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The faint waste (click and look close)

The faint waste (click and look close)

New York City in August was hot at the beginning and the end; rain broke the middle and I was grateful. During the hot start I couldn’t understand why the little window air conditioner chugged along so hard and seemed to make so little difference. The last hot week I knew what to expect.

The picture is of what I’d just found out. In the middle of the night and up to use the bathroom, the A/C still I-think-I-can-ing in its window notch, I register the kitchen seems much warmer. I lean toward the stove and yes, the warmth is perceptible. Then I see them: little blue glows underneath the white enameled steel, flickering slightly.

Waste bothers me. Hate is too strong a word, but I must have inherited some Franklinesque Yankee thrift from grandparents or my mother’s cheapness (which is different and distinct, as I have at last, stumblingly, learned). Gaining consciousness as a kid I would have worn the sweaters Carter implored us to–I had plenty left from Canada, but Texas had the opposite problem. The water company mailed red plastic flow restrictors and I installed them in both showers, probably angering my parents whose showers were suddenly not as strong. I turned off lights readily, but was torn between my father’s anger and understandable desire to be cool and my mother’s endless complaints about being cold and always pushing the A/C to a higher setpoint. Our Seventies ranch house was the highly-desirable all-electric, and in the winter I watched the meter spin each time the heat tripped on like it was preparing for a land speed record.

Turning things off and going without was the old way, and by the Seventies decades of consumerist advertising had finally trained Americans out of Depression and war years habits. Those damn hippies hadn’t made any friends and Reagan took the solar panels off the White House. Morning in America. Turn it all back on.

Things have come around and this comforts me. We have heat pumps and fluorescent lights, but more people, more televisions, more driving, so more energy is used overall. The doomsayers I can’t stop reading talk about Jevon’s Paradox to justify their snide judgment we are all headed back to scrounging for roots. I like to think smarter use and the general human desire to do good will keep us from that, but the universe doesn’t care what we would like.

Still, this cheap stove and its pilot lights give me pause. The stove is the tiny, half-width four-burner job found in countless cheaper apartments: there must be millions of them. Somebody somewhere decided these units are too downscale for solid state ignition, so in go old-school pilot lights. Electronic ignition probably costs the same or less as pilot lights nowadays, but pilot lights are “cheaper”. And gas, even when expensive, isn’t expensive enough to justify a landlord switching out a stove. But all four of those lights, plus one for the oven, makes the apartment hotter. The A/C runs more. The coal plants driving the A/C run more. Multiplied by millions of stoves, millions of A/Cs humming in millions of windows.

Eric Sevareid noted that “the chief cause of problems is solutions”. A corollary would be that the source of big problems are countless small problems. Someone decides there’s more profit in putting electronic ignition into upmarket stoves, so cheap stoves get pilot lights. Landlords put cheap stoves in their apartments–they don’t pay the gas bills, tenants do. Tenants pay a tiny bit more, a fair amount of gas is wasted annually. Gas now comes from refrigerated tankers shipped across oceans or from hydrofracking operations that pollute air and water. A butterfly flaps its wings and where she stops, nobody knows.

I would turn the stove off if I could, but can’t find the gas valve. The landlady has a giant box of matches and it would be easy to start the stove by hand each time. Would everyone doing that make a difference? Where do matches come from? The valve is behind a counter somewhere, with the fridge wedged in so tight I have to shove the door shut. Twenty years ago I would have been incensed and gone to the trouble to pull everything out and turn the gas off, but not now. Now it’s just one more thing I can’t do anything about. The little flames stay lit. I turn the A/C down a degree, it shudders on, and I go to sleep in its cool air.


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