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Sustainability, Part 3

I don’t mean to imply by anything I have written here that I am leading the life of Mr. Sustainable. Lately I find myself living alone in a house with far more floor space than I could justify. I wander from room to room enjoying the views from unnecessarily large windows. I think of a scene, not quite halfway through Dr. Zhivago, where the protagonist returns to Moscow from the Siberian Front to find that the family’s stately townhouse has been taken over by the Commissariat. A dowdy party functionary reprimands him: “Comrade, there was living space for 13 families in this one house.” “Yes,” Zhivago concedes. “This is a better arrangement, comrades. More just.” I would be very unhappy if my house were commandeered for the revolution. It is hard enough living with people you love, much less randomly appointed strangers.

On the green side of the ledger, I commute by foot to my upstairs office and rarely drive as much as 50 miles a week. I nurse along a 16-year-old vehicle and a 17-year-old refrigerator, doubting that the energy savings from more efficient models would offset the energy spent by mining iron, rolling steel, and manufacturing new machines.

I recycle with little confidence that it makes much difference. As my incandescent lights wink out I replace them with the weird curly-cue fluorescents, wondering about the implications of eventually disposing of bulbs each containing a speck of mercury. Is that worse than the mercury in the fish I buy? Life’s complexities are beyond analysis. We do what we can and then sink or swim together.

This house was built, as best as I can tell, over about 75 years, added onto again and again as the need arose. I think maybe it was two houses once, joined together at some point by a makeshift hallway. There are rooms made of adobe, rooms made of concrete block, rooms made of lumber — 2 by 6s in the newer part, 2 by 4’s in the rest. Despite the double-paned windows, the kitchen is cold in the winter. It exudes heat. How much energy/money would it take to make it more robust? How much does that matter in a world where the population increases exponentially — and whoever has the money is building a second home in Santa Fe?

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review