My Turn: We're the brightest house on the block

Posted: Friday, December 21, 2007

Watching last night's news, I learned there's a woman in Dallas, Texas, who used more than 100,000 holiday lights to decorate her house. She calls it Lizzy Land. She chuckled as the camera guy filmed her electric meter spinning faster than Michelle Kwan on a caffeine overdose.

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Like many Americans, residents of Dallas get a lot of their electricity by burning coal. Flick on a light, burn coal. It's diesel for many Alaskans. According to the Energy Information Administration, only 2 percent of U.S. electricity comes from renewable resources like wind and solar. And our appetite is growing. More than 140 new coal-fired power plants are scheduled for the U.S; three of them in Texas, partly to satisfy the demand of holiday lights.

But slamming the Texas woman isn't the point. She's just a symptom. Or maybe, by going so far over the top, she's a crazy prophet.

For more than 20 years, as scientists steadily warned about climate change, the United States consumed 25 percent of the world's fossil fuels and produced a similar proportion of global greenhouse gases. One in four of the millions of barrels of oil burned globally every day goes to our comparatively small population. Every fourth carbon dioxide molecule trapping heat in the atmosphere is a product of the USA.

So we're the brightest house on the block. We are Lizzy Land, a blinding glow on the face of the globe. So what? Cheap energy is our right, earned somehow or another through heroism, good old-fashioned ingenuity, or just as a happy benefit as God's chosen children. Hell, didn't we invent electricity, anyway?

No, but we invented climate change.

It has advanced to the point that the World Health Organization now estimates it kills 150,000 people yearly. An additional five million become ill. Leading causes are malaria and malnutrition.

The WHO says the death toll will double by 2030. Of course, anyone following the climate crisis knows such estimates are revised upward annually. Remember when the Arctic Ocean was predicted to have summertime ice through most of the 21st century? Now it's just 10 to 20 years before the first ice-free summer.

The death toll does not take into account other species, such as polar bears, emperor penguins and millions of animals finding it impossible to survive the new weather.

The overwhelming majority of human victims are poor people living in undeveloped regions, such as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. With few Lizzy Lands around, the victims' contribution to climate change is pretty small.

But again, I'll lay off Texas.

A few years ago my wife and I started looking at our own Lizzy Land. We realized that as we kicked back each night, we had four phones, two toothbrushes, a DVD player, two computers and three surge protectors, each burning fuel all day to keep their little indicator lights aglow. In our kitchen, we had four appliances with digital clocks (each somehow displaying a different time). We had two pick-ups on the road. The 30 light bulbs in our home consumed five times the energy of the modern compact fluorescents. We consumed industrial beef, pork and chicken, requiring massive quantities of oil and water and wreaking ecological havoc across our public lands.

We began reducing our fossil fuel consumption. We changed our light bulbs, unplugged a lot of unnecessary stuff, and bought a Prius and two bicycles. We moved closer to work and picked up a bus schedule. More of our food became wild, vegetarian and organic. And we started voting for leaders that believe that diminishing our energy consumption is an issue of national security, economic conservatism, environmental health and above all, great moral necessity.

It might not seem like much. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, if every American changed just one light bulb to compact fluorescents, we would save enough energy to light more than three million homes for a year. Imagine if we changed 30 each.

My wife and I have a long way to go. But we're learning. We realize that every time we flick on a light, make the decision to drive, buy a gift, or step inside an election booth, we have an opportunity to change the world.

• Tim Lydon is a resident of Juneau.

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