[Ccpg] Article form CSMomitor on LA Ecovillage and desiging the landscape and home to effect energy use
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Thu Feb 22 10:31:32 PST 2001
Angelenos leave the grid behind and offer a look into the future.
By James Blair
Special to The Christian Science Monitor
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
Over the next three
decades, as her finances
permitted, she made
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
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
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
Consider, he suggests, the 1970s oil crunch. As gasoline
supplies dwindled and prices rose, Americans embraced more
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]
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
"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
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
"[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
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
For further information:
Power and the people Salon
California energy crisis SanFrancisco Bay Guardian
Electricity Deregulation: The Issue Center for Responsive
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