She doesn't think we need to wear shapeless sackcloth.
She's not insisting that everybody sell their cars.But she does say Americans need to live more simply, think harder about energy conservation and plan products better.
"The party's over," says Bonnie Morrison, a University of Minnesota energy researcher, professor and administrator, and her students are doing something about it.
Her graduate students are working on everything from making felt with dyes that are not harmful to designing a beautiful cooking stove that burns methane gas.
Morrison's department - design, housing and apparel in the College of Human Ecology (formerly Home Economics) - is focusing on the United States' energy-intensive lifestyle.
One of the authors of a forthcoming book, "Environment, Energy and Everyday Living," which will examine ways people can acquire food, clothing and shelter in energy-efficient ways, she is asking her students and faculty to consider such questions as:
- Do U.S. consumption patterns provide a good example to other nations?
- Can the American way of life be maintained at its present level of consuming resource consumptions?
- If so, who would benefit? Who would suffer?
The whole earth can't live the way we do now, she said. It's ridiculous for Lee Iacocca to go to Eastern Europe and sell them Chryslers. Emerging nations need to avoid our mistakes, she said. "They need to leap-frog over all this inefficiency."
Morrison views her role as focusing attention on the energy research being conducted by universities and industries around the world. She loves examining the impact of lifestyle on energy consumption.
Refrigerators, for example, use more electricity than any other device (except electric space heaters and water heaters), yet savings of 90 percent aren't hard to achieve with better insulation. Cars could be getting 45 to 50 miles to the gallon.
Clothing could be chosen for quality and durability, rather than for the fashion-of-the-moment, and still be beautiful. Compact fluorescent tubes instead of incandescent lightbulbs could save as much as 10 percent of the electricity used in the nation.
The big items - the insulation, age and orientation of buildings - account for only 50 percent of the energy consumed by the average household, she said. The rest comes down to how individuals live their lives. That means changing values. It means being less thing-oriented. It means looking at every part of life, down to the colors of the paint on our walls, because producing some colors is more polluting than others. It means examining the tiniest ways we use energy.
She pointed to an article in the January issue of Science magazine that told of researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo., examining more than 1,000 energy-saving technologies. Just 35 would save a quarter of the world's electricity, they concluded. Use another 15 and half the energy worldwide would be saved.
Morrison doesn't claim to live a pure life in terms of energy consumption. She lives in an apartment, not for energy reasons but because her home is in Michigan. When she joined the Minnesota faculty in 1987, her husband, an environmental sociologist, remained at Michigan State University. They commute some weekends, they each cook, they each pay for heat, they use more energy than if they shared a house.
She insists cheap fuel is blinding Americans to taking the actions that are needed. But students have already had their eyes opened. Her department's new entry-level course, "Introduction to the Designed Environment," drew 110 students in the fall, 25 percent of them from outside the department. The class toured a recycling center and watched garbage trucks spew wastes.
"Watching what this society regurgitates wasn't easy," she said. "From food to bed springs to plastic, to paper - it's clear we create an awful lot of waste. It was very graphic and some students turned their backs to the pits."
During the Reagan and Bush administrations, Americans have viewed energy conservation as only a discomfort, she said, and "that kind of shallow thinking" has led to heavy dependence on foreign oil and to the Persian Gulf war.
"As creative human beings we need to get busy, not sit around and cry," she said. "We can figure out ways to live comfortably and joyfully without raping the earth and using resources so carelessly. It boils down to us as individuals."