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The Green Life: Eco-One-Upmanship

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June 19, 2008

Eco-One-Upmanship

By Sandra Tsing Loh

I am the last human on the planet to have not seen Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, and for that I apologize. In 2006 I was too sleep deprived to even watch the copies urgently pressed upon me by three well-meaning friends. But as of last fall, my two former toddlers were finally in public school--yes, my husband and I insisted on public--and I had time to address global warming.

I decided to rip off the Band-Aid and convert to total solar energy. While a natural for sunny Southern California, surprisingly, none of my polar-bear-fate-bewailing, lightbulb-changing, hemp-bag-toting friends had it. Which meant--bingo!--I could now happily eco-stalk them as they had ruthlessly eco-stalked me.

"No solar--really?" I murmured to my friends Paul and Nancy in gentle surprise. "But your canyon is always so wonderfully sunny!"

Startled at the sudden solar attack, Paul mumbled something about overgrown oak branches to the east side. That struck even his wife as alarmingly vague.

"I didn't know anyone came to our house to check that," Nancy said.

"They didn't," Paul said evasively, "but if you sit outside in the afternoon, you can just . . . "

"Good news, Paul!" I enthused the next day over the phone. "Right this second a SolarCity engineer and I are studying a live Google Earth picture of your block!"

That's right--give today's helpful solar technicians your friends' addresses and, via satellite imaging, you can "fly over" and see their houses (or if their cars are parked illegally).

"Your roof has very little shade, Paul, and faces south. You guys are perfect candidates for solar."

"I guess I've never really understood it," Nancy worried aloud, from the other extension. "Aren't there credits that you buy back from your power company?"

"I hear they make it impossibly complicated," Paul confirmed.

From their vocal tones, I could tell Paul and Nancy were spiraling into a mode I call the vast right-wing Borg conspiracy. This is an existential, quasi-Star Trek-inspired state in which one recognizes that, in spite of one's best intentions, we live in Bush Nation and hence are helpless under the weight of a vast, faceless bureaucratic force.

"Giant power conglomerates like GE don't want anyone to have solar. They don't want solar to succeed. You saw that documentary, didn't you?" Paul's voice pitched higher. "It's like the electric car!"

But it was Nancy who drove in the final stake: "And I hear it's ugly."

I refrained from suggesting we phone Gore to cry out: "That's what's killing the polar bears--solar panels are ugly!"

Aesthetics are important to Paul and Nancy--for them, the key component of green design is not that it is green but that it is design. Fortunately, one look at our house and you'd see aesthetics mean absolutely nothing to us. Indeed, the $20,000 I'd mentally penciled in for a solar system was thanks to the $20,000 kitchen redo my husband and I have simply been too lazy to get around to . . . for 18 years.

But, even with our flatteringly dubbed "near-perfect azimuth" and state and municipal rebates saving us more than $30,000, going full solar was going to cost us more like $40,000.

I won't lie: That figure hurt. We were talking not just $40,000, but $40,000 and no new kitchen island, not even a new cappuccino maker that didn't have mysterious splatter up the side. This was the opposite of conspicuous consumption. We were staying in our small 1927 bungalow crammed with unsightly, outdated furnishings and spending a ton of money to consume even less electricity. Talk about a tiny footprint--we were about to wrap ours tightly in linen like they once did to girls' feet in China.

"Forty thousand dollars!" another mom friend whistled. "Who can afford that?"

"Forty thousand dollars," I replied without thinking, "that's one year of private school for your twins!"

"Ouch!" she said (public education being the nameless Borg about which she catastrophizes). And I realized that in one fell swoop--and with the emptying of two 2.7 percent interest-yielding CDs--we could become Los Angeles' most annoying people: the solar-powered public school family. And how unique will my daughters' state college applications be when they tell that story?

I guess, as Barack Obama has said so often this year, we are the ones we've been waiting for. Ones whose kitchen still drastically needs a makeover, but there you go.

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer-performer whose newest book, Mother on Fire (Crown), is coming out in August.

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