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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
30 April 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 18

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Springtime and Conservation

Conclusions while hanging awnings and cleaning fans this spring: we need to change our throw-away attitudes and apply free-market principles to energy consumption.

by Jerome F. Winzig

With clear skies and temperatures in the 70s, much of last week was perfect for Minnesotans not struggling against major spring floods. We could spend time outside after a long winter and a wet spring. One morning was filled with the sound of a chain saw as a neighbor cut down a diseased tree. Another neighbor worked late into the night doing cement work on his front steps. Others raked their lawns, removed wet leaves from their flower beds, washed the grime from their cars, or cleaned their garages. Children played baseball and softball. One father gently balanced his daughter as she tried out her first two-wheel.

On Saturday, this writer took our canvas awnings out of the garage and put them on the west windows to shade them from the sun on hot summer afternoons. According to the weathered tags, they were custom-made in 1964. Hanging them requires two different ladders, and the extension ladder needs to be reset several times to fasten the smaller awning to the second floor window.

The box fans we use to cool the house on all but the hottest summer days also came out of the garage loft. After years of use, they should have been cleaned last year, or even the year before. But that chore takes awhile and so was postponed till this spring, when they looked too dirty to ignore.

Each grill has to be removed with care; the plastic is old and small cracks have appeared around many of the screw holes. The screws for each fan need to be kept separate, since each model has different screws. The grills need to be scrubbed with a soft brush and soapy water to remove years of sticky dirt. This has to be done gently because the grills are quite fragile once removed from the fan's metal housing. Missing slats need to be replaced with wire or string to keep little hands away from the fan's whirling blades. The dirt needs to be wiped from each plastic fan blade and dust balls need to be removed from the copper coils of the fans' electric motors. Lastly, one fan needed a new handle. The plastic strap handles that came with the fans when they were new last for only a few years, and all three fans now have handles saved from our old window sashes.

During these chores there was plenty of time to wonder whether they were all worth the effort. It would be a lot easier to just set the old fans in the alley on garbage pickup day and run out for new ones. After all, they cost only about $20 on sale. And it would be easier to close the windows and turn on the air conditioning. The air conditioner at on one house in the neighborhood is already humming away.

But easier isn't necessarily better. Discarding the fans' plastic, metal, and electrical parts has environmental costs, and there are environmental costs to making replacement fans as well. Using air conditioning instead of fans and awnings requires far more electricity.

In this throw-away culture, we need to change how we regard our resources. During the Great Depression, rag men collected worn-out clothing. Old glass and metal were reused and little went to waste. For this writer, a vivid reminder of that era was watching grandpa peel potatoes so economically that the peelings were paper-thin. There was a lesson there, reminding this writer that we are all stewards of the natural resources we have been given.

However, good intentions are not enough to encourage serious conservation on a broad scale. Subsidies and price controls often encourage people to waste natural resources because they remove the economic consequences of such waste. Electric consumers need to pay the true costs of their electric use. California has learned that state-imposed price controls on retail electric rates encourage people to waste electricity even while blackouts roll across the state. New York City is learning (late!) that when apartment dwellers don't have their own separate electric meters, they do not conserve electricity even in the midst of well-publicized shortages.

Once the fans were cleaned and the awnings hung, this Saturday's musings led to the conclusion that both political extremes have it wrong. One advocates conservationist attitudes but also wants price controls on natural resources. The other promotes a free-market economy but condones casual consumption.

True conservation requires a different outlook. Individually, we need to change our throw-away attitudes. Collectively, we cannot afford price controls that subsidize excessive consumption.

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