Perhaps I am dumb, but I had never connected flicking a switch to turn on the lights with increased asthma in children, higher levels of mercury in the Chesapeake Bay (and the need to stay away from eating too much fish), mountain top removal in West Virginia, and global warming. Over the past few weeks I have been working on a book project and had to look more closely at our use of energy as it relates to global warming. I never knew that the primary consumer of energy in the U.S., and the largest producer of greenhouse gases, is the electricity generation sector (39 percent of both). These amounts are then allocated to other economic sectors based on retail sales. I should not have been surprised to discover that we use more electricity in our homes than in any other area, including industry. Taking a step further, I found that 57 percent of the fuel my energy provider uses is coal – the most polluting of the types of fuel available in terms of greenhouse gas emissions – not only affecting global warming, but contributing to ground level ozone (air pollution). These plants also emit small particulate matter which can get into lungs, causing increased asthma and other lung disorders.
I’m not sure where my company’s coal comes from, but whether is from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or some other location, my use of electricity, as well as that of my friends and my church, are what drives the energy company to utilize this coal to produce the energy we demand. I grieve for the loss of mountain tops that change the appearance of the area where my mother was born; for the fact that some of the local people there no longer have clear drinking water because of the run off caused by coal extraction processes, that wildlife no longer has a home. I am sad that the fish in the Bay are sickening, that the climate is changing, that we have bad air days because of ozone, and that asthma rates are growing. I wonder why this area has such a high cancer rate. All these things seem out of my control. They are happening around me, generated by forces I cannot see or relate to. But then I turn on the television, the dishwasher, the air conditioner. I am part of the picture. What I do does affect how the mountains look in West Virginia. It may be a small part, but there is a definite connection.
Part of the solution is cleaning up power plant emissions; part may be in finding new fuels. But the part that I have the most control over, and responsibility for, is my own use of energy. Some suggest changing light bulbs, others using more energy efficient appliances, letting the sun and wind dry clothes outside, turning off computers and other equipment that have standby modes, and using electricity to keep tiny bulbs burning. It is, in fact, very empowering to understand that by a flick of a switch I can make a statement about how I care for the mountains of West Virginia. It may not be much of one, not sufficient for the need, but at least it is immediate and accessible to me, my friends, and everyone else as well.
Ginny Vroblesky is the former national coordinator of A Rocha USA.