There's really something for everyone, even those on the political fringes of the left and right, in Saul Griffith's energy plan.
Griffith -- an MIT-trained scientist, MacArthur genius grant recipient and serial entrepreneur whose ventures include a kite for extracting power from atmospheric winds -- is trying to get people to stop thinking about their personal energy consumption in terms of a carbon footprint and start thinking about it in terms of total power requirements, i.e., how many watts it takes to get them to and from work, raise the food they eat, and make their t-shirts. It's a more accurate measure, he argues, and the exercise itself naturally highlights ways in which one can curb individual energy consumption.
It's also somewhat alarming. Griffith performed a meticulous accounting of his own life in 2007 and discovered he lived an 18,000-watt lifestyle, more than six times above the global average of 2,400 watts. The average American needs 11,400 watts. Canadians have even a higher average.
"They use more because they are Americans that live somewhere colder," he said.
Which brings us to the taxes-and-Rolexes part of the equation. Cutting back won't be easy. It will take discipline, vigilance, innovation and sacrifice. But by making the right decisions, those of us living in industrialized nations can still have a decently high quality of life.
"The world we are entering is one of compromise, but you can still have a high quality of life on 2,500 watts," he said.
And to prove it, Griffith put himself on an energy consumption budget of 2,291 watts. That's less than half the European average (5,400 watts), but well more than the averages for South America (1580 watts) and Asia (1450 watts). (Qatar, by the way, is number-one in overall energy consumption, with nearly 30,000 watts, followed by a mishmash of smaller Middle Eastern, European and Caribbean nations. The U.S. ranks 10th overall.)
If you want to try to account for your own consumption, you can register at the website Wattzon.com and give the accounting software a whirl. Note: the watt figure is something of an average of the power you need daily after taking into your activities and smoothing it out over the year. An 18,000-watt lifestyle, in other words, would be the equivalent of keeping 180 100-watt bulbs on for a day, a week or whatever time period you want to measure.
"We now have 100,000 people doing this obsessive anal accounting thing," he noted.
Taxes are, jokingly, one of the first things that can go. Government infrastructure and defense comes to 174.5 watts of Griffith's 2007 total, although the total is probably in the thousands of watts--it's the one number notoriously tough to track. The clock even starts ticking before most people get out of bed because road construction is already underway. To cut energy consumption, citizens have to start to demand more responsible government. Under his new total, the goal is to drop it to 22 watts. Interestingly, government energy consumption seems to vary in proportion to income. Making less, arguably, could be a solution to this one, but demanding accountability is more palatable.
Cutting down on stuff is actually easier. In 2007, the embedded energy in the physical objects in Griffith's life -- socks, toilet paper, toothpaste, aluminum foil -- along with the transportation needed to deliver them came to 2,500 watts. The new goal is to get that down to 250 watts. The best, and maybe the only, way to do that is to buy one-tenth less stuff or to make sure your stuff lasts ten times as long.
"Everything in your life has to be a Rolex watch or a Mount Blanc Pen," he said. Not literally, but to have the same quality. It's free-market conspicuous consumption and lefty frugality joined hand in hand.
Food? Griffith is dropping it from 772 watts to 376 watts. Cutting back to eating meat and fish only once a week gets rid of close to 200 watts. Switching to mostly organic foods drops the energy required for fertilizer from 125 watts to 31 watts. Snack foods have to go, too. Drinking a single bottle of Glaceau Vitamin Water a day would gobble 90 watts when transportation, disposal and plastic are added in, or 4.5 percent of the day's energy budget.
In the future, he muses, Coca-Cola won't sell you canned soda, in part because of the cost of transporting all that heavy liquid; instead, Coke will sell consumers packets of sugar. The aluminum found in the 10 billion cans shipped to consumers can then instead be deployed to generate 200 gigawatts of solar thermal power.
But the big kahuna of daily energy consumption is still transportation. Plane travel accounted for 7,992 watts in Griffith's former 18,000-watt lifestyle, the result of 112,000 miles of air travel. Now it's 983 watts. That means one trip to the East Coast a year, one trip every three years to see the parents in Australia, one trip every five years to Europe and one every ten years to Hawaii to surf.
Driving? It's gone from 1,500 watts to 258. The reduction comes from cutting out things like trips to the in-laws (see, something for everyone in this plan), as well as switching to that thing you see in the picture: a three-wheeled electric trike. Electric transportation, unless you live in a real coal-heavy area like the Ukraine or Ohio, is cleaner. You're also not exposed to the chemical fumes from car interior plastics.
Over the long term, consumers could die from cancer caused by their car seats.
Then again, "I will probably die from inhaling the fumes from your car," he joked.
It's an interesting exercise. You might want to check it out.