Al Gore’s House

 A reader o’ the blog sent an item that’s been floating around the Web for a few years.

The header is: “Look over the descriptions of the following two houses and see if you can tell which belongs to an environmentalist.”

It continues: “House #1: A 20 room mansion (not including 8 bathrooms) heated by natural gas. Add on a pool (and a pool house) and a separate guest house, all heated by gas. In one month this residence consumes more energy than the average American household does in a year. The average bill for electricity and natural gas runs over $2400 per month. In natural gas alone, this property consumes more than 20 times the national average for an American home. This house is not situated in a Northern or Midwestern ‘snow belt’ area. It’s in the South.

“House #2: Designed by an architecture professor at a leading national university. This house incorporates every ‘green’ feature current home construction can provide. The house is 4,000 square feet (4 bedrooms) and is nestled on a high prairie in the American southwest. A central closet in the house holds geothermal heat-pumps drawing ground water through pipes sunk 300 feet into the ground.

“The water (usually 67 degrees F) heats the house in the winter and cools it in the summer. The system uses no fossil fuels such as oil or natural gas and it consumes one-quarter electricity required for a conventional heating/cooling system. Rainwater from the roof is collected and funneled into a 25,000 gallon underground cistern. Wastewater from showers, sinks and toilets goes into underground purifying tanks and then into the cistern. The collected water then irrigates the land surrounding the house. Surrounding flowers and shrubs native to the area enable the property to blend into the surrounding rural landscape.”

The big shocker is supposed to be that Goofus House belongs to Al Gore, the Gallant Abode to George W. Bush. (The facts are Snopes.com-verified: www.snopes.com/politics/bush/house.asp.)

Still, I found the juxtaposition worse than useless. (So Bush is an environmentalist now?) Here is a lightly edited version of what I wrote my correspondent:

 

One of the things I’ve been emphasizing in my environmental writing is how focusing on what individual people do is not only irrelevant to the cause, it’s actually harmful. (See the blog post “The Individualist Fallacy,” http://billodriscoll.com/?p=36.)

OK: Boo for Al Gore here and good for George Bush. But apparently this is meant as a parable of some sort. I imagine it’s supposed to be about hypocrisy. If so, I’d rather a hypocrite like Gore, who perhaps lives wastefully but has done more than anyone to warn us about global climate change, the single biggest challenge facing humanity.

Bush is certainly the worse sort of hypocrite. For reasons unknown, he chose to build a house that’s perhaps as low-impact as a large modern house can be. But while he was PRESIDENT, and had a chance to actually change the way we relate to the environment on a large scale, he did everything in his power to make that relationship worse.

Maybe this story makes Gore less credible when he tells us to install compact-flourescent light bulbs. But it doesn’t change physics, or biochemistry. Even if Gore’s a hypocrite, his message is accurate: The longer we wait to lessen our impact on the planet, the harsher is going to be the planet’s impact on us.

If, when Bush were president, he had built a house whose walls consisted of pure flame from burning petroleum he personally drilled from beneath the feet of endangered polar-bear cubs, I wouldn’t have minded (much), as long as his policies had led the nation as a whole even a little of the way toward lower energy consumption, renewable energy and habitat conservation.

Instead, Bush (even after admitting “America is addicted to oil”) made life easier for oil and coal companies. It was on his watch, for instance, that coal companies accelerated the practice of mountaintop-removal mining, which has already leveled hundreds of peaks in Appalachia, including the destruction of irreplaceable plant and animal habitat, and dumped the debris in thousands of miles of streams, ruining some more habitat – not to mention all the water supplies it’s poisoned.

On the other hand, if Al Gore lived in cobb house powered by moonbeams, I wouldn’t be nearly so impressed as by the fact that he took the time to patiently explain the science and the stakes of global warming in a cogent way most people had never heard before. Perhaps one day we’ll even act on that message.

Still, I’m not as concerned with whatever snarky political point this anecdote seeks to make as I am with how the anecdote’s very existence reflects a larger flaw in our culture.

I know people who live much more low-impact than Bush could ever hope to, including two off-the-grid households in western North Carolina. (Off-the-grid means they’re not hooked up to any gas, electric or water lines, and handle these needs on-site with renewable resources.)

But while it’s certainly laudable for individuals to change their behavior to lessen their environmental impact, putting the planet’s health at the mercy of a competition between individual households is a lousy idea.

For one, if it’s a game, most people aren’t even playing. It’s simply more convenient not to.

And even if more of them were playing, voluntary measures – changes in behavior people find convenient – will never amount to much on a large scale. I bike, walk or take the bus most places I go, but even if a few million people undertook that level of voluntary commitment – itself a long shot – it would barely affect fuel consumption.

Meanwhile, it’s very convenient for oil and coal companies, and polluters of all stripes, for people to see environmental problems as simply a matter of individual initative, even nothing more than “consumer choice.”

Meanwhile, the arrogation of the title of “environmentalist” only to those who can afford custom-designed homes like Bush’s makes greening one’s life seem impossibly expensive.

The corporations know that if those are the rules of the game, their bottom lines are safe indefinitely, no matter how much of nature we destroy.

Right now, oil and coal and gas seem cheap, because we pay for only the cost of mining and processing and transporting them – not for the damage they do to the air, land and water, to people and plants and wildlife.

What’s needed is structural change of the economy so that the prices of those things do reflect the damage using them causes, from the moment we dig in the earth to the moment we burn those dead dinosaurs.

Such a change is the only way enough people can be nudged to reduce their consumption by enough to really make a difference.

My correspondent replied, in part, that Bush was still “setting a good example.” Yeah, we’ll wait for that to kick in.

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