Give Up Something for the Earth


By Peter Schwartzman


In my Jan. 1st  essay, I pronounced 2009 the Year for Giving. One form of giving, not then discussed, is giving up things. Since our consumption has reached epic proportions, it is an exciting challenge to consider giving something up for the betterment of the planet. This is a virtuous act but not one many of us are ready or willing to do. Perhaps this is so for you too. However, if you will, please suspend that position for a moment and walk with me through the fertile garden of “essential” items/views that we might consider ramping down on or doing without altogether. You might find out that sacrificing one or more of these things will not only make the planet healthier, but your wallet heavier, your mind more refreshed, and your body more energized.

             Soda. How many extra calories do you need? And do they have to be in the form of high fructose corn syrup? Unfortunately, people who drink soda do not compensate for these extra calories by reducing calories elsewhere in their diets. Hence, they intake more calories than they need and gain extra weight as a result. A typical 12 ounce non-diet soda has between 140-180 calories in it. Diet sodas typically don’t have excess calories but one should still question the effects of the artificial sweeteners used or the need for energy-intensive “sweet” water when regular water is locally available. 
                Beyond health concerns, there are serious allegations about the morality of certain beverage companies. Currently, there is a major campaign to get Coca-Cola to address many claims made by its workers and consumers around the world. Among the more serious accusations are ones that stipulate that Coca-Cola is responsible for emptying local aquifers in poor regions of developing countries leaving neighboring farmers unable to water their food crops as well as ones that blame Coca-Cola for its direct involvement in the death of several union members in Colombia. These latter charges are part of lawsuits filed in the United States by the International Labor Rights Fund and the United Steelworkers Union. See more on these claims at: <>. Do you know if your soda manufacturer’s record on human rights is one that you would defend?

      “Free” electricity. Most people don’t realize electricity costs can vary greatly across the day (on a 24 hour cycle). For instance, this past Sunday, locally available electricity cost between 1-2.9 cents per Kilowatt-Hour (kWh) while this past Thursday it ranged from 1.4-3.7 cents per kWh. But, this past summer, on Wednesday, July 16, 2008, it ranged from 1.8 cents (at 3 AM) to 17.5 cents (between 3-4 PM) per kWh and it was over 10 cents per kWh from 10 AM to 9 PM. 
     There is a lot to glean from these numbers. Firstly, there is tons of money to be saved by using electricity (for one’s energy intensive jobs, like washing and drying clothes) when it is cheapest. Typically, electricity is least expensive during the late evening and early morning (between 10 PM – 5 AM) with the greatest differences found in the summer months. Secondly, one only pays the lesser amount (or, more specifically, the rate associated with the particular time when one is using the electricity) if one joins a program (such as, Power Smart Pricing <>) offered to customers; otherwise one pays an average rate which is quite a bit higher. Lastly, electricity is cheaper at certain times of the day/year based on demand—generally, the greater the demand the higher the price. By using electricity without regard to demand, one is actually promoting the building of more power plants. This is because energy providers need to have enough energy available so that they can supply the grid when maximum levels are needed. So, if more of us were to shift our energy use to off-peak times, we would reduce maximum demand levels and therefore the need for more power plants. 

           Additionally, one can save a lot of money and energy by learning to use appliances more wisely. For instance, it costs about 50 cents of electricity to dry a load of laundry but it costs virtually nothing to hang the clothes up on a rack; this added moisture can also do one’s house well in winter by humidifying rooms for free. The cost of washing ranges from 3-34 cents depending on whether one uses cold water or hot water (cold, obviously, being cheaper). Since most detergent today does equally fine with cold water as well as warm/hot water, one can save a lot of money and energy by using the cold water cycle exclusively.

       Cynicism. As an agent for change, I am always dumbfounded how cynical people are about the future. Moreover, many people don’t think they (or anyone but the very rich and powerful) have the ability to change things for the better. While it is true that many current environmental problems, such as climate change, deforestation, or hyper-consumerism, are large in scale and daunting in scope, we must remember that very large and powerful social and physical forces have existed before (such as, slavery, smallpox, and Apartheid). And each one of these forces was rejected or eliminated because of collective will and courageous action. We cannot forget that all of us have a tremendous amount of power to effect change. Some of this change will need to be social (in terms of getting people to accept less materialism or demanding more locally-grown or locally-built products) and others will be technological (as in more efficient solar panels and organically-grown crops). Social forces will need to compel people to demand large scale changes (via shifting subsidies and taxes) to more sustainable technologies and more equitable and democratic forms of human relationships. 

Are you ready to give up any of these? If none seem up your alley, what about any one of the following: (1) Meat; (2) Hatred; (3) Television/Cable; (4) Driving; (5) Cell phone; or, possibly most importantly, (6) Fear. All of these need to be reduced in order to make the planet a healthier place for us (and our descendants) to live. Typically, giving something up is perceived as a sacrifice. I honestly don’t think reducing ones consumption or removing a negative mental construct is all that bad. In fact, try getting rid of just one of these (nine) things, and see where it leads you. This week (Earth Week) is definitely a good time to begin.