Nearly every person I know would answer: “Yes,” if asked if they are concerned about the environment.  Some even embrace the title: “environmentalist.” But beyond an occasional financial contribution and the use of reusable shopping bags when they remember to take them from the car, how many actually DO something about it?  The post below contains no nuance.  The resulting screed will strike some readers as self-righteous.  They may even conclude it is hectoring or a claim to be “holier than thou.”  It’s all those things, and more.   It is a call to action!


          A beautiful moon lit my recent evening walk.  Low in the sky, it was a full, stunning ball of crimson.   To quote Procol Harum (why not?) the moon is usually a whiter shade of pale.  “Why is it red?” I wondered, alarmed, before I remembered the news:  western wildfires were so massive their smoke was affecting the air (and air quality) in North Carolina, thousands of miles away.  Alarming indeed.  The earth is in an emergency, and we mostly stand by and watch.  But what can we do?

     Well, I’ve “done” a few things and believe everyone else should, too.  

 I acknowledge not everyone is financially able to implement all the actions called for below.  Others, though financially able, live in circumstances, such as rentals, which make significant personal actions impossible.  One can only ask them to do what they can.


     Of course, an individual cannot make a meaningful difference in healing the earth.  It requires full government, corporate, and systemic responses to achieve real progress.  But, just as indoor smoking became socially unacceptable over a fifty-year period, it’s possible for long-held perceptions to shift if enough individuals alter their behaviors.  Can that apply to single-occupancy automobile commuters?  To business travelers in the age of Zoom?  To purveyors and users of single-use plastics?  I hope so.  If enough individuals change their actions and advocate for others to do so, perhaps the politicians will be sufficiently prodded to act boldly.  Likewise corporations.


     The largest expenditures in my personal efforts surround electricity, namely:  solar panels and cars.   We first installed solar panels on our house in Chapel Hill in 2011.  The out-of-pocket expenditure was large, about $19,000, but tax incentives then brought the final cost down to $4,200.  Saving about $700 a year on electric bills, the “payback” was conceivable in six years.  But that’s not why I did it!  I did it to deny revenue to our rapacious utility, Duke Power, and to shift a portion of our electric consumption away from the then-dominant source of electricity in NC, coal.  

     In the decade since, solar panels have become fifty percent more efficient.  We bought a new townhome in Durham in 2016 and installed an array immediately and doubled its size in 2021 to nearly wipe out our electric bill, which includes our heat!  Due to the expiration of state incentives the cost of installation had risen since 2011, but… again, recouping the investment is not why we did this.  My contention is: IF AN EXPENDITURE IS NOT SO LARGE AS TO AFFECT ONE’S LIFESTYLE IN ANY WAY, IT DOESN’T MATTER IF YOU “MAKE” MONEY OR NOT. Having said that, I’m confident (and studies have shown) the market value of my home increased as a result of my miniscule utility bills.  So, in this instance, over time, I will have done the right thing and will likely profit from doing so, eventually.


     Depending on how one sees an obsession with environmental issues, credit or blame for mine falls on Friends’ Central School, where I graduated from high school in 1974.  To my recollection, the school didn’t do too much in that regard beyond establishing a paper recycling program, but that was enough to get me involved.   My family still received two newspapers a day, and it struck me wrong to throw so much wood pulp in the trash.  My parents were bemused at first, but ultimately cooperated in placing the finished papers in a box that was periodically loaded into our car and dropped off at the school’s receptacle.  My father was also an early believer in breaking down and separating cardboard boxes at his clothing store, like we all do now with Amazon’s debris, though I suspect his motivation was more space saving than environmental.  The boxes surely ended up in a landfill in those days, but at least I gained sensitivity to the waste involved and its stunning volume.


     My next two efforts to “put my money where my mouth was” involved buying hybrid cars.  In 2007, the Nissan Altima cost about $5,000 more than the non-hybrid, and the salesman didn’t even know how to operate its mysterious, silent ignition.  But I enjoyed that car – quiet and efficient and delivering twice the mileage I was accustomed to, around 37 MPG.  After backsliding to a couple of non-hybrid cars that only managed 32-35 MPG, and feeling bad about it, in 2020 I bought a Honda Insight, another hybrid.  By then, the cost premium was only about $2,000 and the quiet car gets about 50 MPG.  Very satisfying.  But nothing to compare to this year’s acquisition, a Ford Mustang Mach-E, hereinafter, “MME.”

     Ford announced the availability of the all-electric MME around December 1, 2019.  At that time, President Con-Man was suing the State of California over its mileage standards because they were stricter than Federal standards.  Several automakers joined orange menace in his concerted effort to destroy the earth, but Ford supported California, as did Honda and Volvo.  For me, this decision was the perfect intersection of environmental concern with politics.  Accordingly, I was among the first to order an MME at about 9:05 a.m. that day.

     The order was “sight unseen,” of course, because the car was not much more than a concept at the time – some drawings on a website.  There was also some pushback on the home front.  My wife, Katie, so supportive of my earlier environmental efforts, was skeptical of this one.  Among her comments were the following:  “We’re not Mustang people.”  “We’re not car people.”  “We’ll look ridiculous in a car designed for teenagers.”  “Buying a first edition car is fraught with potential problems.”  “Buying a Ford is fraught with potential problems (recalling the Thunderbird I had in the 90’s that required its own mechanic, and the minivan that won us a Lemon Law settlement).”  

     For the next fifteen months, while Ford delayed delivery schedule several times, Katie asked if I wouldn’t like to just retrieve the $500 deposit and wait for a full slate of well-developed electric cars to reach market in the next few years.  Her point was fully rational, particularly when some of the completed MME’s were recalled to the factory in Mexico before even being delivered to dealerships.  Ford’s email, announcing yet another delay, said they’d identified technical glitches.  They “wanted to make extra, extra sure the car would be fully functional.”  There was some skepticism in this household.  Still, I stayed the course, and on a gloomy, drizzly February day, the local dealership called us to pick up our MME.


     It is said there is no one more fervent than the converted.  From first sight, I’ve had to vie with Katie each day as to who gets to drive the MME. The car is sleek, spacious, silent and powerful, and in ten months, of course, has never visited a gas station.  Strangers photograph it at red lights and open their windows to ask about it.  It’s been a conversation starter at every public parking lot.  There is absolutely NO sacrifice involved in this particular environmental effort unless one considers having fun to be a sacrifice.

     The only aggravation around the MME is people’s tendency to ask, with a mixture of fear and schadenfreude:  “What’s the range?” and “How hard is it to charge?”  I answer patiently that it is about 270 miles for a full charge.  But what I really want to say is:  “How often do you drive more than 200 miles in a day?”  We charge the car in our garage for one-fifth the price of gasoline whenever we choose, with no inconvenience at all.  Public charging, which is admittedly a bit of a morass, is relevant only on that occasional (Every two months?  Every three months?  Almost never?) 200 mile day.  Even then, if we are feeling anxious about finding a charge, or the time that charging requires, we can drive the Honda instead.

     As to both solar panels and electric cars, there are those who say:  “I’m going to wait because the technology is still developing and it will be ‘better’ or ‘cheaper’ or ‘more efficient’ in a couple of years.”  Baloney!  That can be said of every new technology, always.  Come on, people!  Early adaptors are necessary to create the market that, in turn, will speed those developments.  If you can afford to do so, TAKE THE PLUNGE.


     There are a host of additional lifestyle practices we’ve tried to introduce in our lives, some of more consequence than others, namely:  to always bring reusable bags when shopping; to only run the dishwasher when reasonably full, not daily as a matter of habit; to lower the heating and cooling at home; to divest fossil fuel-related investments; to refuse the plastic straws and utensils offered at restaurants; to run the laundry only when reasonably full, especially the DRYER, which is the worst energy hog in the house.  I’ve even dried clothes outside when the weather has cooperated.  It takes some time and runs contrary to the spirit of all those 1950’s housewives whose dream was to obtain their first dryer – I can only imagine my own mother’s shocked reaction if she saw me placing clothes on a drying tree – appalled or amused, I’m not sure.  But this is a win-win-win-win-win, since one saves energy, money, wear-and-tear on the clothes and the dryer, and the clothes smell terrific.

     Finally, there is an action that pays immediate, tangible dividends:  composting.  We’ve failed several at-home composting efforts, since the will to run garbage outside to a bin inevitably fails after a week or two.  But again, since we are fortunate enough to be able to afford it, we have engaged a composting company to pick up our scraps in a separate bin weekly.  Since we began, our contribution to the landfill has dropped by over fifty percent, and our trash does not smell!  Separating the compostibles takes a few moments after each meal, but we only need to put our the trashcan out about every third week.  And periodically, when our composting total reaches 160 pounds, the company delivers a forty-pound bag of beautiful, rich compost for us to use in the garden.  Anther win-win.

Sorry to have lectured, dear readers, but I warned you right up front. Most Americans over the age of forty and some people younger than that have lived their rich, materialistic existences without any awareness of the consequences to the earth. Many will continue to do so without any concern. For those of us who do care deeply, there is a tendency to feel hopeless and powerless in the face of such a huge problem. It’s time for that to change. Wastefulness needs to become socially unacceptable. Actually doing something will be better for the earth, our descendants and, I am confident, for our spirits.