Can the efforts of one person really make a difference in the energy crisis? When it comes to the energy crisis, aren’t we really at the mercy of the decisions of governments and the financial concerns of the energy conglomerates and big industries? Most citizens know that fossil fuel sources are the main contributor to climate change and that a drastic decrease is needed. In addition, nuclear power, while not an emitter of CO2, has numerous dangerously unmanageable and unsolved problems. This is now being fully realized in Japan, and is making nuclear an undesirable source as well. Yet many developed countries, including Japan, continue to use and fight for the use of these sources, often over cleaner, safer technologies, and conservation.
After training with Al Gore in 2007, I have since presented an updated version of An Inconvenient Truth (AIT) to dozens of civic, business, and community groups, as well as schools and churches in California, Nevada, and Japan. I found that the discussion of Climate Change always ends up focusing on energy sources, (fossil fuel, nuclear, and renewables) and energy usage (transportation, food consumption, buildings, etc.). The problem is massive and it often appears the solution lies in the hands of governments and businesses. The question frequently asked in frustration is, “what can I do to make a difference?” Some may be surprised at the power of individual actions or, in some cases, no actions.
While big changes like moving away from fossil fuel and nuclear power and increasing renewables take major transformations, often resisted by governments and big industries, there are things that individuals can do involving conservation or negative watt energy (the energy that does not need to be produced). Many of these actions involve changing habits like how often, how far, and how we travel. Watching our consumer habits, or having the restraint to buy everything we think we need is another powerful action. Finally, individuals can examine what and how much we eat and make decisions that will affect energy use and our health.
Countries vary somewhat in their average usage of energy. It is well known that the United States has the highest energy usage rates. Japan and the EU have much more widely used mass transportation and are known as ‘walkable communities’ compared to the United States. In these communities, individual vehicle usage is much lower (not to mention lower average vehicle weight).
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Japan has the highest overall rate of efficiency, and the lowest energy intensity rate of all developed countries. However, in most developed countries, the three largest categories of energy usage are buildings, transportation, and livestock production. Individuals have direct daily choices in all three of these categories. How we live in our homes, how we move around, and what we choose to eat three times a day may seem like a small matter. However, collectively there is great potential for energy reduction.
The summer of 2011 serves as a successful example of setsuden (conservation) efforts in Japan. Individuals, businesses, and government institutions were encouraged to take simple measures such as adjusting temperatures, growing green curtains to cool rooms receiving direct sunlight, removing every other lightbulb where not needed, wearing lighter work clothes (cool biz), and using stairs instead of elevators or escalators. Each individual act was quite small, but collectively, Japan was able to keep over three dozen nuclear power plants shut-down for the entire melting summer and beyond. The measures worked so well that Japan is about to embark on a second summer of setsuden, this time completely free of nuclear power (except for two Kansai plants that PM agreed to re-open). Conservation is the low-hanging fruit. The cost for this fruit is the currency of changing habits and comfort.
Another form of conservation involves choices in diet. Fortunately, a healthier diet involving locally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains actually uses much less energy, while giving the body more energy than one based on livestock and processed foods. The total energy needed for meat production is 10 to 20 times more than grain production. This includes ploughing, harvesting, irrigating, and the production of fertilizer and pesticides for the grain used to feed livestock, as well as the transporting of water and livestock, and the processing and refrigeration needed to store before and after purchase. Livestock production produces 18 percent of green house gases. A grain-based diet can feed 800,000 more people than a meat-based diet (that’s two and a half America’s). One reason often sighted for a meat-based diet is the necessary protein intake. However, there are many other healthier sources of protein. A 4-oz. serving of black beans has the equivalent protein of 4-oz. of beef and is arguably better for you.
So, if you are wondering what you can do while global governments and businesses are moving toward a transformation, these new different habits of conservation and diet change not only save on energy usage and therefore advance efforts to a cleaner, safer energy society, but also lead to healthier lives involving eating less meat or processed foods and moving more.