Saturday April 19, 2014

Knox: Lighting up isn’t the worst eco-crime

Public hearings into B.C. Hydro’s controversial Site C power project began this week. For this, I apologize. I am, you see, the one who created the demand. I Griswolded, plugged in my outdoor Christmas lights and browned out half of B.C.

This might surprise frequent readers who recall my outdoor lighting has been shrinking, shrinking, shrinking over the years. Indeed, every season as I ascend the ladder my mind turns — naturally — to Zulu, the old Michael Caine movie about 1879’s Battle Of Rorke’s Drift, in which 4,000 African warriors set upon 150 British soldiers who, as their numbers dwindled, retreated into an ever-diminishing box until they were left back to back with bayonets fixed.

My Christmas lights are the redcoats. At first they were resplendent, marching along the roof line, down the fence and up the driveway in evenly spaced, orderly ranks. Alas, as they blinked out one by one, the defensive perimeter began to contract.

“Too many gaps, must consolidate the lines,” I reported grimly one December day. “We have to give up the roof.”

By last Christmas my lights were reduced to a single strand of brave little survivors, glowing gamely as they clustered around the front door.

This year, however, my mother-in-law sent reinforcements — cavalry-blue LED lights, a few old incandescents, a couple of strings of multi-coloured bulbs that blink randomly, just like Rob Ford in a city hall scrum. They are now strung out (again, just like Ford) across previously surrendered territory. “This,” I thought, “this must be how Lord Baden-Powell felt at the Relief of Mafeking.”

Not to overstate things. Mine is, in truth, still a modest display, not to be confused with the record-setting effort of the Richards family in Australia, whose 502,165-light effort, with 50 kilometres of wire crammed into their suburban Canberra property, just regained them a spot in the Guinness World Book of Records.

Note that location. It used to be that residential displays were mostly a North American thing, growing popular in tandem with the rise of suburbia in the 1960s. Now it’s common to sees homes in Britain, Europe, even Japan lit up (again, see “Ford”) like Paris after the Liberation.

This presents a moral dilemma. Christmas lights can be good for the soul, but bad for the environment. This is the excuse I use when explaining my reluctance to string lights along the roof: “I’m saving Mother Gaia.” (It might also have something to do with a slipping ladder, a pebbled stucco wall and a broken nose on Dallas Drive one freezing day in 1973.)

In truth, I’m not sure lighting up for Christmas is the greatest of eco-crimes. We could do more good unplugging other stuff for the rest of the year.

Still, you can ease the strain on your conscience (and wallet) by ditching the old ornaments. B.C. Hydro says switching three strands of old incandescent holiday lights to LED lights can save $33 over the course of 60 days if left on for five hours a day. A Hydro survey found 45 per cent of its customers used at least one string of LED lights over Christmas 2011. You can lower your costs even more by plugging your lights into the homes of vacationing neighbours.

Victoria Times columnist Jack Knox was born and raised in Kamloops.

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