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Pulling the Plug



About a five-minute walk from my house, one of our neighbors has erected his annual holiday display. The decorations began going up in early November, just as soon as his illuminated Halloween exhibit had been packed away.

Our local Father Christmas doesn't limit himself to thousands of lights. He also displays hundreds of inflated, animated, illuminated plastic figures -- elves, polar bears, snow globes and snowmen. Naturally, Santa and his sleigh and reindeer adorn the roof. There are also hundreds of unpowered ornaments, including giant snowflakes and white and silver "trees" — all illuminated with spotlights, of course.

Don't get me wrong. I think simple, elegant holiday decorations are delightful. Small, green wreaths bedecked with red ribbon on the doors and the welcoming glow of electric candlelight in the front windows can magically transform an ordinary home. But decoration beyond that seems wasteful and, well, tacky.

I'm certain our neighbor's heart is in the right place. He's not trying to outdo us in some misguided frenzy of competitive electrification. He's not trying to keep us awake all night contemplating the birth of the baby Jesus with a bank of blinding, blinking lights. He is genuinely trying to bring us joy by celebrating the spirit of the season. On holiday evenings, he's often outside in a Santa suit, handing candy canes to children in the parade of automobiles slowly passing by, as they wonder at the splendiferous sight.

Of course, our neighbor is just one of many Richmonders participating in this yearly display of power consumption. Our local fish-wrapper of record recently put out a call for nominations to the 18th annual "Tacky Christmas Lights Tour." The minimum number of lights they require for entry: 40,000. Local television and radio stations eagerly promote this new "tradition" every December, as well.

Forty thousand light bulbs! It's time to pull the plug on this ill-conceived vulgarity. Haven't media done a few stories about global warming over the past few years? Surely some intrepid reporter must have noted the mountains of coal piled at the Dominion Power station at Dutch Gap. Someone must have seen those tall smokestacks — the ones releasing tons of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere as the turbines generate power for all that superfluous illumination. Surely they've heard carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas — it traps heat in the atmosphere instead of allowing it to radiate into space. It's an inevitable byproduct of burning fuels. As far as science can tell, while carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, so will our planet's temperatures. Obviously it would be wise to produce less of it.

Power-gulping holiday displays don't help. They're no small matter, either. I've done a ballpark estimate, using guidelines offered on the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site. Illuminating 40,000 small electric lights for the eight weeks of the holiday season will add approximately 100,000-200,000 extra pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And that disregards the tons of extra fuel burned when thousands of us drive around town to gawk at the displays, as well as other environmental damage, including lung-damaging particulates ejected from those smokestacks, and the mountaintops decapitated for the coal beneath the soil.

What could we do to put the brakes on this bad idea? We have to view those holiday displays with new eyes. We should explain the true costs and underlying ugliness of these sparkling displays to our children, who may delight in them even more than we do. In short, we should first choose not to participate.

Beyond that, we can try to educate the media, who seem incapable of educating themselves. Recently NBC — a subsidiary of General Electric, let's not forget — dedicated an entire week to environmental awareness. They turned their peacock logo green, and even broadcast a Sunday sports show from a studio illuminated by candlelight to show how much they care about energy conservation. Their local affiliate should take the message to heart. Stop promoting wasteful holiday illumination as feel-good stories during a slow news period. The other television and radio stations and newspapers in town should follow suit.

Power companies could also discourage this kind of excess, I suppose. But that seems unlikely. They are in the business of selling electricity, after all. And late autumn is a season of lower-than-average demand, when generating capacity is "underutilized."

What about the homeowners themselves? For some neighborhood Santas, perhaps things have just gotten out of hand. They might welcome an opportunity to stop. You buy a few extra lights each year, and one or two more reindeer. Before you know it, friends want to know about plans for next year's extravaganza, and the ornaments start multiplying like Escherichia coli. We should reassure them: We won't be disappointed if they cut back next year, and make a donation to Habitat for Humanity or the Salvation Army instead.

We would surely complain — or even call the police — if a neighbor were blasting loud music late at night, collecting junk cars and old refrigerators in the front yard, or otherwise making our local environment less hospitable. Are those nuisances so different from needlessly burning up natural resources, warming the atmosphere and melting the Earth's icecaps? Might we actually get the nerve to ask our neighbors to shut down their holiday lights? Please stop.

Not easy to do. But if we're unwilling to speak directly, maybe we could slip a copy of "An Inconvenient Truth" into the neighbor's mailbox. That might convey the message. Or just send them a copy of this page. Think of it as a holiday card from the planet. S

Paul Fleisher serves on the staff of the Richmond Peace Education Center. He is the author of more than three dozen books for children and educators.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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