From me to we: a case study

Tell me if this seems fair.

Everywhere you turn around these days you hear about your obligation to live more sustainably, use resources more efficiently, tread more gently on the Earth, consume more consciously, reduce your carbon footprint, the whole green deal. Your elected officials are on you about it, as is the media, your neighbors, maybe your kids bringing new learnings home from school. You see why it's important and want to play a part, preferably without shaking up your life too much. You follow some of the popular tips on conserving water and energy at home and at work. So do others, and collectively you make a difference; in the case of Ashland, electricity consumption is essentially the same as it was in 1982, an impressive accomplishment by national standards.

Fine. Until you find out that lower consumption means the city's selling too little water and electricity to cover its costs and has to increase rates to catch up. So your reward for good earth citizenship, for doing exactly what They asked you to do, is a higher price for every gallon and kilowatt you use. You read explanations that the city's cost for providing water is almost the same regardless of use (the water itself pools up in Reeder Reservoir free of charge), and that while we buy electricity by the unit from BPA, much of what we have to pay for is fixed overhead cost unrelated to consumption. Logical enough, but still — is this fair?

This is a powerful little issue. It miniaturizes the defining shift we have to make — I don't think it's optional — from me to we. Except for rare environmental saints among us, the old way of looking at all this has centered around personal economic gain: Sure, I want to be responsible and reasonably green because I'm a decent guy, but it takes expectation of lower bills to push me from intention to action, from lip service to actually investing in low-flow shower heads and toilets and drip irrigation, extra insulation and weather-stripping. My values focus my attention some of the time on more efficient transportation and cooking and flushing and space heating and cooling, but saving some money when I'm paying monthly bills is what changes my habits in a consistent way. It's almost been an unwritten contract: If I use less water and power, the system will charge me less for the privilege.

There's nothing the least bit wrong about that expectation. It just doesn't happen to fit the world we're entering as much as it does the world we're leaving. Now we're called on to see ourselves as interdependent parts of a community that needs water and electricity and has to find ways to pay for them — to pay more, in cold hard fact, than we used to. One of the consequences of our rude economic awakening is that it's harder to push the "externalized" costs of our utilities (decaying infrastructure, impacts on environmental and human health) down the road for some lucky future generation to pay. We've enjoyed sizzling bargains on most of our basic commodities, water and power included, for a long time. We don't get to do that anymore. So if there's an individual contract that could be honored today, it would read more like this: If I use less water and power, the system won't have to increase what it charges me as much as it otherwise would.

Which is pretty much the answer to a question that's bound to occur to some who are pondering all this: If water will cost our community about the same (and if electricity costs won't vary dramatically) whether we use a little or a lot, why bother to conserve? Because it makes us better global citizens? Probably. But the answer I got from two City Hall insiders was more practical than that.

"In the long run," said one, "conservation is the smartest, most cost effective thing we do "¦ conservation will keep us from building a new dam on Ashland Creek and it may delay a $13 million dollar TAP [Talent-Ashland-Phoenix] project "¦ if we can predictably sell less water over time, we don't have to increase water rates to support multi-million dollar capital investments."

And "If conservation helps delay the need of [new water system] construction (and other costly infrastructure that will also need to be financed and have debt service payments) then conservation is helping to keep total cost and rates lower over the long haul as well as the individual not paying for something wasted."

This sounds just right to me. And you?

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at

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