My dad, raised in the Depression among parsimonious New England folk, was an early adopter of energy conservation. Hardly a day would pass in autumn, winter, or spring without him remarking "Close that door! We're not trying to heat all outdoors!". Lights left on in unoccupied rooms met with similar admonitions. Nobody touched the thermostat. Put on one of your many sweaters. Better yet, get off your butt and do some chores; that will get your circulation going. When I complained about practicing the piano in the cold basement, he rigged up an infra-red lamp over the keyboard.

There was little need to buy new stuff, when the basement and attic were filled with all manner of items just sitting there. Figure out some way to use those. As a design engineer, my dad was adept at re-engineering and repurposing things, which enabled him to avoid throwing out those scraps of plywood or old hinges or countless other gizmos, doodads, and items made obsolete in the rest of the universe. Supplementing our existing inventory with a few items from the Edmund Scientific catalog enabled us to build our own microscope and many other amazing things for minimal cost and maximum delight.

Our house, set back from the road in the woods, was always dark, always cold. My dad and I were both prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, and to this day, the month of November still finds me feeling a sense of disproportionate melancholy and dread... even though I now reside in the sunny Lone Star State. I welcome these moments of seasonal biochemical angst, though, because they bring my dad back to me, connecting us across time and space and death.

My dad launched me on my scientific career by honing my critical thinking abilities. Our modest suburban life provided a smorgasbord of brain food. Long before anyone was thinking about sustainability, greenhouse gases, or carbon footprints, my dad was obsessed with concerns about the environment, and our impacts upon it. He invented gadgets to minimize water flow in our one-and-only house toilet (although it now meant flushing it more than once to... you know) and shower heads. He built his own ductwork to enable our single window air conditioner to cool the living room and bedroom (and even then, ran the air conditioner so sparingly that it lasted for over 30 years).

The lessons ingrained in me in that chilly and dark house have stayed with me. I still feel twinges of guilt when I add hot water to my bathtub... although in my recently-built house in North Carolina, I've installed a tub that has a heating element in the circulation system. I've also gone a bit overboard with the number and variety of lighting fixtures... although nearly all are equipped with energy-saving fluorescents or LED fixtures. My new home is a little bigger than it needs to be... but features a state-of-the-art HVAC system that exceeds the energy efficiency of my existing Energy Star Rated house in Texas. We'll be installing solar roofing shingles when they become commercially available, so we'll be providing power back to the grid.

We'll be driving there in a hybrid vehicle in a few weeks. It would be easy to feel a bit smug about that, but here's where it gets complicated: a hybrid vehicle has two engine systems, which increases the environmental impact at the manufacturing stage. It's made overseas, and shipped to the US. Uh, oh... big carbon footprint for that.

In fact, nearly every decision we're making over the holiday season is fraught with environmental paradoxes. I love sending out holiday cards in the mail rather than sending carbon-footprint-less e-greetings. To assuage my guilt, I buy my cards from the Arbor Day Foundation. In addition to being printed on recycled paper, each card carries the message:

"In celebration of the holidays and beyond, a tree is being planted in your honor in a National Forest."
Next order of business: Christmas gifts for those family members who have not yet signed the "just charitable donations if you have to give anything" pledge. I can reduce my carbon footprint here by ordering on-line gifts but... Oh, crap. They'll need to be shipped, so whatever I save in terms of impact by not driving to the mall, there's the impact of shipping my gift, maybe around the world, from point of manufacture to some warehouse to my house and then to the recipient's house. Maybe this is why gift cards are so popular - you can send them electronically, and let the recipient create the impact at their end of the transaction.

Wrapping paper? Yeah, that's kind of a waste. I've managed to find recycled wrapping paper, and I use that, under the possible specious premise that buying "recycled" helps create and maintain a market for recycled materials. For people I'm seeing in person, I use my reusable cloth gift bags. Whatever helps you sleep at night... but that's just it. I can't sleep at night.

If I decorate my front door with a cheery artificial wreath from China, and set up my artificial tree with its embedded lights (saving the world from extensive profanity associated with stringing lights the old way) that's better than cutting down trees every year, right? But what's the carbon footprint of manufacturing and shipping the stuff from China? What's being dumped into the air and water and bodies of the workers at the plant in China?  (Not to mention what heavy metals might be disposed of by embedding them in the wreath...)

I content myself with the thought that I've at least made some efforts, and that - more importantly - I am on a continuing quest to figure out how to do better. Sometimes, though, I feel that I'll never meet my dad's lofty rolling expectations for me, no matter how hard I try. He was a perfectionist, quick to point out that "you missed a spot" when washing the car; always raising the bar whenever I managed to meet expectations.

Then I remember what he told me years ago when I was explaining why I was divorcing my first husband after nearly 20 years of marriage. As I went through my too-detailed iteration of what transpired, how I had tried to resolve our issues, and how I was unable to do so, he cut me off in mid-sentence saying:

"You don't need to explain any of this to me. I know how hard you've tried. Everyone knows how hard you've tried. It's okay."

Originally posted to cassandracarolina's fossil record on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 08:14 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


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