Using Hard Evidence to Guide Your Sustainable Actions

Mere opinions…were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be. So the Galápagos Islands could be hell in one moment and heaven in the next,…Ecuadorian paper money could be traded for food, shelter, and clothing in one moment and line the bottom of a birdcage in the next,…and on and on. -- Kurt Vonnegut, Galápagos

It can be difficult sometimes to understand why sustainable practices are important. I think one of the best ways to get a real understanding of any issue is to start with a simple question, so I’m going to do that here by thinking about the question, “Why should I turn off the lights?” I’m going to speak from my own personal experience, but I think that my perspectives and understandings might—and hopefully will—resonate with your own.

There are three primary difficulties for me in fully understanding the question at hand, and they’re all interrelated, informing or resulting from each other in complex ways.

1) Removal from/Lack of Knowledge of the Issue

The first difficulty is that I feel too far removed from the core of the issue, which inevitably results in a lack of knowledge on my part.

I think a thoughtful approach to any question requires a solid knowledge base and an eye for nuance so that I can make the best, most informed decisions that I can. But when I find that don’t have time to research something, I still feel pressured to appear as if I know something about it, so I fill the void in my knowledge with an arbitrary opinion, as Vonnegut suggests in Galápagos. I fall into a trap where I either romanticize or trivialize issues in sustainability. I’m saving the world by turning my bedroom light off. Or I’m leaving it on because, really, what difference does it make? But if I’m being honest with myself, neither of these approaches is good because they both rely on an unsubstantiated opinion and mock certainty. Maybe what I instead need is to ground myself in an actual, realistic interpretation of the situation.

Until I began research for this blog, I just assumed saving energy had to be good, and I didn’t really even have an idea of how the lights in my house or dorm are powered. I thought I should turn off my lights when I leave a room because a light uses energy while it’s on and doesn’t while it’s off. Saving energy is valuable because it’s saving energy. Simple.

But the more I think about it, the more that kind of reasoning sounds empty. I could substantiate it a little with the benefit that saving energy saves money, but I think this is problematic as a motivation, as I’ll address later in the blog. And since I’m a college student and have already paid for my electricity bill in advance and won’t suffer any sort of penalty for leaving the lights on longer than I should, this isn’t a good motivator for me anyway.

As it turns out, the electricity in most buildings is fueled by far-off power plants, wind farms, or other energy-producing facilities. The majority of energy production in the United States is still done at power plants, which are fueled by non-renewable resources[1] like coal and natural gas. The electricity produced runs through transmission lines to energy substations, to distribution lines, and then to the building in question.

So let’s talk Hiram. According to Physical Plant Director Andy Bihl, Hiram’s electricity is powered by Ohio Edison or FirstEnergy (though we still generally refer to the company as Ohio Edison, it was made FirstEnergy through mergers in the late 1990s.) As FirstEnergy’s website lists, there are eight energy facilities in Ohio: four fueled by coal, two by nuclear energy, one by natural gas, and another by wind farms. In the area surrounding Hiram, there are three coal plants, the natural gas plant, and one nuclear energy plant.

One thing that’s worth pointing out is that there are negative environmental effects to using nuclear energy and coal and natural gas to power our homes.

So there’s a direct causal link here. It’s too simple to say that each time I flick on my bedroom light I’m using up X amount of coal or natural gas or nuclear energy, but I can conclude that the combined usage of lights uses up non-renewable or nuclear energy sources which have negative environmental impacts. And if my house or neighborhood is fueled by a wind farm or solar energy or another more sustainable energy-producing method, it probably is true that there are fewer negative consequences for leaving my lights on than there are for someone whose energy bill is supplied by a company that relies on non-renewable or nuclear energy.

2) Oversimplification

Another problem is that I see such a question as “Why turn of the lights?” as simple, almost to the point of banality, and don’t afford the question the level of complex scrutiny it deserves. But the question is complicated and it therefore does deserve scrutiny. There are many, many things to consider in just this one question, and if I don’t do my research (including but not limited to finding out who my energy provider is and the types of resources they employ), I’m shearing off important layers of the problem.

Other facets of the light question have to do with the sort of light bulbs[2] the building I’m in uses, the emissions policies of the energy company employed to power the building, and the ways the energy company goes about extracting the resources it utilizes[3].

The point is that simplifying the question too much can often lead me to move forward blindly, without really developing an appreciation of what’s at stake.

3) Thinking Inside of a Purely Monetary Framework

The final problem that I would suggest is that the easiest way to frame the question of turning off the lights (and most issues, unfortunately) is often in terms of financial benefits. Saving money is a direct sort of effect, one I can concretely and immediately experience. But I’m going to submit that if sustainable practices can be worthwhile, they can be worthwhile outside the context of money. And I think the Vonnegut quote that I prefaced this blog with gets at the reason. “Ecuadorian paper money could be traded for food, shelter, and clothing in one moment and line the bottom of a birdcage in the next.”

Money only has value to the extent that we and the markets we have created give it value. Ultimately, this leads Vonnegut to call its value “imaginary” later in Galápagos. Now, bound up in the machine as we are, money really does seem to have value. And if we abide by Vonnegut’s logic, the meaning of nearly everything can become imaginary, assigned by particular people, not objective. But there’s still something important to take away from Vonnegut’s quote—that maybe if we[4] train our sights toward less economically narrow motivations, we’ll be able to grasp a fuller, more worthwhile solution to the problem.

And so maybe in the end I still don’t get to be a hero for turning my bedroom light off. But what I could achieve—a real understanding of the consequences of my and other people’s and corporations’ actions and thus a better grasp of how to influence positive changes—might be more realistically worthwhile. Because once I can tackle a seemingly simple question, I can move on to more pressing questions. And if I anchor my actions in knowledge and understanding, it’s more likely that my actions will lead to positive consequences.



[1] Nonrenewable meaning that the earth doesn’t reproduce them quickly enough to keep up with our using them.

[2] According to Energy.gov, you should turn off traditional incandescent and halogen bulbs whenever they’re not used. However, you should leave fluorescent lights on if you’re only leaving the room for 5-15 minutes because turning the lights on and off repeatedly will burn them out more quickly, and you will have a new problem on your hands—the wasted resources that went into making the light and a material that is somewhat difficult to dispose of.

[3] This is the point at which problems like habitat destruction rear their ugly heads.

[4] Sometimes using “we” as a collective is cheap, but here it’s not completely empty. In reality, stricter government policy of corporations is probably one of the best solutions. So petition those elected officials. But I think you can also do your part by acting and by inspiring others to act, thereby decreasing energy demand.

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