Will you be a Sustainable Hero?

I'm very happy to host the following article written by one of Mapawatt's Sustainable Dream Team, Paul Scheckel.  Paul is a home energy expert and runs the website  I featured his book, The Home Energy Diet on our Sustainable Books page and it's one of the best places to begin if you want to save energy in your home.  Awhile back I contacted Paul and extended the invitation to guest post and I hope the below is the first of many!


Leverage Points by Paul Scheckel

Have you ever gone to an event where your bags are checked for anything useful, only to be denied entry as a result? Items like food and water are often not allowed at today’s arena events — and don’t get me started on the irrationality of what I can’t take on an airplane. How is it then, that some are able to find the “leverage points” within systems and circumvent requirements entirely? Often the result is human tragedy.

The Gulf oil spill, like other tragedies, serves to increase our awareness of related and underlying issues. Bypassed safety requirements encouraged by self-enforced safety inspections don’t seem to work very well. Remember the Massey mine explosion in West Virginia last April? Again, safety requirements had been ignored — and mining personnel had apparently been tipped off before the mine inspectors came around.

Back in late 2001, many people were brushing up on Middle Eastern geography and culture to try and understand motivations behind the 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately, none of these dramatic occurrences has served to fundamentally alter our habits or change the underlying infrastructure that could prevent similar tragedies.

I’ve noticed two basic themes about these kinds of events that are both deeply rooted in human nature. The first is that responsibility and altruism take a back seat (like, way back) when crazy money is to be made. Poorly enforced regulations result when large sums of money are changing hands at the level where enforcement decisions are made. Let’s call them campaign donations.

The second theme is that we like villains and heroes — Voldemort and Harry Potter, terrorists and firemen, hurricanes and earthquakes make global neighbors and heroes of us all. In the face of the Gulf oil spill and the Massey mine explosion, we pinned blame to the chief executive officers. Blame is easier than action, and we await the heroes in these stories to come to the rescue.

In the face of energy-related disasters like oil spills, mine explosions, continued poor air quality, and ongoing mercury poisoning of fresh water, the heroes will be us — all of us. We won’t be motivated to act until we accept our part in the responsibility of those tragedies. I’m not saying that it’s our fault BP flouts safety requirements, but we are addicted to their product and so are at their mercy. Consider the drug wars in Mexico, nicotine in cigarettes, and high credit card interest rates. If we weren’t such good customers, there would be fewer villains. The heroes in this story will help us cut back on bad habits and work towards healthy solutions.

We must each decide what’s important to us and take action in that direction. We know what feels good, and we know what’s good for us. Consumerism can be replaced by a deeper connection to family and community. Cancerous growth for sake of short-term profit might well be replaced with sustainable maintenance. Sugar, salt and fat are irresistible, but we know that whole grains and locally raised meat and produce are somuch better for us. Continued reliance on fossil fuels is a short-term shot in the economic arm, and we all know that renewable energy is the only long term solution to meeting our energy needs. The burden is on each of us to make intelligent, informed choices as if our future depended on it — because it does.

I’ll end on a positive note. When the rock band Phish plays a large concert, the basic needs of the fans are provided for. Instead of water sold by hucksters for $4 a bottle, for example, water tanker trucks dispense it for free. That simple nod offers fans another reason (besides the music) to appreciate the band’s altruism and feel good about supporting them. Call it a leverage point that increases brand loyalty, built on trust and backed by action. That level of mutual support should ultimately carry through to government and industry leaders, if only we could find examples that parallel those of Vermont’s Phinest.

Paul Scheckel is an energy efficiency specialist and author of “The Home Energy Diet,” New Society Publishers, 2005. He can be reached at

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