The Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has said, “The epic of evolution is the best myth we will ever have.” Wilson joins a chorus of voices calling for us to reclaim our story, our 13.7 billion-year-old evolutionary and ecological identity. Spatially and temporally, humans don’t end or begin at our skin. We are woven into a vast and ancient web of relationship.
What if a community of people organized themselves around this unfolding myth? How would they impact their bioregion? How would their own lives be impacted? Six years ago, a group of people, varying in ages and backgrounds, met in a living room in Lawrence to find out. The gathering of 16 people decided to act on our understanding by reducing our collective carbon footprint. To narrow and focus our efforts, we set our sights on electricity usage. The resulting two-year energy reduction and awareness project we called “Lighten Up.”
With some initial quakes and flutters, we committed to forwarding our monthly Westar numbers for the previous 12 months and each month to follow to a member good with statistics. We agreed this wouldn’t be about guilt or competition, but we also knew changing light bulbs wouldn’t be enough. We would need to make some substantial changes if we wanted to achieve meaningful reductions, such as changing our views on air-conditioning. We collectively made this commitment on the cusp of the hothouse swelter of summer. Should we lose our nerve, we needed only to look at the long trains of coal daily rumbling to the power plant belching at the city’s edge. We needed only to remember a 10-year-old among us who volunteered to read his bedtime books by candlelight.
This isn’t the kind of experiment you want to undertake alone. For instance everyone had a vested interest in one member’s research about airflow. We learned which windows to open depending on sun position and wind strength and direction, when to turn on a window fan and when to leave it off. We found that fans can be just as effective at cooling a room as an A/C window unit. We all said farewell to another fiercely held myth about air-conditioning when we discovered new research that proved even on the hottest of days, leaving it on all day consumes more energy than turning it off when you aren’t home and turning it on when you return. To our manifest surprise, it doesn’t take that long for a warm house to cool down again once you do turn the A/C on. Yes, it was stultifying some nights, but we all knew that in a few days, it would be bearable again. Pre-meeting potlucks often focused on the weather. Like farmers, we stood in small circles speculating about fronts. We communally rejoiced when they blew in, purple and green with rain, breaking our fever.
For many of us, the experiment had everything to do with the frugality. None of us is wealthy by any means. We picked the low-hanging fruit of energy reduction measures like installing weather stripping and programmable thermostats and hanging our clothes on lines inside in winter and outside in the summer. (For a complete list of energy-saving activities, e-mail the author.)
In the end, consensus was that “Lighten Up” had been far less painful than any of us had imagined. Collectively, we had reduced our consumption by 25 percent. We had survived — thrived, even. Having considered our impact from our individual strands of the web of our bioregion, we felt better attuned to vibrations from others woven into it as well.