(The following editorial first appeared in the March 1994 editorial issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Thirty-five others, on a wide range of topics, are collected in the 2002 Tor book Which Way to the Future? A different one (usually one not available in the book) will be posted here a few times a year. And, of course, brand-new ones appear in each issue of Analog.)
It's been said that a fish could never discover water. Being perpetually and completely surrounded by the stuff, the hypothesis goes, it would only be aware of things that were different from water.
Like any simile or metaphor, of course, it isn't perfect. Fish are very sensitive to differences and changes in water, such as currents, pressure differentials, and the faint taste that a salmon follows upstream to its own natal headwaters for spawning. Presumably a smart enough fish could infer the existence of the medium itself from such things, much as humans discovered air by the observation of things like winds.
Still, there is a certain amount of truth in the saying. It is easy not to notice things you've always been surrounded by. So it is that the inhabitants of most human cultures regard their own ways, no matter how peculiar they might seem to outsiders, as Universal Human Nature. And so it is that when people go looking for ways to conserve resources and reduce pollution, they can easily overlook things that could make sizable contributions, simply because the habits are so widespread and deeply ingrained that it never occurs to anyone to consider changing them.
One example I mentioned earlier in these pages was the matter of shopping bags ("Bag Limit," August 1990). Americans had become so accustomed to having the store provide a new, disposable bag every time they bought anything that it took them a long time to suspect even dimly that the difference between plastic and paper was trivial compared to the difference between disposable and reusable.
No doubt there are still many such changes that individuals could make in their habits to help conservation efforts. But there are also a good many things done by big wasters and polluters that hardly ever even get mentioned. Yet when you think about them, they seem so obvious that you're likely to wonder why nobody has been making loud demands that they be changed.
For instance, has it ever occurred to youperhaps while being exhorted yet again to set your thermostat still lower in winter or higher in summerthat these days most business and public buildings are drastically overheated in winter and overcooled in summer? Quite possibly notnot because it isn't true, but because you've been so conditioned to taking offsetting measures that you don't even notice the irony of routinely doing things that are completely at cross purposes.
A highly air-conditioned building may not be uncomfortable if you're wearing a couple of layers of shirt and a jacket and tie. But those things will surely be uncomfortable outdoors on any normal summer day in New York or Washington or Cincinnati. Therefore it's not uncommon to see business commuters in such places carry a suit coat to a car or train, put it on when they reach the office, and take it back off when they leave.
Thermodynamically, this makes no sense whatsoever. The rational thing to do, for those places that still think they need dress codes, would be to change the dress codes to encourage attire that makes sense outdoors, and reduce the air-conditioning level so it would be comfortable indoors, too. Since we're talking about large numbers of big buildings, equivalent in their energy usage to many private homes, the immediate result would be a substantial saving in energy use. A side effect would be an increase in employee comfort and morale, which could very well translate into a fringe benefit of increased productivity. I realize that many managers think that any relaxation of dress codes would somehow lead to a decrease in productivity, but I've never seen any convincing evidence that it would. Who has done the experiment? Who is likely to?
Heating and cooling are some of the heaviest energy users among normal human activities. Anything that can be done to reduce the need for them is likely to be a worthwhile contributor to reducing resource use and air pollution. Another that may come to mind is a corollary of the one above. Grocery stores are particularly bad offenders when it comes to overcooling. Many kinds of food need to be kept cold; customers and employees don't. So why are refrigerator and freezer cases so often wide open?
Sure, it's convenient for lazy customersbut unnecessary, wasteful, uncomfortable, and in at least some cases, unhealthy. I once knew a young man who literally couldn't work in the frozen foods section of a supermarket because he got sick every time he tried. He would have had no problem if the freezers had had sliding doors, to be opened only for putting things in or taking them out. The customers would have been only trivially inconvenienced, and might even have benefitted from reduced prices if the stores were honest enough to pass on some of the savings in their electric bills. (I've been pleased to notice recently that some stores have started putting doors on their freezers, but there's still plenty of room for improvement.)
The question of overheating or overcooling people in their workplaces raises an even more fundamental question: how many of those people even need to be going to work? This, of course, also bears heavily on the question of how to reduce petroleum use and air pollution from cars. Obviously most people need to work, but how many of them really have to go to a centralized location to do it?
A significant number of employers and employees are already finding that a good many jobs can be done, in part if not entirely, at home. (One recent survey I saw claimed that approximately a third of Americans are now working at least partly at home.) If that number increases, as it can and probably will, the mere fact of "keeping them off the streets" should dramatically reduce both car use and the need to heat or cool huge buildings. As I write this, the governor of New York has just signed legislation requiring employers to reduce car use by their employees, by such means as aggressively encouraging carpooling. Carpooling would help, but if nobody in a potential carpool has to drive, that will help even more.
Some jobs, of course, do need to be done in central locations with special equipment. Much manufacturing fits this description. But one sometimes wonders how much energy and material might be saved if manufacturers were closer to sources. Admittedly one of the great virtues of technological civilization is that it makes it possible for a person with an idea in place A to implement it with materials from place B and sell it in place C. But is it really necessary for a breakfast roll made with oranges from Florida and eaten in New York to be baked in Minnesota, with some or all of the product being trucked all over half the country? Or for chocolate to come from South America via Switzerland or Belgium?
I also see a great deal of unnecessary and wasteful duplication of services and information. My local newspaper, which often carries feature articles about How We Must Conserve, Economize, and Clean Up, often delivers two or three copies each of several of the advertising fliers in its Sunday edition. I've never seen any sign that anyone on the staff is conscious of the irony in this. But it doesn't stop there: the same paper also publishes a special advertising-only paper (ironically titled Moneysaver) that carries still more copies of the same fliers and is delivered "free" to everybody in the area, whether they want it or not!
A recent news story announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will now require all packages of raw and partially cooked meat and poultry products to carry instructions for safe handling and preparation to minimize bacterial risks. The article included the text of the required labeling; it amounts to a lengthy paragraph. Certainly this is information anyone cooking the stuff should have; but is it really necessary to duplicate it, wasting paper, energy, and ink, on every single package sold? It is not specific to any particular brand; it is general principles, already available in lots of places, including cookbooks and frequent feature articles in newspapers and magazines. If people are too stupid to learn it and act on it, it is not government's job to keep hitting them over the head with it, and it probably won't do any good, anyway. Yes, I do remember what it's like to be a beginning cook. I also remember considering it my own responsibility, and no one else's, to learn how to do it right.
That observation brings us back to actions individuals can takebut sometimes those actions depend on the availability of suitable equipment that will never be widely used unless companies manufacture it. Consider, for example, the frequent advice to run water only when you're actually using it during dishwashing, shaving, or toothbrushing. Makes sense, but if you try turning off the water every time you don't actually need it running, you'll probably find that quite a bit runs during the times your hand moves back and forth between the faucet handle(s) and what you're working on. So why should you have to use the faucet handle to turn the water on and off? Where is the obvious solution: handles used only to adjust temperature, with a pedal to start and stop flow no matter how wet, dirty, and/or busy your hands are?
Just a few examples of things businesses could be doing to help conserve and clean up. They may sound obvious when they're pointed out, but chances are you've seldom heard them mentioned before. But I suspect that if people do start thinking about them, the "little guy" is going to be less and less inclined to go any farther until the "big guys" start doing their part!