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Letter from the Editor

Saying the "C-Word"

Conservation, finally, comes into vogue

The most shocking thing about President Bush's latest State of the Union speech was not his sudden discovery that "America is addicted to oil." It was his failure to utter the "C-word" -- conservation -- even though this is one of the most vital, not to mention achievable, means of breaking that addiction. Jimmy Carter, in his celebrated cardigan, understood this 30 years ago.

We've got another C-word for you: California, where a wonderfully intelligent, no-nonsense blend of technology, public policy, and government leadership has resulted in the most successful model of energy efficiency in the world. And yet, as Craig Canine reports in this issue's cover story, Californians are not returning to the horse and buggy, giving up their air-conditioning, or sitting in the dark, and they're certainly not wearing cardigans. Instead, they are tapping into...brainpower. Energy guru Art Rosenfeld and his astute student David Goldstein (now codirector of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council) helped California develop new efficiency standards for refrigerators back in the 1970s. That may not seem momentous, but these improvements in efficiency, later adopted by the rest of the nation, are now saving us around $17 billion a year. Refrigerators are just one example. California's more recent innovations -- from green building codes to shrewd energy-saving incentives for utility companies -- have been copied by other states, incorporated into new federal legislation, and used as a model for other countries, particularly China.

Our Living Green column brings this idea home. Associate editor Laura Wright followed an energy auditor as he visited the house of a Connecticut family and helped them figure out ways to save energy and cut their fuel bill -- a lot. Depending on the home, Wright discovered, this state-mandated program can help consumers cut down on their energy use by up to 50 percent and reap commensurate savings. Indeed, conservation makes so much sense, it's a shame that President Bush, in his latest budget, decided to cut 18 percent from energy-efficiency programs. He also proposed a 32 percent cut for the Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps low-income families reduce their energy bills by making their homes more energy efficient. Please, get this man a cardigan.

Conservation derives from the Latin conservare, meaning "to keep guard." This notion is literally at the heart of Rick Bass's stirring account of his days tracking a pair of endangered black rhinos in the Namibian desert in southern Africa. Bass learned about a conservation group dedicated to saving the dwindling numbers of this rare and wondrous beast, which was being poached nearly to extinction. Poachers were trained to become guards, following the beasts across the searing desert to protect them. Namibia's rhino population has since doubled. Back home in Montana's Yaak Valley, Bass couldn't help thinking about the fate of our own endangered species. "Our grizzlies keep slipping away," he wrote. "Are we simply not creative enough, or do we simply not give a damn?"

If this issue of OnEarth shows us anything, it is that we are creative enough. When it comes to conservation -- whether it is conserving our energy or the natural world -- we have no choice but to give a damn.

Douglas S. Barasch

Power to the People
Return of the Black Rhino
Katrina's Rough Burial
Saving an American Icon
The Edelweiss Institute 1812


Photographer Ed Kashi (Return of the Black Rhino, A Rough Burial) has traveled to more than 60 countries for National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, and Time, among others. His photo documentary, Aging in America: The Years Ahead (PowerHouse), was a finalist for the 2003 Pictures of the Year book award.

Elizabeth Royte (A Rough Burial) is the author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash (Little, Brown), a New York Times Notable Book and Washington Post Book World Book of the Year for 2005. A freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York, Royte has also contributed to the New Yorker, Harper's, and National Geographic.

Long before she'd ever seen an American chestnut tree, Susan Freinkel (Saving an American Icon) fell in love with its story. Now she's writing a book on the efforts to bring the tree back. Her writing has also appeared in Discover, Smithsonian, Reader's Digest, and Health. She lives in San Francisco.

Claudia Dreifus (Physician to an Ailing Planet) has reported on politics since the 1960s. She teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute of the New School. Her fifth book, Scientific Conversations (Henry Holt), was published in 2001.

Photos: Kashi, © Ed Kashi; Royte, Lori Nelson

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council