Every post I write about the problems of fossil fuel extraction or consumption is met by a predictable chorus of comments skipping past the merits of whether or not we should reduce our use of fossil fuels and limit their impacts on the environment, instead focusing on the purported hypocrisy of an environmentalist who uses fossil fuels. "This is typical of Erik," said one commentor. "You'll never hear him complain about his own consumption of fossil fuels in his crusade to 'save' Wyoming from prosperity and progress." Another asked a direct question: "I'd love to know how much fossil fuel energy you use on a daily basis? Unless you're walking or riding a bike to work, then you're using fossil fuels to get there." These attacks, of course, are based on a false premise: that any fossil fuel use at all disqualifies a writer from advocating for using less.
In the interests of full disclosure, I'd like to explore the cleaner and greener choices that I have made in my own life, and that are available to other consumers across the nation. The world's attention has turned to the Paris climate summit, where the world is finally recognizing the moral and practical imperative of rapidly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. As the nations of the world offer carbon reductions according to their abilities, it makes sense for us as individual citizens to determine what we can do to lessen our own carbon footprints.
When I moved down to Wyoming from Montana 15 years ago to become a professional conservationist, one of the first choices I made was where to live. I bought a home within walking distance of my office, and for each of the three homes I've subsequently owned, I have been able to walk to work. The gasoline I don't burn is a benefit to the environment, but also contributes to lower household expenses, not only at the pump but also when I pay my auto insurance premiums, which are lower because I drive fewer miles each year. And walking is good exercise, adding years to my life and enhancing my physical fitness.
Converting my lighting from energy-hogging incandescent lightbulbs to compact fluorescents took a significant bite out of my electric bill, and has more than paid for itself in savings. Because most watts in Wyoming are generated at coal-fired power plants, every watt I save means less air pollution and climate impact.
I use passive solar to help heat my home. In the winter, I open the curtains on my banks of south- and west-facing windows to capture solar energy as heat. I am fortunate to live at high elevation, so in the summer I can close the south-facing curtains during the day and open the windows to cool night breezes for climate control so I don't need to run an air-conditioning system.
Some of my windows don't have storm windows for insulation, so this year I'm replacing them with double-paned versions. I'm adding a storm door for further insulation. These will save on my heating bills, and while they'll take a long time to pay for themselves, my home will be warm and snug when the winter winds howl.
When you work for a nonprofit, you make a conscious choice that your household income will be a lot smaller than if you took similar work in the corporate sector. So it took a while for me to save up enough to purchase the rooftop solar array that now powers my home. I got about a third of the (admittedly high) sticker price for the installation back in the form of federal tax credits, although this purchase would have been much more affordable if I lived in a state with its own incentive program. Last month I paid just $1.32 for my household electricity.
Even more affordable solar power options are available in big cities, where solar incentive programs offer a lower-cost alternative. In Denver, residents can sign a contract with a solar provider to install company-owned panels on their homes. Residents then commit to buy electricity at cheaper rates than the local utility charges, which are locked in at the initial purchase price for the life of the contract.
"Distributed renewables" are the wave of the future when it comes to powering our homes and offices. When there are solar panels, or even solar paint and roof shingles, on every home and business, we won't need coal-fired power plants or utility-scale wind or solar farms, and the impacts and eyesores of transmission lines will dwindle away.
There is always more that can be done to improve to harvest the "negawatts" that Amory Lovins famously promoted. One company, Konaus House, plans to sell homes in a package that includes a solar panel array powerful enough to provide all of the electricity needs of the home with enough left over to power an all-electric car that is included with the purchase of the house. Hopefully it's the wave of the future, a future in which energy corporations are in the business of supplying clean-energy technology instead of polluting hydrocarbons.
Even with all of my personal impact-reducing choices, I have no doubt that my footprint on the Earth is far heavier than that of a resident of a pre-industrial nation. My current vehicle gets 28 miles to the gallon; I look forward to getting 50 miles per gallon with my next car.
You don't have to be motivated by ethics or concern about our changing climate to be spurred to reduce your impact on the planet; most of these solutions save money, and who doesn't have better things to do with their money than send it to the utility company? Individual circumstances vary, and not every one of the solutions I have implemented are practical for everyone. But everyone can do something. Some have options not yet available in Wyoming, like daily car-share services that obviate the need to own a car, or smart-home packages that manage power usage when the occupant is away. I have no doubt that many Americans are already doing much more than I to harmonize their existence on the planet we all share.
Of course, the assertion that anyone who uses some small share of fossil fuels in their daily lives should be silenced on the topic of reining in our country's dangerous addiction to carbon-polluting energy is laughable on it face. When it comes to fossil fuels, less is better, and the fact that less isn't always zero doesn't change that calculus. My personal use, compared with the wholesale destruction of our planet in a mindless pursuit of short-term profits for multinational corporations, is comparing apples to asteroids.
We likely won't solve the climate crisis or the enormous impacts of the fossil fuel industry through our personal choices alone: Major paradigm shifts like these require bold policy initiatives by state and federal agencies as well. But if each of us does what we can, together we can make a positive difference. And when we make a conscious choice as a nation to keep fossil fuels in the ground — for our health, for our lands and waters, and for our climate — the personal choices I've made, along with the choices of many others, will be a part of the transition to a better world for all of us.
Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit environmental group working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.