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Solar Anniversary

The numbers are in. PG& E owes us $17.89. If we lived in Seattle we would be getting a check for this amount, but here in California we are not reimbursed for power generated in excess of what we use. Technically speaking we did not generate all the power that we used from our solar panels alone. Net metering is how we managed to live within our energy budget. Because PG & E paid top price (31 cents) for the power we generated during peak hours (between noon and 6 p.m. from May to October) and sold it back to us for 8 cents at night, we only had to generate a portion of what we used.

What is notable is that we did this with only a 1.6 Kwh system. This is small compared to most home power systems. Our electricity bill for the year before we installed the system was $319.68. We had already replaced the washing machine and the fridge with energy star rated appliances and installed compact fluorescent lights wherever we could. Even the electric car did not raise our energy footprint by that much. And we don't have air conditioning, the state's biggest appliance hog.

Our solar system contractor told us that we were energy lightweights. For a 1600 square foot house, we use much less power than our size might indicate. I started looking more closely at other homes. I remembered a client telling me, as he diligently turned off the lights in his kitchen, that leaving them on after his remodel, as he used to do, had considerably impacted his power bill. I looked up and took note of all the banks of recessed task lights. Very slick and so popular; every home remodel must have them.

Recessed task lighting is now one of my pet energy peeves. Where once one or two bulbs could light a whole room, that bulb must now be contained in a can so that it only lights up a small area. This is called spot lighting. Not only that, the can makes a little chimney into the attic. In the winter, heat from the central heating system escapes up that chimney. With 30 such lights this could have quite an impact. I replaced the ones in our bedrooms with old-fashioned ceiling fixtures. Now the rooms are much bright with only half the wattage of light bulb.

Fashion trends like recessed lighting keep sneaking up the nations power demands. Those popular halogen floor lamps that were so cheap in the 90's, drew 200 watts of power, thus canceling out the conservation efforts of those who put in compact fluorescents. (Not to mention that they were a fire hazard with the bulb exposed to dust and falling debris from a potted palm say). Then there's the phantom load from all the standby equipment (the ones with remote control). The juice needed to keep those on 24/7 across the nation is the equivalent to the output of 9 nuclear power stations. Meanwhile plasma screen TVs are so big that they can consume the yearly power of a refrigerator.

These cycles of conservation efforts and new consumer trends prompt the nagging thought that my efforts are, but the futile offerings of an environmentalist do-gooder. Nuclear power advocates are quick to tell me that solar power is too expensive and there's no way we can build enough of it in time to combat global warming. It's true it will take us some years to pay back our $12,000 investment even with the money saved on gasoline with the electric car. But hey, it's not like I'm going to build a nuclear power station anytime soon. Nor are real investors eager to put up the 2 billion it takes to build one given the 10 years or so it takes to get all the forms signed and the 5 years it takes to build it before they can even rake in the cash that will begin to pay it back.

Scaling back our power needs is too often just a footnote to the discussions of how nations are to provide power for their cities. Scaling back is, after all, about money and scaling back the ability of moneyed people to continue to make money in the same exploitive way. It's the economy stupid and the economy we're enjoying is but a human construct to legalize the rape of the planet in order to take more than our share while patting ourselves on the back for our glorious success. Talk about a fantasy world.

Global warming scientist and nuclear power advocate, James Lovelock, warns that without adequate power the population of cities would rapidly deteriorate into a situation resembling Darfur today. I resent this scathing judgment on humanity that once the plug is pulled we are nothing but screaming babies whose collective pacifier has fallen from our open mouths. This is the kind of sentiment that sends troops to Iraq to fight for dominion over the remaining oil.

It was with these thoughts that I sat down in the auditorium of the Marin Center for the 17th annual Bioneers conference and took out my notebook. From the podium, founder Nina Simons opened the three-day celebrations with a quote from Vandana Shiva, a physicist and activist fighting the building of dams in India.

"Limits are the law of nature" Shiva had said back in 1994, "to live within our limits is a human ethic". It was a firm reminder that our free market messages, of unlimited growth and having it all, were simply not ethical. Then another pearl. "The surest way to heal an ecology is to connect it to more of itself". Yes, yes we despairing environmentalists must connect to more of our kind.

We were duly awed by Paul Stamets' description of the power of fungi to heal the earth and the reminder that nature is not a kingdom, not a hierarchy for one species to dominate over another, but a "kin-dom" where plants and animals had evolved to help each other and collaborate through a diversity of skills.

Then onto the stage careened a youth dance company from Oakland. Confident and audacious they had danced for us before. This time they spoke and choreographed a piece for us inspired by what they had learned while attending Bioneers last year. The strong, challenging voice of a single teenager described for us the state of the planet, of global warming and impending disaster. She had already, in her young life, picked up the burden of global warming while many still denied its existence. The troupe danced for us our cultural state of denial.

"Buy, spend, distract," they chanted from their hip-hop movements across the stage. Then they offered us their solution - to fill the void with community. Our culture raises children to want stuff, but here these youngsters were already wise to it, already willing to give up the pursuit of stuff and turn to creating community. They would speak and move from the truth, creating space to be themselves while heeding the message of a planetary crisis. It was after all, they who would see the outcome, yet they were not going to ignore it or leave it to grown-ups to figure it out.This recognition of the truth of our consumerism from such an early age, moved me.

I have not used the word hope in a long time for hope implies an attachment to the desire that we will be okay in the same way we were before with little action on our part. But from that stage, I saw hope redefined in this determined young woman who had no choice but to face what was coming, no choice but to do what was in her power to do. With these young people coming up through the ranks, who was I to give up?

To admit defeat, to admit that my efforts are but a drop in the bucket, is a psychic energy stopper, not only for me, but for those following. Whatever techno-fix we come up with will still be exactly that, a fix that will quickly be exceeded by our growth and our increasing appetite. Nuclear power is but a band-aid for a wound that will never stop bleeding unless some of us start putting on the brakes to our power consumption and our use of natural resources.

This question of saving the planet is really a collective psychological journey. After all, it's not the earth that is going to disappear. We are simply manifesting the consequences of our growth and our success as an industrialized species. And having arrogantly exceeded the planet's capacity to nurture us with the delicate, lush biosphere developed collaboratively over time with all other life on earth, we are now going to be scorched off or so it seems.

There is much shouting about what solution is best to stop this trajectory, with passionate pleas for one particular idea over another. If only we did this we would be saved. If we don't do this we will kill each other. Each solution a reflection of how the speaker sees the world. (Before concluding that violence and war is an inevitable trait of humans, we should first ask if humans have less sense than a goldfish. Goldfish, at least, don't grow beyond the size of their tank).

On my way through the booths in the Bioneers exhibit hall, I picked up a copy of HopeDance, a newspaper coming out of San Luis Obispo. The current issue was on peak oil and global warming. In it was a helpful article about grief and how "we are a culture locked in a stage of grief known as denial". Our collective inability to grieve was standing in the way of our ability to mobilize. Those of us struggling to put forth the need to mobilize would do well to look at our own hidden biases, assumptions and motivations, as well as our emotional context, the author advised.

The more I hold myself to studying the effects of global warming and the carrying capacity of the earth, the more compassion I carve out for my fellow humans. It is not an easy thing to contemplate the demise of our species and our civilization, whether it be through planetary collapse or through the collapse of civilization and civil conduct due to rapidly decreasing resources. I hardly like to ask people to look at what is happening, anymore, for fear of what they will see.

For myself I will continue to look because by looking I appreciate even more the beauty of what this complex biosphere offers us as I study how we are destroying it. It motivates me to find out more. And for those others willing to look with me, I can show solidarity by continually striving towards a sustainable way of life and a deeper community dialog. I am as the Tibetan Buddhists say, remembering dying.

As I headed through the bookstore area, I allowed myself the purchase of one book. I picked "Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands: Volume 1". Ah water, the stuff of life. What could be more cool than to collect what falls from the sky and live within that water budget?

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