Send your question to Umbra!

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Q. Dear Umbra,

I would like to reduce the amount of energy that my household uses as much as possible. But I have a problem with my roommate. She refuses to use CFLs. She gets upset when I turn off phantom loads, like the power supply for her laptop computer, even if it is during the overnight periods when we are all asleep … she will insist on deliberately leaving lights on in rooms that are not being used for several hours or when no one is at home. She will turn on an electric space heater and then open a window directly above it.

When I try to discuss these issues with her she simply labels me as “fascist.” She is an otherwise rational and progressive individual who has worked and volunteered for women’s rights and against social injustices … I work helping organizations and individuals reduce energy consumption and switch to renewables. So it is especially embarrassing that my household has such high consumption. And the fact that someone who is progressive is so resistant to change makes me rather negative about getting society as a whole to move to more conservation. Any advice on how I can influence my roommate to cut back?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Rob B.
B.C., Canada

A. Dearest Rob,

woman sticking tongue outOh yeah? Well here’s what I think of your conservation.Living closely with another person is hard. In previous attempts to sound Wise and Learned about human relations, the Royal We have suggested automated conservation devices (light timers etc.), negotiation, politeness, financial incentives, and probably several other optimistic methods of improving overall roommate environmentalism. Perhaps one thing We have not yet suggested is finding a new roommate, one chosen solely on household conservation grounds.

Today I have two new ideas. The first is, perhaps you are annoying. It’s something to consider. You don’t sound annoying to me — you sound reasonable, and like you’ve thought these things through — but it may be that your negotiation methods are patronizing, offensive, or somehow inconsiderate. Or bad in some other adjectival sense. Personally, I find the idea that my household maintenance requests could be rude quite laughable. Yet, oddly, I’ve had more than one roommate find fault with me, and despite my stature as a Royal We, I still find aluminum cans in the garbage from time to time. (Ahem! You know who you are!) When one’s roommate is aggravating, one tends to avoid acceding to his/her requests. Try a little self-reflection and see if it gets you anywhere new. Just a tiny example to get you started: if you turned off my laptop power source, I might feel you were messing around with my stuff and might become a wee bit violent.

The second, related idea is to just give up on your roommate and instead go straight to further self-improvement. Turning out the lights after she leaves a room is no hardship. As for the rest … are you as good as you can be? Not just in terms of home conservation, but as a roommate? Are you a decent feminist? Do you support her struggles against social injustice? The relationship of respect for each other’s concerns needs to be equal. And in my life there is a lot of room for individual improvement before I started “ahem”-ing in the agora. Plus it just takes so much energy to be annoyed at someone.

Lastly, this whole habit of using “fascist” as a synonym for “jerk” drives me up a wall. I realize there is quite a bit of debate about what fascism actually is, in political terms, but there is not so much vagueness as to make it an accurate description of an individual requesting electricity conservation. Even progressives calling Bush a proto-fascist drove me nuts. Bush was something else, something uniquely (we hope) American, but he was not a fascist. And you, Rob, are not a fascist. I don’t even believe it’s possible to be a fascist alone. Get some friends together and pledge loyalty to your communal house, then go attack other communal houses in the name of your house, using CFLs. Then we can talk.