The 50 Percent Solution

    People do not like to change their habits. I’m a fat cat that needs to lower both my calorie and carbon footprints. Like dieting, global warming requires cutting back on consumption, which means changing habits, which means going against human nature. Most people want to wait until the federal government does something for them, but I wonder what I could do on my own. Since the people in the White House have neglected this issue, we’re on our own anyway, and if you read the news many citizens, businesses, state and local governments are doing a lot on their own. It’s quite impressive.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists supports political action requiring cutting green house gases to 80 Percent of what they were in 1990 by 2050, so as to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Many other politicians throw around the 50 Percent figure. This is a complicated issue. If 300 million Americans use 50 percent less, and 2 billion Chinese and Indians start using 50 percent more, is the environment still safe? Ultimately, do we need to decide what the environment can handle and then figure out what to do with our 1/6,765,843,415 share? And that share will always be shrinking until we can reverse population growth.

    What it comes down to is discipline, which I admit is a personal quality I’m sorely lacking. When dieting I’ve discovered I do better with simple concepts – like avoiding products that are mainly sugar or white flour. In this regard I like the idea of the 50 Percent Solution, where I just try to use half of what I was using. Unfortunately that requires math and most people hate math. One half is a simple concept. Since Big Brother knows everything I buy with my credit card, I wish Congress would just pass a law and tell Big Brother to just send me an email every month informing me how much carbon I’ve helped put into the atmosphere during the last thirty days.

    It would also be fantastic if my power company would provide data about how I’m doing. It would nice to have a graph like the DOW Jones average of squiggly lines showing my energy usage back to 1990. And each monthly bill should give me a percentage figure comparing that month against the same month in 1990. For example, December 2007 might say 1.75% of 12/1990. If I work hard for a year it might say next November, 1.31% of 11/1990 and I could dream about the day I reach .80% of 1990.

    For now we can think of a 50 Percent Solution as a temporary goal, and I don’t think we need to wait until 2020 or 2050 to get down to business. How soon can you use 50 Percent less gasoline, or electricity or water, or paper, or any other product? Just pick something you use a lot of and study it. I bought a Kill-A-Watt meter to help me.

    My Dell Optiplex GX620 at work idles at 145 watts, but if I bought a Dell Optiplex GX755 it would idle at 43.9 watts. My job would be done having reached a 33 Percent Solution. However, if I start using sleep mode to its best advantage, I could save even more because in sleep mode the computer would only use 2.8 watts. My GX620 use 8 watts while turned off or in sleep mode. So even with my current computer if I let it go to sleep mode after 30 minutes of inactivity I’m already maybe into a 20 Percent Solution territory, and with optimized new technology I might get down to 4-5 Percent. (As compared to leaving my computer on 24×7 at idle which I used to do.)

    Using an older computer is like having three or four 100w bulbs burning, and some gaming machines with fast video cards are like having eight 100w bulbs burning. Turning them off doesn’t bring about darkness because even off these machines use 15w to 40w worth of electricity. Newer machines ran at the power of a 40w bulb and on idle waste a tiny dash-light of juice. That’s a big step forward. Tech companies are already selling computers that run in the 15w light bulb range. My GX620 uses 8 watts turned off. The GX755 uses .7 watts.

    If you switched to those newer energy efficient light bulbs you hit a 25 Percent Solution with little effort. I guess I use on average 1 gallon of gas a day or 365 gallons a year. I could go buy a Prius and maybe reach a 50 Percent Solution, but how many gallons of gas does it take to make a car? If I drove my old truck for 15 years would that save more resources? This is where things get harder to figure. The government should provide more research and guidelines.

    I’m about to replace my HVAC in my house and it might get me to a 50 Percent Solution, especially if I put in new insulation. And with a few other household efforts, I might actually reach my 50 Percent Solution for my total living within a year. Am I done? Am I free of global warming guilt? It seems too easy? And it is an illusion. How do I do a 50 Percent solution for clothes and food and entertainment?

    My wife now has to live in Birmingham to keep her good job, and commute home on the weekends, vastly increasing her gas usage, plus we now have to maintain two homes, so we’re back to 100 Percent Plus. To achieve a 50 Percent Solution with two homes would require achieving a 25 Percent Solution in each. Even that might be doable, but it goes to show you how energy wasteful our society really is.

    Then we have the problem of relative waste. I have an 1800 square foot house, and a 700 square foot apartment, but some people have 5000 square feet houses and others have 25,000 square feet houses, while some people live in an 8 square foot box. Carbon credits are like rich people paying poor people to stay in their cardboard abodes so they can legally stay in their 25,000 square foot mansions. Is that really fair? Is it ethical?

    I doubt people with five-car garage houses are going to move into my neighborhood, and I’m not likely to move into a one bedroom apartment. Thus I don’t know if the 50 Percent Solution is going to work on every concept.

    In the 1970s someone coined the term Spaceship Earth. It’s an elegant idea. Back then they wanted to suggest that living on Earth had limits – only so much oxygen, food and fuel so it shouldn’t be wasted. Since then rocket designers have moved onto the idea of making spaceships with renewal resources, in other words, reversing the analogy, which is also very elegant. No one knows what the Earth can sustain. Maybe its nine billion people each living in 1,000 square feet of technological luxury. Or maybe its nine billion people living like monks in a cell. It’s quite obvious that it’s not nine billion people with SUVs and their own jet planes, but it may be possible so the rich could keep their 25,000 square foot mansions that have minimal carbon footprints.

    The solution to global warming can’t require us all to live on equal rations because human nature won’t allow it. However, to allow the rich to ethically use more might be justified if they help the less off have more through efficiency. In other words the people of the U.S. might need to help citizens in other nations to have more through technology transfers or other kinds of aid because it wouldn’t be fair to ask some starving person in Africa to take up a 50 Percent Solution. As individuals trying to use less in an abundant society, we might contribute to charities that bring sustainable technology and resource management elsewhere. In other words, help other people to use more, but not in the wasteful way we have done in the past.

    In the long run there is no 50 Percent Solution that will solve all the problems. The problems are too complex. One reason so many people refuse to think global warming is man-made is because no one notices they are putting tons of carbon into the air every year. One graphic way for a documentary maker to illustrate this would be to show a line of people with a pile of sand next to them, with the weight of the sand being equal to the carbon that person helps create each year. A person from a poor country might have a can of sand, while an average U.S. citizen might have several pickup truck loads, and a billionaire might have a hill of the stuff.

    The idea of carbon credits is if you could stand beside your pile and it would disappear because you paid for ten thousand trees to be planted or invested in a solar energy plant.

    Jared Diamond’s book Collapse chronicles several societies from around the world that has collapsed in the past. Essentially these cultures each went full speed ahead with behaviors that lead to their destruction. I wonder did a few of those people on Easter Island preach a gospel warning their fellow islanders to stop cutting down all the trees? Did they introduce a 50 Percent Solution that no one followed? Maybe human nature doesn’t allow for changing direction. Look at that guy in Georgia who uses 400,000 gallons of water per month during the drought.

    Me personally, I don’t know what the solution is. Just to have a challenge, I’m going to try to live with less, but then I’ve been trying to live off fewer calories for decades and haven’t succeeded. It sure would be nice if I could reduce both my calories and carbon footprints, but maybe all those ancient societies Jared Diamond wrote about were populated with people like me – ones who knew better but couldn’t change.







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