California unplugged

Angelenos leave the grid behind and offer a look into the future.

It was the early 1970s, and Julia Russell was worried.

Everywhere she looked were serious environmental threats that nobody was doing much about. What kind of world, she wondered, would be left for her two young children?

Unlike many with similar concerns, however, Ms. Russell didn't wait for someone else to make things better.

"All our environmental problems can be traced to our modern urban lifestyle," says Russell, "and ... I began to experiment to see how to reduce or eliminate destructive processes and [the waste of] our natural resources."

Over the next three decades, as her finances permitted, she made improvement after improvement to the one piece of the environment she controlled: her own home, a modest 1911 California bungalow in Los Angeles's old, middle-class, Los Feliz neighborhood. That decision, says friend and former Los Angeles City Environmental Commissioner Ed Begley Jr., was significant because "it showed that the environment isn't just up in Yosemite.... It's right here in L.A.... Houses [today] are on life support with tubes coming in for gas, water, and electricity. The object is not to pull the plug, but to make them less dependent."

High on Russell's list were energy-conservation strategies. She insulated walls, floors, and ceilings, replaced some older single-glazed windows with dual-glazed models and applied heat-reflecting film to others to better control heat gain and loss. She added a solar-assisted hot-water system to reduce her use of natural gas.

Planting deciduous trees on the house's southern and western sides allowed her to regulate seasonal sun exposure.

Because "our food supply is totally dependent on cheap oil," she planted 28 fruit and nut trees - and a garden, which, year-round supplies a variety of vegetables worthy of a supermarket. Much of the irrigation is done with recycled water.

She chose energy-efficient appliances, compact fluorescent bulbs (saving up to 70 percent on her lighting costs), and installed a "light pipe" to bring sunlight from the roof to her kitchen - eliminating the daytime use of two light bulbs there.

Fifteen years ago, she got rid of her car, and has relied ever since on a trike and public transportation to do her errands.

Today, as California struggles to find adequate and affordable long-term supplies of electrical power amid the shambles of its failed deregulation scheme, one particular modification - two sets of solar photovoltaic cells, one with battery backup to ensure emergency lighting - seems particularly prescient.

From the beginning, she says, "I started to experience some wonderful benefits, but I also began to realize that if we're going to have a livable future, we're going to have to rethink, redesign, and rebuild the way we inhabit the earth.... That's what I'm doing here, and trying to encourage other people to do...."

As founder of the Eco Home Network, a nonprofit educational organization that assists people in creating a sustainable urban lifestyle for themselves, she has already had some success. The group currently claims a membership of some 600 in southern California alone.

Nevertheless, getting the word out has been a struggle. "It is not yet widely supported by society as a whole," Russell says.

The current energy crisis may help to change that; but whether that change will truly affect underlying values, come fast enough, and last if it does, remain open to question.

Getting the answers right may determine the entire future.

Some experts now fear that global warming and the exhaustion of nonrenewable fossil fuels used in power generation threaten economic dislocation and perhaps even ecological devastation on a planetary scale.

While Americans adapt quickly and well in a crisis, that's different from shifting established societal values, says Sheldon Kamieniecki, a specialist in environmental policy, chairman of the political science department at the University of Southern California, and founding director of USC's Environmental Studies program.

Consider, he suggests, the 1970s oil crunch. As gasoline supplies dwindled and prices rose, Americans embraced more fuel-efficient vehicles.

By the 1990s, shortages and gas lines were a distant memory, the public had gotten used to higher prices, and fuel-hungry SUVs were roaring off showroom floors.

The persistent fly in the behavioral ointment, Mr. Kamieniecki notes, is Americans' sense of entitlement, a belief that because we are the most powerful nation on earth, "everything should be affordable, especially if [like electrical power] it's a basic need."

Casey Coates Danson, founder of Global Possibilities, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to promoting solar energy in the United States, puts it more bluntly: "[Americans] are the pigs of the planet."

"If cars were the only problem, we could take care of it ... but ... buildings use two-thirds of the nation's energy supply. [This] produces between one-quarter and one-third of the emissions causing global climate change. [That] is such an environmental and economic threat that, if we don't do something, this planet is simply going to [tell us to] get off.... Changing the way we plan and build cities is one of the best things we can do.... We can [in this way] have the greatest impact in the shortest time...."

Ms. Danson, an environmental designer, has rebuilt her 5,000-square-foot home in the city's fashionable Mandeville Canyon area to use both solar photovoltaics and passive solar - making it one of the largest solar-powered private residences in L.A.

"Americans tend not to react to appeals," says Mr. Kamieniecki. "[We] will not change our behavior unless there is a clearly perceived incentive or disincentive.... [However, we] respond very well to price changes."

The near-certainty of steeply increasing long-term energy bills, unpredictable supply, and the decreasing cost of alternatives like solar power, therefore, may make a real difference.

Indeed, growing evidence suggests a broad response to the economic stimuli of the current energy crisis here has set in - high-efficiency light bulbs disappear from home-center shelves as fast as they're stocked, and the demand for retrofitted solar installations is literally going through the roof.

Other factors, too, may be combining to help California residents change their urban-environmental paradigm.

One, suggests Begley and others, is the gradual convergence of once-separate ecological, urban planning, conservation, community gardening, educational, and other movements at a time when there is growing unease with unbridled consumerism as the source of personal and social happiness.

"I think people are bottoming out on consumerism the way an alcoholic bottoms out on alcohol," says Begley, a dedicated environmentalist whose home is also solar-powered and whose preferred method of transportation is a bicycle. "Many people have found it something of a hollow victory to have all these things only to understand [the price] that comes with them."

"[Still,] I'm not going to live in a tepee in Topanga.... I have a fax machine and a computer. It's not about having stuff. It's about having enough stuff."

Another, is that urban environmentalists, like the residents of Los Angleles's Eco-Village, are no longer perceived as stereotypical techno-hermits, but as active community builders - leading by example not lecture.

Founded in 1992 to demonstrate "lower impact, higher quality living patterns within an urban setting" following the Rodney King verdict riots, L.A.'s Eco-Village comprises a two-block neighborhood centered on two, 1920s-era apartment buildings.

"The ecovillage," says founder and executive director Lois Arkin, "is designed to engage with the mainstream" not only locally, but nationally and internationally - to help developing countries avoid the excesses of "our unsustainable patterns."

"People have a vision of coming to America, not to Missoula Montana or Portland, Oregon, but to Los Angeles. That's what the media exports. To live the lifestyle of affluent Angelenos is not healthy for the planet or the future of our progeny," she says.

"This is definitely an example of 'think globally, act locally,' says Lara Morrison, who's lived in Eco-Village 2-1/2 years.

Ms. Morrison, a data manager for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, could easily afford something larger and more conventionally luxurious than the 400-square-foot apartment she now occupies.

Yet even though she grows many of her vegetables in the community garden, uses a minimal amount of lighting and a small high-efficiency refrigerator, wears sweaters rather than turning on the heat and owns neither a TV nor VCR, she is still "conscious most of the time how, even at my level, [my consumption of energy and resources] is way above most of the human beings on the planet."

For T.H. Culhane, a UCLA PhD candidate in international development, his Eco-Village apartment is an experiment in off-grid progress.

Unlike Morrison, he does have a television - powered by a pedal-driven generator. Everything else, including his electric guitar, is fed by his roof-top array of solar photovoltaics.

The former award-winning high school science teacher has also developed solar energy systems in Guatemala.

"What's the difference between a rain forest and urban Los Angeles?" he asks. "There isn't any .... It's human beings facing the issues of food, water, shelter, and warmth."

The city, however, needs a new, sustainable, cultural mythos, he says. "Inertia has to be overcome. It's like launching a rocket - you need a certain escape velocity. That's why I moved to Eco-Village, because it's working on constructing this new mythos."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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