Monthly Archives: February 2010

What’s Wrong With Us?

Last week there was an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled “What’s Wrong With Us”? It was the author’s thesis that we’re not paying enough attention to some of the basics in life, taking too many things for granted. (You can read the original here:

Some of my peers responded in agreement on a discussion forum, adding some color to the commentary. Mike Toecker observed: “What’s wrong is that there is an entire generation of Americans who were born and live without the knowledge and experience of the massive infrastructure works and disasters of the past 100 years. To them, it just works, it always works, and when it doesn’t they are incredibly surprised. It’s the greatest triumph of engineering that we construct monumental infrastructure that can outlast our children, but it also makes our children woefully ignorant of the consequences of ignoring that same infrastructure.”

Jake Brodsky elaborated further: “This is the curse of infrastructure. People are simply unaware of what it takes to make their daily life possible. The notion of clean water, inexpensive energy, abundant food and transportation at a whim, impressed my grandparents, but doesn’t even get noticed today.”

“One thing we should consider is whether we should attempt to scale up or down. Personally, I like to scale downward. A person who lives on city water doesn’t usually think about the water coming out of the tap. But a person living on farm with a well does. People who heat their houses with oil have a pretty good idea how much is available in the tank. People who live at the end of long rural driveways know all too well what it takes to keep a road passable. Those who farm their own food know exactly where it comes from and what it takes to grow it. And those who live off the grid know exactly how much electricity is available and in use at their house.”

“These things are not easily known in large cities. We tend to hide these supporting details and push them out of the way to make room for homes that have no visible means of support. People don’t like to see the plumbing, the electrical lines, the heating ducts and so forth inside their house. They hide all this stuff –out of sight and outof mind.”

“This is one reason why I think the smart grid effort is going to take a lot longer to happen than most people think. The issue is one of training people to think this way, teaching them to manage a resource and teaching them to consider alternatives to the on-demand view of daily life. It’s not that I don’t want the smart grid effort to work. I do. I simply doubt that a public that has grown up with simple light switches for three generations is going to suddenly consider how much energy that chandelier uses, or how much natural gas it takes to heat the water for their shower.”

I ponder these opinions, one inspired by a politician who, at least in the context of the linked op-ed piece, makes sense to me (not many politicians make sense to me) and two from colleagues I have learned to respect through our online discourse, from my own unique perspective. I was born in, and spent my early life in the city. At school age, my family moved to the suburbs. My college life, and the first 14 years of married life following was spent in the city. And the past 10 years I have lived way out in the burbs…on the edge of rural. (OK, you got it…I’m 50 🙂

Our water comes from a private well. It is pretty deep and flows strong, clear and cold. However, communities nearby are having serious problems with both water quality and quantity, from both public and private wells. The health of the Great Lakes is discussed in the news at least weekly, and sometimes daily, in the local and regional media. Yet I sure enjoyed my 10 minute shower this morning!

Our electricity and gas come from a company who appears to do a lot of things right. Yet could we be even better? We keep looking at solar panels. We have a nice large SW facing garage roof that would be a great place to mount a rack of them. I haven’t had a professional in to do the math but it is my gut feel that we could be close to grid-neuteral and maybe even a net generator, if we used the space well. Will the neighborhood association allow it? Should they even have a say in it? Without running the math in detail, it looks like the ROI breakeven point is about 10 years. I’m having a hard time convincing myself I can be that patient. Still looking at the panels.

Our primary vehicles are both over 5 years old and my Goldwing is over 25 years old. We’re saving for replacements. What will we wind up with? A truck/SUV that can haul scouts, gear and equipment trailers on campouts or a mileage and space friendly Smart car? I lust for a new Goldwing with ABS, GPS navigation and heated seat/grips. But do I need one? There’s less than 50,000 miles on the odometer of my Wing. And I choose the car (20mpg) over the Wing (35-40mpg) on more cold or rainy mornings as I age.

How about you…how are you part of the problem? The solution? What things do you take for granted? What can you change? How will you approach change?