Guest Post - Paul Scheckel

by: Heather on 06/23/2008
Posted in: Guest Posts

This just in from Paul Scheckel, author of The Home Energy Diet, about the importance of pushing the envelope of your comfort zone when it comes to the environment. Thanks Paul!

Action for a healthy future

My resolve to foster energy awareness grew last month.

I usually offer my local workshops on home energy for free, and I'm thrilled if 10 people who care show up. I recently spent a week in Carbondale, Colo., to co-teach a one-week class on sustainable building practices for Solar Energy International. Twenty dedicated adult learners enrolled in the workshop. These participants came from all around the country and places as far away as Jamaica and Pakistan. They were all taking personal steps to make their homes, businesses, building practices, and lifestyles more sustainable and efficient.

The course included daily field trips. The local Waldorf School is the second-largest straw-bale structure in the country. I'm not a big fan of straw bale -- perhaps because I've seen too many early failures. But to my surprise, the building works, and my attitude towards straw bale construction has changed. The school is comfortable, efficient, welcoming, and feels "alive" -- an inspiring place to learn.

Another site visit took us to a contemporary residential development that adheres to the vernacular design of the old western mining town. Each of the dozen homes sports roof-mounted solar electric and hot-water panels. To our surprise, we learned from one homeowner that the developer had written covenants for the lots which included a no-clotheslines rule. This outdated practice shows that efficiency remains the unseen, unsung, and still struggling older sibling of younger track star "green" and the sexy "renewable." If only we could show off efficiency like we can show off a roof full of solar panels. (Psst! Guess which one costs less and saves more?)

We also checked out GreenSpot, a home supply store in Carbondale that sells everything from lumber to diapers. All their products have some type of sustainability certification -- such as Forest Stewardship Council for the lumber; low toxicity, recycled and/or recyclable materials for other products. Greenspot is gaining a strong foothold in what was once considered a niche market.

When the course was finished, we enjoyed a family vacation and explored the mountains and canyons of the southwestern United States. As someone who uses solar power in Vermont, I was envious of the solar resource available in the nearly cloudless skies of the four-corners region. But coal is still king as a primary source of power, employment, and culture. In Vermont, we hear that emissions from western coal-fired power plants are carried to us on the wind and contribute to acid rain and haze. The West and Midwest do not escape their locally created mess.

A visit to a high peak in Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park revealed the stark reality of regional air pollution. The views in every direction were greatly reduced, and a sign at the top explained that not long ago, the view was limited only by the curvature of the earth.

Returning to our car, my son fell and skinned his knee. As we rooted through the disarray of luggage in the trunk to find a Band-Aid, we were fumigated by an idling car in the parking lot. Although it was a beautiful, 73-degree day, the car seemed to be running to keep the air conditioning on for the comfort of one person in the passenger seat. To my surprise, the same thing was occurring in the vehicle parked next to that one.

Summoning all my patience to be as polite as possible, I knocked on the window and explained what was happening at the invisible end of the car. I was met with a surprised look (instead of the earful I was expecting), a smile and then "of course," and the engine was turned off.

Shortly after, the drivers returned to both cars and handed their digital cameras to the passengers, who examined the photos as the vehicles departed. These were the first of many similar scenes we encountered as we traveled through the beautiful parks of Colorado and Utah that contain some of the oldest treasures and most valuable resources in the United States -- including stunning mountain and night sky views.

In my last column, I implored readers to take matters of energy efficiency personally and to take action. Action is not easy. It takes time, effort, and usually money. But mostly it takes intention and resolve. For me, the moment of resolve came with that blast of exhaust in my young son's face. It wasn't easy for me to knock on a stranger's car window and ask that the engine be turned off. I don't want to infringe on anyone else's comfort or happiness, nor do I want anyone to infringe on mine. But it's time to alter our sense of comfort and become more aware of our actions. We all have a right to breathe fresh air and to be enveloped by a night sky free of light pollution; we must also develop the resolve to leave our children a crystal clear view of their horizons.

We should all have not just the right, but the resolve to use the renewable resources that nature has made available to us -- whether to dry our clothes, heat our homes, or power our businesses. I recognize the hypocrisy in my carbon-heavy travel to teach others about sustainability. My hope is for a knowledge snowball, and my personal action will be to explore the potential of webinars (Web-based seminars) for future classes.

Take it personally and take action!


The Home Energy Diet


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