Inconvenient living: eco-wisdom from the Academy Awards

It was an encouraging sign that An Inconvenient Truth won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, which allowed its protagonist to bask in the limelight and re-iterate his message from a forum with unprecedented reach. For all its runaway success, it is likely that more people have tuned in to watch the ceremony than have showed up at the local cineplex to see the movie itself. Granted Hollywood does have a reputation for being on the cutting edge when it comes to environmentally friendly messaging. It was not out of character when Mr. DiCapprio announced that the academy awards web-site would feature tips for greener living.

Unfortunately a quick peek at the recommendations shows how unrealistic expectations can be, compared to the average life-style in America:

Reconsider extra features such as automatic transmission and 4-wheel drive — they are often unnecessary and eat into gas mileage.

True enough, but how many manufacturers today even offer a standard transmission as option? And for that matter how many drivers could drive one? (And this advice is dated: sequential manual-gearboxes are just as efficient but still controlled automatically. Not to be confused with a standard automatic transmission, these use gears but the clutch is not operated by the driver.)

Leave the car at home. Get in the habit of riding buses or trains as often as you can (just think of all the new people you’ll meet!). For short distances, ride a bike or walk whenever possible.

Unfortunately public transportation is dysfunctional in most of the US, owing to suburban sprawl. The architecture of suburbia, predicated on car ownership, is outright hostile to pedestrians. There are no sidewalks and nothing within walking distance, no bike lanes and only inconsiderate drivers to share the road. This would only work in dense urban cores.

In the winter, set your thermostat at 68° in the daytime and 55° at night. In the summer, keep it at 78°.

That one is not going to be a popular measure. Certainly not in retail, considering that in the early 20th century movie theaters used air conditioning to attract crowds and recently New York Times found an inverse correlation between prices and temperature of the store. Homeowners will likely balk and leaving office spaces the only chance for such drastic climate alteration, where it would make for a new Dilbert episode.

Let the sun shine in. The cheapest and most energy-efficient light and heat source is often right outside your window.

Try explaining that one to Seattlites.

If you must water your lawn, water early or late in the day or on cooler days to reduce evaporation.

Cookie-cutter suburban houses with manicured lawns would not be possible without wasting tons of water, a practice helped along by the real-estate bubble which guarantees the better landscape house enjoys a premium, since they are all identical and have no character to distinguish them otherwise.

Not all the suggestions are such exhortations for austere, spartan living. For example, the use of compact fluorescent lamps is a clear winner. But the Academy seems to have forgotten why CFLs have become that unstoppable idea whose time has come: because they provide clear, easily articulated benefits without requiring that consumers give up on something they are used. This is the hallmark of progress in efficiency:  doing more with less. Whether it is measured in watts, lumens or total cost of ownership, CFLs edge out the older generation technology– there is no trade off in giving up one factor to maximize another. Asking people to learn to operate a clutch, not water their lawn and put on more layers at home does not have the same ring.


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