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My Own Private Blackout


  My own Private Blackout

I'm not chaining myself to trees, but I understand that everything I do affects the environment, and it makes me feel guilty.

When the largest blackout in the nation's history occurred, it did not bother me too much. My neighbor and I already had had our own private, self-induced blackout. Living in similar apartments, we had a contest for the lowest electricity bill. The loser would pay the winner's bill and the winner would enjoy bragging rights.

I went without air conditioning, a definite power hog, opting instead for a ceiling fan at its slowest speed. My pre-war apartment runs cool, but at times during the summer I felt like a thin crust pizza in a brick oven.

Yet I persisted. The TV, radio, stereo, computer, and cell phone re-charger were unplugged so as not to leak electricity. There were moments when I sat in the dark, dressing in twilight, and feeling my way to the kitchen after sundown. Some might see this contest as a bit too fervent, but I found something refreshing in the darkness -- a conscience free of guilt.

Normally, my day is rife with guilt because I call myself an environmentalist. I'm not chaining myself to trees, but I'm green enough to understand my contribution to the daily depletion and degradation of our natural world.

It starts with the morning shower where freshwater pours down the drain - a precious resource steadily depleted. I do not run the water while brushing my teeth or shaving, but I still take a shower every day.

Around the corner is the local Johnny-on-the-Spot auto repairman operating on the street, cash only please. He pops open radiators and drains iridescent gunk into the storm drain. When it rains, the toxins will wash directly into the Hudson River. But I am quiet. What am I going to do, bark at a guy who simply does not know any better? Maybe I should. Maybe this is guilt by reticence.

Standing on the subway platform, a young man finishes his drink and throws his empty cup onto the tracks. I frown, but say nothing. The subway is already artificial and soiled, but that's not the point, trash goes into trash cans - that's civilization 101.

I am happy to be able to take a subway, and secretly relieved that the air-conditioning functions so well, even knowing full well the enormous amount of juice necessary to make me comfortable on my little commute.

I quickly trace the current back to the source. Most likely the energy is generated by burning fossil fuels, which change the Earth's climate for the worse. The fuel is also non-renewable, its extraction and production the source of tremendous environmental, political, and economic ills. I read newspaper headlines and see they're all about the war in Iraq. My tiny consolation is that I am not driving an automobile.

At the office, I work under perpetually glowing fluorescent lights and am surrounded by hundreds of mostly idle machines still sucking power. Even at night, the lights are ablaze. And the copiers and the printers go all day. I try not to notice how much paper ends up in the barrel or will end up there, today and tomorrow.

The image of a barren slope comes into my head from the aerial perspective of a soaring raptor. The rust red soil, without tree roots to hold it in place, washes downslope into a river shocked by the deluge. The hawk floats high over the stripped hills searching vainly for once abundant prey.

Perhaps I should be out campaigning for greener offices and smarter printers. Maybe I should walk into the CEO's office and help him understand; maybe I should dedicate my life to this singular cause. Instead, I go to lunch.

At lunch, guilt is a garnish to my sandwich. Large scale production of meat and poultry is tough on the environment -- from pesticide-sprayed and fertilizer-covered fields of feed crops that have left an area the size of New Jersey devoid of life in the Gulf of Mexico, to bacteria-laden animal waste spilling directly into waterways.

The newspaper I read on the way home and throw into one of the iron bins on the subway platform raises the question -- is it really effectively recycled? There are no separated waste streams on a subway platform. It is hard to know for sure about any of that these days.

Dinner comes around and my friend has made a nice fish dish, but hunger pangs turn into pangs of guilt. I cannot help but think she has unknowingly purchased one of countless over-fished species or one of the many species raked off the bottom of the ocean by commercial fishing trawlers, destroying essential habitat and killing scores of other creatures along the way.

After thirty days, I beat my neighbor in the electricity-bill contest by less than two dollars and resumed my normal existence of full-on guilt. We have to eat, we have to move goods and people, we have to run business and the society that sustains us, I know all that. But nothing says we have to do it the way we currently are. Hopefully, sooner than later, I will not have to sit around in the dark to feel free of guilt.

Mike Misner has written about the environment for Earth Island Journal, the New York League of Conservation Voters, and the Littoral Society.

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