Monday, February 25, 2008

A Columbia University Undergraduate's Views on Sustainability

Can the old learn from the young? As a younger man, I worked at Columbia University and had the opportunity to teach some very gifted students. This one student makes some good points. The "Big" issue here is what is a "green" lifestyle? How do we know it when we see it?

Sustainability Beyond ‘Green Chic’ and Solar Panels
By Julie DeVries

Created 02/24/2008 - 8:52pm

When I was in high school in New Hampshire, the Environmental Action Committee, of which I was a part, hosted a guest who went by the name of “Sunweaver.” His beard was long and scraggly, and he wore a Dr. Seuss-shaped hat of rainbow colors. I liked him immediately, not only for his comical appearance, but also for his effortless idealism. When he was not traveling the country on his solar electric bus, he was selling renewable energy systems out of his “energy showroom” in Northwood, New Hampshire. He told us that he routinely saw customers with inefficient appliances looking for a quick and flashy fix in alternative energy. Sunweaver told these people that they must first conserve—change their ordinary appliances to efficient ones, change their light bulbs to compact fluorescents, and change their lifestyles by cutting down on consumption and waste. When they had completed these tasks, if they so wished, they could come back and buy a solar panel.

Sunweaver would be ridiculed in New York City. He would probably be referred to as a crazy hippy with no economic sense. And while it is true that we do not all have to drive a solar electric bus around the country and wear rainbow hats to live sustainably, Sunweaver’s message should not be abandoned just because we don’t support his lifestyle.

Lately, as the reality of global climate change has become universally accepted, green is in fashion. The candidates for the 2008 presidential elections play up the environmental and the economical wonders of “green-collar jobs.” Many magazines have taken to writing issues like Vanity Fair’s “Green Issue,” which features celebrities and their flashy renewable energy-powered mansions. The sales of organic food, Prius hybrid cars, and solar panels are at an all-time high. But in this green-crazed country, one must stop and wonder: does a Prius plus a bag of Pirate’s Booty really equal sustainability?

Buying goods labeled “environmentally friendly” does not necessarily insure that you are helping the earth—in reality, finding the best way to live a sustainable lifestyle in a specific area is quite complex. For example, the effectiveness of a solar panel depends on the orientation of the home and the amount of sunlight the area receives. In all seasonal areas of the United States, it is more cost-effective to replace old appliances with energy-efficient ones at about $100 per appliance than it is to buy a solar panel, which generally costs a couple thousand dollars, depending on the size of the home. Unfortunately, many Americans choose to buy solar panels anyway because they are conspicuous and “green chic.”

Similarly, buying a Prius is not always the right path. It is important to remember that every new Prius bought is a new Prius made, and making new cars takes energy and therefore burns fossil fuels, which release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It makes much more sense to take an old diesel car and run it on biodiesel, which can be made from renewable sources like vegetable oil and emits 60 percent less carbon dioxide than a regular engine. Using biodiesel takes more commitment than buying a new Prius, however, for biodiesel stations are still hard to come by and, although the oil is simple to make at home, using homemade fuel usually interferes with the warranty. Even if you cannot make the commitment to biodiesel, it is important to keep in mind while making any purchase that buying new goods is generally worse for the earth than recycling old ones.

I am not advocating a lifestyle in which Americans all live in tents by candlelight wearing their grandparents’ hand-me-downs. I strongly believe that conservation does not mean the eradication of human culture. Medicine, art, and education are the very things that conservationists are trying to save—if we destroy the planet, humans and their culture will cease to exist.

No, I am simply suggesting that we take a look at the solutions for climate change and separate those that actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere from those that make people feel fashionably green. Fixing climate change and other environmental issues may result in renewable energy, but renewable energy will never support the unnecessarily lavish lifestyles that Americans lead today. The complexities of conservation might seem insurmountable, but saving the planet really starts with simple changes, changes that are much too slow in coming to this country. Turn off the lights when you leave the room, change all your light bulbs to compact fluorescents, get a power strip and turn it off when it is not in use, take the stairs, take shorter showers, and be aware and informed about the way you live and the impact it has on your planet and your future. You don’t have to be Sunweaver to minimize your emissions, and you don’t have to be able to afford a solar panel—you just have to care.

The author is a Columbia College first-year. She is an EcoRep.


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