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The Planet
From the Editor

Can Caulking Your Windows Save the Arctic?

by John Byrne Barry

If enough of us replaced our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents and drove fuel-efficient cars, we would save far more energy than could ever be generated by the oil hidden under the tundra of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The more we can do to reduce demand the better. But if that's all we do, we aren't doing enough.

When I first began working for the Sierra Club 12 years ago, I asked why we didn't focus more on what individuals could do in their daily lives to improve the environment. I don't remember who answered me, but I remember the answer.

The problem with focusing on individual solutions is that it can give people the illusion that they can solve the problem by themselves. While worthy and important, individual actions add up to only a fraction of what society collectively can contribute.

Every year on Earth Day, we're reminded that an individual can make a difference. Of course that's true. But that philosophy can all too easily be distorted into "it's the individual's fault" - and keep corporations and governments off the hook.

If every Sierra Club member cut his or her energy consumption by 10 percent, that would make a dent. But what if, in addition to conserving energy in our daily lives, every Sierra Club member wrote five letters to his or her senators demanding higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and dashed off a couple of letters to the editor as well - and the senators responded to the pressure with the first mandated increase in fuel efficiency in 25 years?

In just a few years, that alone would save more oil than even the most optimistic estimates say could be extracted from the Arctic Refuge.

Of course, oil companies will still want to drill there. There are no industry executives monitoring Americans energy consumption, ready to pick up the phone and say, "Hey, people are conserving. Time to stop drilling." The oil in the ground represents potentially huge profits to those who get the leases.

Which is why the Club enthusiastically supports not just fuel-efficiency improvements, but the two bills introduced in February to protect the refuge as wilderness. (See Clash Over Arctic)

One last thing, on the unclear-on-the-concept front. One of the oft-cited tips for saving energy is to replace an old refrigerator with one that is energy efficient. We've heard stories in California of people who've done so, but then didn't want to get rid of the still functioning old refrigerator, so they put it in the basement and used it to keep drinks cold.

Don't forget to turn off the light when you're done writing those letters.

Photo courtesy D&R Int., LTD., NOE/NREL

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