Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas lights and/or lights out?

Wikimedia commons

Maybe you're too young or have just forgotten the early 1970s Arab oil embargo, but there's a sobering, if not depressing lesson to be had by recalling it.  At that time, oil supplies were limited as a way of forcing up the price.  People waited in long lines to fill up their gas tanks.


And then responded by lowering the speed limit to improve gas mileage, and by restricting the amount of gas that could be bought.

Rational rationing response (Wikimedia images)
Rational realities  (Wikimedia images)
How short is our memory!  At that time, Toyota and a few others (like a more honest VW then) made cars that were inexpensive, very easy to fix (as even I could do!), reliable, with much better fuel economy than most cars get today. We suddenly realized that we'd been living too high on the hog, and that it was time to tighten our belts--for everyone's collective good.  And we did not like being dependent on somebody else for our lives. Saving, economy, restraint, and self-sufficiency were actually popular, even here in the US.  'More' was not the only word in our vocabulary; small was beautiful as a widespread slogan of the '70s had it.  Of course, as soon as the embargo ended, auto-makers started puffing up their cars.

How times have changed!  Today's immediate news is all about the urgent need for stalling climate change.  Those who want to feel virtuous are using LED light bulbs and driving (expensive) hybrid cars.  Note the word 'driving', because our way of life still supports burgeoning suburbs that require driving (your Prius) many miles a day, even just to get a bottle of milk.  Pump prices are low--and Wall Street is bleating!  All the car makers, including Toyota, have been making, marketing, and selling road hog cars way bigger than most people have any need for.  Hardly anyone is complaining.  It's not even clear if the feel-gooders buying hybrids are actually saving much if any fossil fuels, given the environmental and cost issues of the batteries, and so on.  Even so, the total usage is up.

Not only were speed limits reduced to what were fuel-efficient speeds, street lights were turned out at night. And, then-President Jimmy Carter did things like put solar panels on the roof of the White House, use a wood stove for heat, and (though a Baptist, or perhaps because he had a sincere faith) requested that people not use Christmas lights in 1979 and 1980.  They might have been nice to look at, but they used energy that we realized we should save.

But...but we're now saving the earth!!!
The news media are currently blaring self-satisfied stories about how the Paris conference (that is, the countless delegates who flew there, and ate lots of meals requiring imported food) actually came to an agreement about possibly, maybe, we'll see, restrictions of fossil fuel usage.  Hopefully, they'll at least do the limited things they say.  So, brush your hands off in gratitude, and believe that we'll really 'save the earth'!

Has saving the earth sunk in?  From Wikimmedia images

However as the above picture shows, the depth of understanding is, one could say, rather shallow. Unlike the '70s, within living memory, the idea of real curtailing of our energy wastage is long forgotten in today's post-conference feel-good moments.

Yes, gaudy holiday lights (even imported by ship from very far away) don't individually use up much energy.  And, I mean, shouldn't we be able to show off our piety to our neighbors, even out-do them in that respect?  We don't need to save the earth that much, surely!

Symbolic restraint like LED light bulbs and (relatively) fuel-efficient cars show that the issues in reality have hardly sunk in.  The idea that we might actually realize what restraint in lifestyle would mean, if we were to take equity and posterity seriously, seems far-fetched.  Symbolic gestures -- like squiggly light bulbs -- that still allow us to keep up what we've been doing all along make us feel good.  But without a serious self-imposed embargo on our behavior, all the news stories and hand-wringing about climate change is false piety.  But that's nothing new, a delusion not all that different from religion.

But, of course, it must all be OK, because now we're finally saving the earth!

Ah, well, it might seem unseemly, in this Holiday season, but I can't help but wonder how many people in our world could be fed and have a decent life if we did even a little bit less driving and flying, and turned off these beautiful lights.

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