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What Are We To Do, We Who Believe? Part I

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I recently listened to a National Public Radio segment, “This I Believe.” These are essays by people expressing core beliefs that guide their daily lives. In listening I realized that many of us share a common belief that makes us a bit different from most people.

First, who is the “We?” We are those who believe that oil is a very valuable and finite resource; a concentrated form of energy that has enabled the world to grow its human population and supporting infrastructure incredibly over the last 150 years. We are those who believe oil is nearing peak production, that the world will have less in the future, and that oil can’t be replaced with an equal. It is those who believe that burning oil and gas is detrimental to our environment and that trying to replace oil with coal, tar sands and oil shale will be even more so.

Finally, and this is an important part, we are those who believe this concern about energy and environment is important enough that it needs more action today and important enough to keep the concern in the foreground of our thinking and toward the top of our list of priorities. It is this sense of urgency that separates us from most others. Many understand all of the above, but don’t believe our current situation with energy and the environment warrants more action or a higher priority in daily thought (maybe they believe a solution will be forthcoming or they interpret the data differently). Or, they believe that other issues are more important.

Minute to minute, we all can and do focus on anything that grabs our attention. But longer term we focus on our core values. Day to day, the human mind typically holds six to eight concerns/priorities/issues in the foreground – items that receive our ongoing attention. Most of us think about our job, family, hobby, current need (house, car, TV, computer, whatever). Then there are issues that vary by person and with circumstance. When you are twenty-something, one of those priorities is almost always sex. When you don’t have a job, one of those concerns is about getting a job. If you have had a heart attack, exercise and eating better is usually a pretty high priority. The point is it doesn’t take long to fill your ongoing “Mental Priority List.”

For us, energy and the environment is one of the items in our mental foreground. If you believe other issues are more important, then by necessity your concern about energy and the environment falls lower on your priority list; and, when it falls below six or seven or eight, it falls off your “ongoing-concern radar” into a lower grouping with everything else.

What’s the Rub?

Why isn't more happening to make our country energy independent? Why not do more, faster? First, it is important to notice that a lot is happening. There are many programs to help improve energy efficiency in our homes, cars, public and commercial buildings. There are incentives to install wind and solar electric. A lot is bing done to improve manufacturing efficiency. And there are discussions about Carbon Trading, about Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, and whether hydro-fracking is a good idea. But for us, we still are not progressing fast enough. Why? Because we are focused on this issue more. And, we are the minority and our nation is a republic, where public agenda and spending is set by elected officials seeking to stay in office by currying the popular vote, of which we don’t hold enough. Also, because most of what is happening is being driven by near-term economics, that unfortunately does not include all the costs related to energy or environmental issues, or the costs are deferred or subsidized to appear not as large. Perhaps this is another difference between our minority and others - we are looking at more than just the near-term economics of the situation.

So, what are We to do?

Last month I had the opportunity, during the Darrow School Sustainability Symposium, to ask Bill McKibben, “What are we to do - we who believe in the urgency of Peak Oil and Global Warming?” For those who have full time jobs and only a little “free” time available, he said, “I’d focus on your homes, making them more energy efficient and lowering your carbon footprint. For those with more time available, work on organizing. We are not going to solve this problem one house at a time.”

Bill’s answer was necessarily short, mine being one of several questions at the end of a Skype presentation with Bill in Washington, DC, attending some conference or another. Still he provided pretty good guidance, where we need to fill in the details based on our personal situation.

If you believe as We do, then it is important to start walking the talk. Reduce your carbon footprint in the areas you control – the energy you use for your home, transportation and food. This is easier said than done, but still it is easier to start than you might think!

Start with your home. Get a free or reduced cost NYSERDA Home Energy Audit. Be sure to confirm when you set your appointment that you will get a comprehensive Home Performance Report that lists all your opportunities to save energy. Then start implementing the top-of-the-list items. Turn your thermostat down in the winter and up in the summer. Buy green electricity. Consider solar electric for your home.

Start with your driving. Don’t speed, accelerate more slowly, drive to save gas! Take unnecessary items/weight out of your car. Check your tire pressure. Don’t leave your car idling. Avoid unnecessary trips. Combine necessary trips. Need a car? Buy one that gets much higher mileage – over 30 MPG is practical today in a wide variety of styles. And if the primary use of the car is commuting, you can get 40-50 MPG with a smaller car or hybrid. Or, consider an electric car – Mark Raymaker gets nearly 155 MPG driving his Chevy Volt!

Start with your food. The biggest energy use in our agri-business, supermarket-distribution system is the production of meat. Reduce the amount of meat you eat and you will reduce your carbon footprint. Buy grass-fed beef – a lot less energy and healthier than feed-lot beef fed with corn grown elsewhere. Learn to garden. For a hundred other ideas, read Nancy White’s series: Top Ten Ways to Use Less Energy in Food

Start talking with your family and friends to build awareness and discuss your understanding of the problem. Share what you are doing and why. Encourage them to consider energy and the environment when making day-to-day decisions and longer term plans.

If you have more time, organize.

Organizing means primarily developing a grassroots coalition of groups concerned about energy and the environment. Groups of people who work to develop solutions and strive to live sustainably. People who are there to help one another. Groups of people who share their concerns and constructive optimism on how to live well with less energy.

Organizing also means building a voting block that will have the ability to initiate larger and more comprehensive solutions. This kind of organization requires discussion and understanding and developing a consensus. As the world evolves the need to live more sustainably should become more obvious and by offering to share what we learn as we become less dependent on energy we can help others do the same. Here are some examples of ways you can start to connect and organize.

Become a member of this online community – read, comment, and share at a time of your choosing, without the need to drive anywhere. Join a local group, such as one of the Transition towns. Start a local neighborhood group – its good to know and work with the family next door, especially when there might be a problem that prevents you from traveling!

Share what you have done to reduce your carbon footprint and the progress you are making with a blog on this website! Learn a new skill and teach it to others! Join, volunteer and participate at the local Food Co-op, Farmers Market or CSA.

Write to your elected officials. Pick a topic, an issue your are most concerned about. Ask for action. Be specific and direct. We need more action on becoming energy independent and in saving our environment. A letter is worth many phone calls. Got time, really want to make an impression? Deliver your letter in person to your elected official (you may not meet him or her, but the letter will go to the top of the pile if you deliver it sincerely).

Write an editorial to your local newspaper about what you think needs to be done and why. Send a copy and we will post it here too!

Join a national group such as Bill McKibben's 350 (350 stands for the goal of keeping our atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) below 350 parts per million – the level many believe necessary to prevent irreparable environmental damage).

In the second part of this two-part blog, I’ll provide a summary of the key trends – the reasons I feel energy and environment are a concern. I’ll also provide some perspective from some who don’t believe these issues are top-of-the-list items. People just like us, people who understand energy, and who are smart and informed; people who are not environmentally reckless and want a green and viable future world.  

Dan Gibson is the Reporter and Chief Coordinator of Our Energy Independence Community ( Previously he was a participating contractor in NYSERDA’s Home Performance program and a rater in the New York ENERGY STAR Home program. He is currently building a 100% Solar Home. He can be reached at

Comments on "What Are We To Do, We Who Believe? Part I"

  1. OEIC default avatar John Carson June 03, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    do not disagree with anything in this article, except that I do not share the urgency that “peak oil” is upon us. I have much more urgency about climate change.
    I have found the peak oil adherents to be somewhat elitist - recommending courses of action that would be impossible for segments of our society.  For example, inner city residents would have neither the resources nor the room to erect solar arrays on their multi-family dwellings or land for community gardens.  The elderly would be hard put in many cases to safely decrease energy usage. 
    At times I sense a survivalist philosophy in some peak oil folks - “we’ll just go back to living off the land”.  That’s fine, as long as you admit that it is not a feasible option for many.  And realize you are going to lose a lot of potential allies (including myself) by taking that stand.
    If I sensed more concern about the way these issues may affect all in our society I would look at the peak oil adherents in a more positive light.

  2. Dan Gibson's avatar Dan Gibson June 04, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Thank you for your comment John. Most don’t share the urgency about Peak Oil and I will try to elaborate on that in my next post. I never thought of Peak Oil in terms of an elitist solution but I can see your point. Longer term the problems of those in the city may result in a population shift back to the country for farming and to work in other jobs closer to food sources. Shorter term my goal is to promote an understanding of issues related to energy, particularly fossil fuels, (how we take it for granted, its impact on climate change, its increasing cost, decreasing availability, and most importantly ways to live well with less). The reason for the website is to involve as many people as possible in these discussions. There are thousands of ways to use less energy, just a few involve solar panels. My hope is that more people, in varying situations, will become interested in using less energy and as they learn they will share solutions that work for them and may work for others.

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