A ‘Genius’ idea: Reduce your watts, save the planet
July 6, 2009
ASPEN – Everyone acquainted with environmentalism is all too familiar with the “things you can do to save the world” lists. Critics mock such tips as meaningless feel-good gestures; the converted often yearn for more substance.
Inventor and engineer Saul Griffith has helped invent an intriguing way to show people how their highly personal actions must play a role in tackling the immense challenges of climate change. He shared it with an audience at Paepcke Auditorium on Sunday as the six-day Aspen Ideas Festival came to a close.
Griffith, who received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award in 2007, believes we have entered “The Age of Consequence” when we will become keenly aware of the power consumption associated with our actions. That includes everything from splurging on a trip to a Mexican beach or flying on a business trip to chowing down on red meat every night or simply sipping an energy drink.
Just like a person who is concerned with their weight and health measures the calories they consume, Griffith said individuals must also start watching their energy consumption as measured in watts. Tying watts to activities is a clearer way of teaching people about their carbon footprint, or their production of greenhouse gases that scientists say are responsible for climate change.
“These calculations aren’t perfect, but they’re getting better,” Griffith said. “These calculations are three times better than how we could calculate carbon footprints three years ago, and that’s 10 times better than we could do five years before that.
“In reality, we are getting more and more data about the consequences of every object in our life.”
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That will be key data in the climate change fight because it won’t be enough for humans to develop alternative energy sources like solar and wind to save the planet, he said. We also must reduce the energy used through our lifestyles.
The average American consumes about 10,400 watts of power annually through their lifestyles, Griffith said. Globally, the average is 2,200 watts. (China and India are well below that average, he said.)
Griffith was appalled to learn his power consumption topped 17,000 watts annually, qualifying him as a “global fuck-up,” he said. He and his colleagues have determined that the average American need to reduce that annual power diet to about 2,291 watts – an amount selected as part of a much broader, complex formula tied to the production of a more tolerable level of greenhouse gases.
The three general ways that Griffith will reduce his watts is by traveling less, drastically reducing the meat in his diet and consuming less “stuff.”
Travel is one of the most consumptive activities humans undertake, he said. The U.S. faces immense challenges reducing its carbon footprint from travel because much of its infrastructure was developed after World War II, during an era of “free energy.” That produced the suburban sprawl lifestyle that won’t be sustainable as energy costs rise, he said.
Diet plays a big part in energy consumption through the production and shipment of goods as well as the fertilizer and other ecological costs associated with raising livestock. Griffith said he eliminated meat six days per week, relying more on organic, locally-grown produce, to whittle his watts.
His third target is to reduce purchases of the gadgets, clothes and luxury items usually taken for granted. “You either buy one-tenth as much stuff or you make your stuff last 10 times as long,” Griffith said.
Reducing the energy consumption will require lifestyle changes – something many people won’t want to hear, he acknowledged. Griffith makes the case that those lifestyle changes can either be voluntary, dictated more on our terms, or forced upon us as climate change’s day of reckoning draws near.
“As a friend put it, I’m learning to live the lifestyle I want everyone else to live,” he said.
For the most part, he avoided the doom and gloom recitals that are usually part of global warming discussions. He said he approaches the problem as an engineer – he looks at goals for greenhouse gas production, then backs off that number to determine what actions must occur to achieve that goal.
Using technological know-how to develop renewable energy on a nearly unimaginable scale is a key ingredient. Reducing energy consumption on an individual basis through lifestyle choices is another key part of the equation.
Griffith and his colleagues have established a free website at http://www.wattzon.com to help people learn more about watt lifestyles and measure their power consumption.