Conscious Consumption: The Evolutionary Solution to Our Water and Energy Challenges

By Bianca & Michael Alexander

John Neville and Jawn McKinley are taking their retirement seriously. Their ranch-style hacienda sits at the end of a nondescript cul-de-sac in Sedona, Arizona. Like Clark Kent, it’s unassuming exterior makes it look like the average middle-class suburban home. But just beyond the front gate, this carbon neutral abode is a super hero of sustainability.

And for good reason. The couple lives in the arid Sonoran desert, a place where temperatures regularly peak over 100 degrees and the government rations water. With sunshine almost 300 days per year, renewable solar energy is abundant, but few harness it. Though John and Jawn consider themselves environmentalists, their decision to build an energy efficient home was far from altruistic. In fact, their motivations were selfish. As retirees living on a fixed income, they needed to cut expenses drastically during their golden years. In 2005, they decided to build a home off the grid” from the local power and water supply, which self-sustains within an on-site eco-system.

Built and insulated with recycled materials, the house’s indigenous adobe clay architecture keeps it warm in winter and cool in summer. It runs on solar energy from photovoltaic roof panels, which power the home’s water and energy efficient appliances: low-flow laundry and dishwasher, a stainless steel refrigerator and organic wine rack, dual-use ovens (one for cooking big dinners, one for smaller fare), CFL bulbs and radiant heat flooring. Despite soaring temperatures, the house stays cool without air conditioning, and their monthly utility bill is a whopping $0. Combined with financial incentives from appliance manufacturers and the government, the Neville’s are able to minimize their carbon footprint‚ and save cash while they do it.

And that’s the icing on the cake. Each year, Sedona gets a mere 17.5 inches of rainfall. To save water, the Nevilles harness over 10,000 gallons per year with a rainwater collection system that provides all the water they need for washing, heating and cooling their radiant floors, and filling their salt water jacuzzi. Even their grey water is utilized through filtration that redirects 60% of water that would otherwise be flushed down the drain. Instead, it irrigates well-appointed native landscaping, including succulents like cacti and prickly pear that need little water to thrive.

By their example, the Neville’s inspire others in the neighborhood to follow suit: in order to reduce utility costs, one of their neighbors recently installed solar panels, giving a brand new meaning to “keeping up with the Joneses.” In this case, the one who consumes the least wins, and so does the planet.

While conscious consumption like the Neville’s is a powerful example of a singular solution to our water and energy challenges, it’s not the only one. Once successfully implemented, countless innovations like smart grid technologies and water conservation practices such as desalination offer the titillating promise of a more sustainable future. But while we wait for some of these fledgling initiatives to take off, we may need to depend on a more well-honed human instinct to do the heavy lifting: self-preservation. In fact, this evolutionary drive toward survival of the fittest in the midst of a world of increasingly limited resources has sparked consumer demand for sustainability, instinctively leading us to do what’s best for ourselves, and for the planet.

Best of all, it makes it a heck of a lot cheaper to keep up with the Joneses.

For a tour of the Neville’s water and energy efficient home, watch the “Coast to Coast Energy Efficient Home Tour” episode of Conscious Living.

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