Does it occur to you that there is any one article in which we can retrench?*

Retrenchment is what aristocrats did when they could no longer afford their decadent lifestyles, when they couldn’t squeeze another drop out of their tenants, when it was looking like the creditors would be coming for the heirloom silver. They’d rent out the mansion, complete with servants and coaches, and retreat with the family and minimal staff to the little country place, where they would take apart their old dresses and remake them with new patterns, adding a new ribbon or two here and there.

Austerity measures. That’s what we call it today. Governments, companies, and heads of households impose them all the time. The move is always motivated by money, because that’s where it hurts.

The problem is, the entire industrialized world is living way too large and it needs to retrench now—right now—not to save money, but to save the planet.

But nobody’s hurting enough yet to go austere.

From what I can tell, the “one article in which” Americans have decided they can retrench appears to be light bulbs. They are heavily into the light bulb thing. Light bulbs are the answer. Changing light bulbs is something they can grasp, something that doesn’t require a lot of thought or effort. There are those lists all over the Internet of the “10 things you can do for the environment right now” variety, and light bulbs are on every one of them. So Americans drive a block to the Home Depot in their SUVs to pick up energy-saving light bulbs so they can feel better about themselves.

I was discussing the environment with a friend of mine the other day, and he made this comment:

…there is a big push here to get people to use CFL bulbs instead of their “old-fashioned” incandescent bulbs, because they last longer and ultimately use less energy to provide the same light. This is all well and good, and I support efforts to save energy and money. However, each CFL contains a tiny amount of mercury, and requires recycling and special handling if broken. No one mentions this in the trumpeting and advertising–and if one looks at the CFL packaging, the only message about recycling is a small notice on the bottom where few will see it. People are going to be tossing CFLs into the trash anyway, but fewer would if they knew about the need for recycling. So, trading conservation of some energy for the strong probability of water supplies even more mercury-tainted than they are now doesn’t strike me as being very conscious or environmentally helpful…

He’s right. There’s nothing at all conscious about environmentalism in America. Americans want to be told what to do, so they let themselves be sold on light bulbs and put it out of their minds. Sheep are obedient. Sheep don’t read the fine print. Sheep don’t ask questions. Sheep are stupid. And the government is thrilled, of course, and grateful that the corporations can direct the masses with their dazzling sleight of hand because it spares them from having to take responsibility and it keeps the people from noticing that their government is doing nothing (at best).

How many Americans have spontaneously strung clotheslines in their back yards to avoid using the dryer? (There is nothing more delicious than the smell of bed linens that have dried outdoors on a line.) How many have traded in their Monster Trucks, even if it meant taking a financial loss? How many have started looking at where their produce comes from, passing on the kiwis to buy the food that leaves the smallest carbon footprint? How many have actually moved into a smaller place? How many have really, truly, scrutinized every aspect of their lives to try to find meaningful ways to curb their consumption? How many have spent any time trying to think of ways not only to change their own behavior but the behavior of all of society???

I don’t even want to know, because I’m certain the number of people doing things like this is too small to make a difference. Radical change, or even just thinking about it, would require way too much effort in America. Americans only put forth effort when there is a visible benefit, and that culture is too myopic and self-centered to see the benefit of retrenching for the sake of the planet. Americans, who produce the most pollution per capita on earth, have a moral obligation to do so, but you and I both know it won’t happen till they’re hurting. And by then it’ll be too late.

I’m generalizing, of course. I think of these things, so I know others do. But considering that only 1,000 people participated in the largest demonstration about climate change in the US I feel comfortable making that generalization.

You have to look past light bulbs. You have to look more closely at yourself and, at the same time, think much bigger. For example, one of the most obvious approaches to the problem of carbon emissions is one that has been utterly and totally ignored in any serious discussion of ways to address the issue. True, it would constitute a major shift in the way we function as a society. But it will happen of necessity, so you might as well start thinking about it now.

That option is telecommuting, plain and simple. There is no reason on gawd’s green (for the moment) earth why every white-collar worker in the world should not be doing this already. I’ll be talking about this in greater detail soon on Vincent’s new blog télétravail 2.0, which focuses on the practical aspects and benefits, environmental and otherwise, of working from home.

For now, my advice is to focus on becoming enlightened rather than on replacing your bulbs.

*Jane Austen, Persuasion