The evolutionary path to sustainability

Things evolve. From microscopic bacteria and viruses like COVID to the dinosaurs now fluttering at our bird feeders for some sunflower seeds, we are all products of hundreds of millions of years of genetic adaptation and change.  None of us today is what our species once was.

In college I had the chance to hold a stone, Acheulean hand ax that was approximately five hundred thousand years old. It had been fashioned by an ancestor of the Homo Erectus type, a creature I had thought of as primitive.  Well made, handsome to look at, I was amazed to find how naturally and comfortably it fit my hand.  But when I shifted it to my left hand it’s real sophistication made my jaw drop. There it felt awkward and uncomfortable; clearly, it had been made to fit a right hander; so much for primitive. An admirable tool, I’m sure it helped ensure our eventual place on the world stage.

We, too, have the capacity to adapt and evolve. This is the story of our journey.

Out of climate concern, we began reducing our dependence on fossil fuels over four years ago with the purchase of an older plug-in hybrid that got us back and forth to town under battery power. For longer trips, say over 45 miles, the Volt’s gasoline engine kicked in. We fell in love with it immediately; a very smooth, quiet, trouble free, electric ride for most of our driving. Not only had we cut our transportation carbon footprint in half, but we were saving a lot of money at the gas pump and repair shop. Our first evolutionary step on the path away from fossil fuels encouraged us to keep going.

We soon began to think about solar panels. Driving on sunshine sounded great, and so we contacted the good folks at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association in Custer. Each year they manage a Group Buy program with a refund that grows based on the number of folks who go solar that year. The more the merrier! Their contracted installer, Northwind Solar, told us we’d also get a hefty rebate from our Rural Electric Co-op and a tax refund. After all was said and done, we went solar to the tune of around $9,000. Our carbon footprint shrank some more.

I know some folks will balk, “It just wouldn’t pay for us to do that.” Take out your electric bill and calculate your monthly average, let’s say $100. That’s $1200 per year. Over the next thirty years (about the life of our panels) you’re shelling out $36,000. All of a sudden our $9,000 business investment looks pretty good. With solar on our roof we are now our own utility company. And if we don’t use all our  electricity, the grid utility buys that excess. Sweet! We like being solar entrepreneurs. Now that’s some real evolution!

We practice load shifting. All that means is we try to use lots of electricity during the day when we’re making it. So we decided to get rid of the gas powered, push lawnmower and bought a rechargeable electric one. Much quieter and lighter, and by the time it runs out of battery I’ve pretty much run out of steam. Time for a recharge break. Sometimes evolution puts you in a lawn chair under a shade tree sipping an ice cold lemonade.

A year and a half ago, we went all electric with a Chevy Bolt. Now we can visit family up north and in Michigan’s upper peninsula without burning a drop of gas. One of our sons bought the old Volt, and one of my brothers bought a newer one this year. With the price of gasoline, both feel pretty smug.  I guess families can evolve too.

I’ve been heating with wood since 1975, and love it. But as my body ages I can already tell that my days of making firewood are numbered. To keep our carbon footprint small as we scale back, instead of burning L.P. we decided on an air source heat pump which, you guessed it, runs on electricity and which we can often power with our solar panels.

When you add up gasoline savings we’re saving a lot of money with our solar panels. Add in the lawnmower gas, the L.P. savings and the usual household electricity and the savings really add up. Plus we are told the sales value of our house has gone up because of the panels. We’re thumbs up on that too.

Before you say no to solar, think about the evolutionary possibilities. Like the Acheulean hand ax, our fossil fuels and the “infernal” combustion engine belong on a museum shelf. For our children’s sake, and for all the living things on Earth, we need to prioritize sustainability in the decisions we make.

Even if one doesn’t believe in climate change there are plenty of good reasons to make sustainability a priority. Given the damage fossil fuel pollution does to our health — not to mention the steady assault on earth’s uniquely fertile environment from yet another oil spill — to truly be pro-life we must truly and unrelentingly be pro environment.

So, here’s to good, old Mr. Darwin. May humanity’s evolutionary journey toward a livable planet powered by the sun and the wind rocket on at warp speed. The only real roadblocks are personal choice and political will. Let our legislators know the age of sustainability has arrived and we want action now.  If they won’t listen, vote for someone who will.