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California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA

On the Call To Conserve

April 22, 2001|PETER H. KING

One can make a day of any size,

and regulate the rising and setting

of his own sun and the brightness

of its shining.

--John Muir, 1875


And so this is Earth Day. Across the country, community events large and small will be staged to underscore environmental concerns and opportunities. In Manhattan, marchers will move from Times Square to the United Nations for a rally against global warming. In Tampa, Fla., there will be training for volunteer "frog listeners." Californians, too, have laid plans: a "bug walk" in Carmel Valley, a sunset drum circle in Fresno.

In this state, however, the customary Earth Day calls for conservation will carry an extra edge. If the dire forecasts prove true, a shortage of electricity in the next few months will force Californians either to cut back heavily on consumption or face an onslaught of rolling blackouts. This is not, we are told, a drill.

Gov. Gray Davis and other California politicians have begun sounding like little Winston Churchills, bracing the citizenry for a war of the megawatts. Here was Davis on television in early April, describing conservation as "our best short-term weapon" and concluding: "Friends, we have a power shortage, but we are far from powerless. We are 34 million strong and if each of us does our part, we can minimize disruption and get through the summer. We are Californians. We've withstood earthquakes, floods, fires and droughts."

And we will fight them at the light switch.

And we will fight them at the thermostat.

And we will fight them at the second fridge . . .


Davis and his conservation generals, however, face sizable obstacles as they attempt to persuade Californians to conserve. For openers, a significant portion of the populace still suspects that the energy crisis is artificial, the handiwork of suppliers who jacked up prices by holding back the juice at peak times. In the foxholes of conservation, cynics do not good soldiers make.

Even among those who don't buy conspiracy theories, confusion and disagreement over where to place blame persist. Democrats blame Republicans for crafting an unworkable deregulation plan. Republicans blame Democrats for mismanaging the subsequent crisis. Utilities blame out-of-state generators and California regulators. State regulators blame somnolent federal regulators, who blame environmentalists and consumers, and on and on. Rallying Californians would be much easier if there were a common enemy in the sights.

Moreover, there is the matter of leadership. It does not help the war cause when the commander in chief makes eloquent calls for sacrifice--and then flies off to the next fund-raiser. American politics has become the politics of transaction. To paraphrase a popular battle cry of this energy crisis, the prevailing mind-set among politicians has become: You give me a dollar, I give you a hot dog.

In this sense, the governor's offer to distribute rebates to Californians who use 20% less energy this summer, and his frequent emphasis on the financial savings to be gained through conservation, is telling. Davis, his Churchillian flourishes aside, apparently assumes most Californians behave like modern politicians, which is to say, they cannot be counted on to act purely for the common good. Instead, there must be a deal, a payment, a transaction. In this way of thinking, to call upon Californians to do a hard thing because it is, well, the right thing, would seem hopelessly old-fashioned, foolish.


And yet that is the best case for conservation. Forget, for now, about blame. Forget about rebates. For that matter, forget about rolling blackouts. The reason Californians ought to plunge into the conservation effort is that it is the proper thing to do--and not for a summer, but forever, and not just with electricity, but with water and land as well.

One of the many foul consequences of California's deregulation model was that it led utilities to become lackluster in their pursuit of what once had been model conservation programs. In a free market, those who sell energy will never be real keen on showing customers how to use less of it. If nothing else, the electricity shortage at least has reintroduced Californians to the idea of limits, to the notion of getting by with less. Why maybe, just maybe, a second refrigerator isn't the key to happiness, after all.

"There is a larger cause at stake here," S. David Freeman, freshly recruited from the L.A. Department of Water and Power to help lead the state conservation effort, said in an interview Friday. "What we have right now in California is a chance to show that this waste of resources is not essential to a happy life. If we can win this battle in California with conservation, it will send a message to Washington, D.C., that this country can get by without destroying itself to get more energy."

That is a battle worth fighting.

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