The New Conservative

My greening begins.
Illustrations by

1. AC is far away and works too hard
2. Water heater needs a “blanket”
3. French windows allow heat and air to escape
4. Attic insulation has a value of R-9
5. No floor insulation
6. Incandescent lightbulbs waste energy
7. Wall insulation has fallen

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been much more than an armchair environmentalist. Sure, I had some tree-hugging inclinations in college, when I participated in a protest to block the removal of some oaks on the University of Texas at Austin campus (mainly as a way to meet girls, actually). I’ve sent checks to some pompously named organizations like Save the Planet USA now and then, and I’ve been known to have had a barroom argument or two on the subject. But for most of my life, the environment was a comfortable abstraction.

It’s not just that marriage, a career, and the inevitable political ennui of middle age dampened my verve for green. It was also the rhetoric. Take global warming: Though I had a vague sense living in Dallas that there might be something to it (it’s hard to ignore forty-odd 100-degree days in one summer), for every article I read on the subject that said ying, there was another that said yang. Like many people, I figured the real truth would just never be known—a topic relegated to debates by Al Gore and others—or that the planet was supposed to self-destruct on a particular schedule, with or without man’s participation.

Katrina was my epiphany. There was something so raw and visceral about the savage hurricane that all the back-and-forth prattle about global warming, and environmentalism generally, suddenly took on new meaning. Here was a brute visual for climate change and the damage it could wreak. This couldn’t be a coincidence, not when we in the Southwest were suffering a years-long drought and Northeasterners were scratching their heads about blizzards one day, balmy sunshine the next. So I studied up on global warming and our role in it. I even read Gore’s almost soporifically thorough An Inconvenient Truth. Saw the movie. Browsed Web sites on the issue, pro and con. And I finally made a decision. I was going green.

I am not naive enough to believe that one person can change a problem as colossal as global warming, but millions of one-persons can. So I’m not going to say that it’s too late for a guy like me to start acting. How can I, given the numbers? As the United Nations’ Climate Change 2007 report warned, the CO2 in our atmosphere as of 2005 “far exceeds the natural range of the past 650,000 years”—which means that temperatures, ocean levels, and erratic weather patterns will increase faster than we thought. I probably won’t be here, but our great-grandkids are going to miss Houston, and maybe even Beaumont.

So where to start? I began with the first thing I could wrap my head around, ecologically speaking: my house. My wife and I have owned this lovely fifty-year-old two-story in Highland Park for more than twenty years. It’s quaint and comfortable, even pretty from a certain angle—and mainly, paid for. But, unlike the green-built starter homes going up in surrounding suburbs such as Frisco, ours is woefully energy-inefficient and environmentally incorrect.

Our journey to greenness was going to mean rehabilitation, and we needed the right people to set us on that path. After some online hunting and a few calls, I found three specialists to assess our home: Tom Mayfield, the proprietor of Mayfield Thermography, which employs infrared imaging to find problems such as air and water leaks or insulation deficiencies (; a workup on your house costs $650); Patrick Kelly, an expert in green construction and remodeling at the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Jon Bennett, of TXU, who performed an energy audit. (Kelly’s and Bennett’s services are not available to the public, but you can go to TXU’s and the EPA’s Energy Star Web sites, and, for informal calculators on the state of your house, or call the

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