Wasted energy, money and the Dalai Lama


One foggy plastic Tim Horton’s iced-cappuccino cup. One dark blue Crispy Crunch wrapper. One Player’s cigarette pack (25 regular navy cut). An icy-blue Dentyne gum box. That was just the quick count along the roadside. I backed the lawnmower up and accidentally ran over the candy bar wrapper. It exploded into a blue puff of plastic confetti.

Normally I stop to pick up the roadside litter before mowing on the Town’s side of the hedge. This time I kicked the trash aside to pick up later. I remember when most people simply chucked car-garbage out the car window, including lit cigarettes. Despite the evidence to the contrary, I’d like to believe that those days are over.

I have to admit that I’m conflicted about my lawn. I mean, here I am wasting gas on mowing, while I grumble about picking up a few bits of waste paper and plastic. I’m sure that my consumption of gas is a bigger environmental crime than someone littering.

There’s an obvious tension between my due-diligence maintaining a neat yard and someone else’s sloppiness messing it up. Both acts end up being wasteful.

Wasted energy is becoming a hot topic lately, especially in science circles. I picked up a copy of Scientific American’s Earth 3.0 this week, and one of the articles deals with exactly that. It features a very cool diagram showing all the sources of energy—coal, oil, wind, solar, etc.—and where that energy goes—transportation, manufacturing, home heating, etc. But the most amazing thing about it is not where the energy goes, but where it doesn’t. It turns out that 53% of the energy we generate is totally wasted.

In other words, here we are worrying about the end of fossil fuel, the effects of extreme climate change and creating new sources of energy—and we’re chucking away more than half of all the energy we collect. Now there’s human behaviour at its clearest.

Kids are a good example. This morning I got up just after one of the kids did. I started shutting off the lights after them: bathroom (2 bulbs), hallway (3 bulbs), kitchen (10 mini-halogen bulbs), dining room (8 bulbs) and home office (1 bulb). All these lights for just one kid—and it was bright daylight outside.

This same child once berated me for turning on a single light during the one hour of darkness on Earth Day. Sure, we all know that we won’t save the world one light bulb at a time. On the other hand I’m pretty sure we won’t save it flicking on 24 lights in the middle of the day. Or mowing vast expanses of lawn 10 to 20 times a summer.

I was chatting with an acquaintance last week about the possibility of generating tidal power in the Bay of Fundy. One of the main problems, of course, is dealing with the cost of development and the higher cost of energy produced. “It all comes down to money,” he reckoned.

Money is one of those interesting commodities that tends to distort reality. “So,” I asked my friend, “what is money?” After tumbling it around a bit, he came up with “people energy.” And, in fact, that’s exactly what money is—a way of storing human energy. I’ve written about most of this before. In-of-itself, money has no intrinsic value at all. It’s not like food or water or energy. It’s merely a concept, a system of interlinking beliefs that we’ve all adopted to create an economy and to keep it running.

Today, that system has become so complex that we see it as a natural system, much like our food supply. And therein lies the danger. In service of money, we can soon overlook actual natural ecosystems, or worse, place monetary values over natural values. So money becomes more important than keeping enough fish in the sea, or keeping all of our workers employed. I know this sounds so simple it seems sophomoric. And yet most of our economy actually operates under these distorted premises.

I remember a conversation about the future health of our oceans and the damage done by trawlers with one of the executives of Clearwater Foods. He dismissed the idea outright, as if there were no lasting impacts at all. He spoke with the authority of a wealthy man.

Yet in the same issue of Scientific American there’s a satellite photo of a stretch of ocean visibly scarred by these same ocean trawlers, leaving long white strips of barren ocean floor in their wakes. Sadly, I have to say that I like haddock and had some last week. But this kind of pillaging for ocean food is starting to make me very uncomfortable. Perhaps I’ll have to become a vegetarian.

Becoming a vegetarian is exactly what the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader recommends, although for entirely different reasons. At least on the surface. Buddhism, according to the Dalai Lama, is all about ending suffering—and that suffering includes environmental suffering and the suffering of all beings. It is more moral to be a vegetarian than to impose suffering on higher order animals, he believes. But it turns out that his approach is also better for the planet, which is also a moral—and survival—issue.

Interestingly, the Dalai Lama also has a lot to say about wasting energy. According to him, wasting energy starts with bad thinking and undue attachment to material things. If we’re driven by envy and resentment we’re wasting energy that could be spent doing other things. Those other things, the Dali Lama says, should be aimed at helping others overcome their suffering, which to practicing Buddhists is the whole point of life, and leads to enlightenment—or clear thought.

That pursuit of clarity is a 2500-year-old mission that has great resonance today. When the Buddha lived there were less than 10 million people on Earth. Today, there are 6.8 billion and counting, and by 2050 there will be over 9 billion of us by recent estimates. If ever clarity were needed, it’s now.

And clearly there’s not a whole lot I can do personally about the world’s problems. But now that the rain’s stopped I’ll put on my shoes and go outside to pick up those bits of garbage along the roadside. Sure, they’ll still end up in a landfill, but at least I’ll feel better.

But we’d sure feel a whole lot better if we learned to design out the cycle of waste in the first place.


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