Blue Ridge Naturalist: A New Year’s Energy Resolution: Waste Not, Want Not!

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© Marlene A. Condon

Roughly 50 percent of refrigerated display cases in grocery stores are open, wasting an enormous amount of energy that shoppers foot the bill for by paying higher food prices.  (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)
Roughly 50 percent of refrigerated display cases in grocery stores are open, wasting an enormous amount of energy that shoppers foot the bill for by paying higher food prices. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)

Last Thanksgiving, I came face to face with the environmental prospects facing our world. Speaking with a young man who I’d guess was about 30, I was deeply distressed by his indifference to the effect of ever-increasing energy demands placed upon the Earth.

With all of the talk about sustainability, I would have hoped that young people, especially, would demonstrate more environmental awareness. But for this young waiter, energy consumption was as natural and necessary as food consumption.

He spoke of how his generation believed work should be mixed with play, and he pointed to the TV screens lining the walls of the hotel restaurant where he was an employee and I was a guest.

His point was that people could be connected constantly to the world via many electronic gadgets, and he added that even the apartment building where he lived was similarly set up, with screens in the lobby to greet people the moment they walked into the building.

While the restaurant employee felt right at home at work (which I now know was the intention), I had felt thankful that the TVs were silent, their information being disseminated by closed captioning instead of blaring very much unwanted sounds.  For me, the TVs represented a terrible waste of energy as they consumed it most hours of the day, even though few people were paying any attention to them.

Additionally, the screens were so large that just the one on the front wall of the restaurant could have served the purpose instead of covering the length of an additional wall with them.

Yes, electronic screens may be far more energy-efficient than the old-style TVs, but when you multiply them by the uncountable screens running most of each day in other hotels, doctors’ offices, car repair shops, and homes, whether anyone is watching them or not, you can begin to understand how much we squander our energy resources.

The coal, natural gas, and oil that run our modern-day world consist of nothing more than the remains of prehistoric organisms that were chemically altered via great pressure and temperature. It required millions of years of processing to become the fuel we are burning through at such a rapid pace that the depletion of it is in sight after just more than 150 years!

The proof that these fossil fuels are truly a limited resource is made clear by the desperate attempts to obtain oil and gas by hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits.  Why else would anyone bother to go after oil and gas deep within the ground?

What about leaving fuel for future generations? The fact that we are going after every last hydrocarbon molecule we can possibly get does not show much concern for people’s descendants.

Obviously, we should not view this precious commodity with such a cavalier attitude, but many folks do. Indeed, on the very day I started writing this column, I heard a person on a conservative radio talk show saying he should have a right to build his home without insulation, if he so desired (and I believe he could, as I could find no reference to government regulations requiring homes to have insulation).

To him, the increased amount of energy he would end up using to warm his home was nobody’s business but his. If he wanted to waste energy, that should be his prerogative as a freedom-loving American.

But declaring a right to waste resources affects all of us: Following through on your right causes the resource to run out all the sooner for everyone. It’s remarkable that the caller—and his host who thoroughly agreed with him—were oblivious to the irony of calling themselves “conservatives” when they didn’t care about conserving a limited resource.

However, when you look around, it’s easy to see how society as a whole gives short shrift to energy usage:

Grocery stores use upright, open, refrigerated display cases that make those aisles, and sometimes the entire store, uncomfortably and unnecessarily chilly.

The automatic doors at the entranceways to many businesses and apartment complexes are constantly opening and closing, even if no one is entering or leaving.

The large houses that have become the norm over the past couple of decades or so require a great deal of energy to cool and heat, whether every room is actually used or not.

And perhaps the most obvious example of our wasteful ways is the running of such things as lights, computers, and TVs at home and at work even though no one is making use of them. It should be noted that we wouldn’t have been forced into buying more-expensive CFL light bulbs that contain mercury if people would have just switched off the lights when exiting the room.

In Virginia, people are fighting three pipelines¹ proposed to go through the state to carry natural gas obtained by hydrofracking. Many folks don’t want these huge conduits going through their “back yards” and you can’t blame them.

Personally, I’ve never understood why some people should be forced to give up their properties for the sake of everyone else, especially in this case when so much energy is, and has been, expended so carelessly and needlessly.

Additionally, we should not overlook how our appetite for energy horrendously affects wildlife. Even supposedly “green” power sources (i.e., they emit fewer or no carbon emissions), when employed on a large scale, result in a variety of wildlife losses too numerous to completely list. The following are but a few examples:

Huge solar panel arrays destroy habitat for desert tortoises and are killing birds by incineration.

Wind turbines on mountain tops impact eagle nesting sites while killing migratory birds and bats that hit the turbine blades.

Wind turbine construction and operation in the ocean create noise, which can impact sea life, especially cetaceans (whales and dolphins) that need to communicate with one another.

River dams to create hydropower stop migratory fish from being able to reproduce adequately.

Please understand that I’m not saying we shouldn’t use energy. I, for one, am certainly grateful that I don’t have to fully suffer the freezing temperatures of winter the way my ancestors did.

My point is that we should use energy as wisely as possible to minimize its seriously deleterious impacts upon the Earth as well as to prolong the availability of the resource.

It’s January, a time of New Year’s resolutions. It would be wonderful if everyone resolved to make “waste not, want not” their motto when consuming energy.

¹[Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline; the EQT Corp and NextEra Energy companies’ Mountain Valley Pipeline; and the Oklahoma-based Williams company’s Western Marcellus Pipeline]

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