Mail from National Grid, my electric utility provider, is never the first letter I open. I don’t look forward to reading it. This week’s communication, however, made me smile. It was an “energy report” which advised me that, as compared with the same period last year, my energy consumption had gone down 34%. Instead of wildly outstripping my neighbors in energy usage, I am now using 1% less energy than comparably sized houses in the vicinity. I loved this energy report.
I realize I shouldn’t go too wild patting myself on the back. Paring back to just average in our energy guzzling country is surely nothing to brag about. Also, in the comparable period last year, when we were still in COVID induced semi-lockdown, there were four full time residents of this house. This year there was just me. It would have been outrageous had I not saved energy.
But then, I’ve had a constant stream of house guests this summer, so maybe the head count has not been so different. And I’d like to think that my own efforts contributed something to the energy saving trend. For example, following the example of my friend Eric, I now do laundry on sunny breezy days when I can hang the wash out on the line, rather than just reflexively using the clothes dryer. I’m using less freezer space. I’m conscious about lights.
This small bit of progress in reducing my carbon footprint does suggest just how much savings might be had with fairly minimal efforts and shifts in our consciousness. If I got really ambitious, I have no doubt I could reduce my usage another third still without affecting my quality of life. The question is how I convince myself that this is worth the effort. How do I answer the two ever-lurking questions, “Why bother?” and “What’s in it for me?”
I call these ever-lurking questions because they seem to be the confounding ones in our current political struggles over the major questions of the day, the twin crises of COVID and climate change.
“Why bother?” This presents the question of whether my efforts will be effective. Aren’t the forces of climate change so global in magnitude that my small gestures mean nothing? The same with COVID. With so many people engaging in high exposure, high risk social encounters in bars, will my wearing a mask as I pass someone casually in the supermarket really reduce transmission?
On COVID, leaders like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have obstructed mask requirements, cheap and minimally intrusive measures to protect the public health. DeSantis, a supposed fiscal conservative , has proposed instead distributing the extraordinarily expensive medicine remdesevir to those with early illness as the principle way to fight the COVID epidemic. His answer to “why bother?” is that there is no reason to take collective measures to stop the spread of the illness. Regarding climate change, the Washington Post reported this week that many Republican leaders now acknowledge the role of human fossil fuel use in climate change, yet they still argue that we should not reduce our usage. Instead, they advocate developing as yet undiscovered technologies to deal with the effects of their use. Again they see no reason to bother fighting the change itself.
It seems to me these folks are missing that the small actions of individuals collectively can effect change on a massive scale. Viral transmission grows exponentially in an epidemic because if one person transmits a virus to two, those two will in turn transmit it to four, and so on. Each interruption in the chain of transmission can have a significant downstream effect. It’s like weeding the garden. It may seem overwhelming in that weeds always grow back, but if you pull them by the roots or interrupt their chain of reproduction, the plants you want to encourage are given a chance, and can do some of the work of shading out the next generation of weeds. Cumulative, downstream effect. That’s “why bother.”
“What’s in it for me?” assumes that our actions could have some effect, but questions whether we should be asked to expend efforts for the collective good when the direct individual benefit to us is not visible. I have “weathered” climate change to date, even benefited a bit as the historically severe Hudson Valley winters have become milder.The most potentially disastrous effects of climate change are all projected to take effect twenty or thirty years from now, when I am unlikely still to be alive. If stuff happens after I’m gone, good or bad, why should I care?
I cannot pretend to moral superiority. I don’t act out of worry about what the world will be like for abstract future generations. But I think I perceive a pay-off from sacrificing individual comforts and prerogatives that DeSantis and his spiritual soul mates do not perceive.
On the most fundamental level, living on the farm has given me a sense that I am part of a larger energy system. My role, like that of any other organism on earth, is to consume and produce energy as part of a cosmic order. If my life has a meaning, it is as a cog in that machine. A friend asked me recently why I would plant a small sapling that I may never live to see give shade, when I could buy a more mature tree to sit under right now. I answered that I like being the nurturer of that small sapling, as part of the cycle of life, which if I’m still around 15 years from now I can take a little credit for. If my meaning is derived from that role, then keeping the machine operating well through environmental stewardship is a high form of reward.
Taking a less cosmic and more human perspective, I have two competing psychic needs — a need to see myself as a unique autonomous individual, but also a need to be part of the collective. Humans are herd animals who like to belong. I don’t enjoy wearing the mask, but when I go out in public I like feeling like part of a mask-wearing team that’s all pulling together for something positive, like ending this stupid pandemic. Those in the “give me liberty and give me death camp” might label me insufficiently protective of my individual autonomy, and call me a sheep. Feh. To a shepherd, that’s not an insult.
WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK
Long Hot Portugal peppers $.50 each
Cucumbers, sweet slicing variety $.50 each
Collard greens $3/bag
Swiss chard $3/ bag
Rhubarb $4 a lb.
Mint $1 a bunch
White oasis turnips, $3/lb
Shiso leaves, $1 for 10
Sorrel, $3 a bag
Garlic chives, $1/bunch (flat leafed)
CHICKENS: They were quite uniform in size, all just around 6 lbs, a few under. These freedom rangers have been what you want them to be, deeply flavorful. $6/lb, frozen.
Email us your order at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464 or email.