the only effective means to a balanced planet result in some sort of population control…perhaps mother nature herself will rebel…