Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Reducing energy consumption is a good path forward

At the end of last year I finally took the plunge and purchased an electric car. I have felt conflicted about the purchase ever since.

Sure, it’s pleasant to drive, easy to charge at home, and so far costs little to maintain, yet as one of the seemingly primary ways to go “green,” it falls woefully short. My concerns parallel the recent debate in this paper over the proposed Panton solar array.

On one hand, solar panels are touted as a straightforward way to reduce emissions and reduce environmental damage associated with intensive row-crop agriculture. While life-cycle analyses of the benefits of solar panels surely indicate reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, they fail to acknowledge the fact that not only have we crossed the “planetary boundary” associated with climate change, but we have crossed five others that are critical to a functioning earth system. It may somehow feel as if I have done something “better” by using an electric car or solar panels, yet I have come to realize that the improvement is largely an illusion, ultimately only fueling my ego.

The impacts of mining materials required for solar panels is quite significant, even if those mines aren’t also sited in Addison County. Furthermore, our ecosystems and wildlife habitat connectivity are already highly fragmented in the Champlain Valley, a situation which will not be improved by installing countless solar panels on former agricultural land.

However, pretending as if we can just ship all of the costs (externalities) of energy generation, materials manufacturing, et cetera to other locations also seems misguided. Nearly all of us (myself included) drive cars, consume goods manufactured across the globe, and purchase agricultural products grown using industrial practices that are not ecologically sound (even if they’re labeled organic or regenerative).

And yet, despite being seemingly opposed, these two perspectives actually share one commonality: a faith in progress. This faith teaches us that if only we could have better science, technology, and efficiency, then we could continue to live as we do with only minor compromises. It is a perspective that seems to be fairly universally shared among modern environmental groups, governmental agencies, technologists, and corporations.

It used to be that environmentalists advocated for reduced consumption and living simply, but that seems to have largely gone by the wayside. Perhaps they have resigned themselves to the endless tide of larger cars, larger houses, international vacations, and unlimited goods shipped to our doorstep. Perhaps they have decided that if only we purchase the right “green” products, all our sins will be forgiven. Yet until that fanciful future in which economic growth can be decoupled from resource usage, this old perspective seems worth reviving. My personal experience is that reduced consumption, though often initially challenging to implement, actually increases leisure, health, and general well-being.

Perhaps simultaneous to debating the solar farm in Panton, we could put as much or more energy into figuring out how we might not need a large solar farm in the first place. Maybe we could learn how fulfillment can be found close to home rather than glorifying trips to exotic locations. Perhaps, instead of second-guessing my electric car purchase, I could advocate for better (any?) biking infrastructure in Middlebury. Until we change how we live, tinkering with the fuel powering our consumption is unlikely to alter our planetary trajectory.

Patrick Lawrence

Middlebury

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