11/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Kilowatt Earned is a Kilowatt Saved

Climate Change Lessons from Franklin, Thoreau, and Roosevelt

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set a challenging objective for this week's Summit on Climate Change: "to mobilize the political will and vision needed to reach an ambitious agreed outcome based on science at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen."

Concerned citizens struggling to make headway against the ticking clock of climate change have something small but profound to learn from three luminaries of the past: Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, and Theodore Roosevelt. Each made the environment personal, not an abstract untouchable concept. Each parlayed his talents and platform to spread the word. Finally, each magnified his lasting impact because his knowledge and creativity inspired others.

Benjamin Franklin
Franklin, the American inventor and statesman, published the yearly Poor Richard's Almanack from 1732 to 1758. This best-selling guide to weather forecasts and wise maxims contained such frugal gems as:

  • A penny saved is a penny earned.

  • Little strokes fell great oaks.

  • A good Example is the best sermon.

  • He that lives on hope will die fasting.
  • One of the most successful publishers of his day and most practical inventors in history, Franklin devised capabilities designed to solve everyday problems. His "An Economical Project" essay suggested that using natural light was thriftier than burning candles or oil lamps, and led to daylight savings time. His lightning rod prevented damage and destruction of buildings; the Franklin stove heated with less wood; his bifocals helped people see both near and far; his odometers helped people measure distances traveled. He eschewed patents, believing instead that "As we benefit from the inventions of others, we should be glad to share our own...freely and gladly."

    Henry David Thoreau
    Thoreau moved to Walden Pond in 1845 as an experiment in living more simply and closer to nature. Although his cabin at town's edge was near his family home in Concord, Massachusetts, he strove to isolate himself from society and test the idea that divinity was present in nature and the human soul. There he wrote Walden, part autobiographical, part social critique of man's materialist attitudes and destruction of nature.

    Liberals, conservatives, and socialists alike quote Walden even today, 155 years after its publication. Its final sentence is prophetic: "There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star." Events seemingly unrelated to Thoreau's twenty-six month stay at Walden Pond have been influenced by it, including the environmental and wilderness movements and the national park system.

    Theodore Roosevelt
    As a young man, Roosevelt developed a love of nature and animals, becoming a noted field biologist and natural history author. In 1890, the director of the census announced that a western frontier no longer existed, quashing the commonly-held belief that new lands and natural resources were unlimited. As the new century dawned, alarm bells sounded as forests shrunk to 20% of original woodlands, much of the country's farmland productivity plummeted due to overuse, and oil, gas, and minerals extraction boomed.

    In the early 1900s, Roosevelt became the first conservationist President, protecting land (five new national parks) and wildlife (51 wildlife refuges). He organized the first White House conference on conservation of natural resources, leading to 41 states establishing conservation commissions. He observed, "Keep it for your children and your children's children, and for all who come after you..." Roosevelt's legislative efforts changed the way America viewed its natural resources - from the philosophy that nature can absorb man-made wastes to the understanding that nature is a required resource for survival.

    Make it Personal, Shout it Out, and Inspire Others
    These three environmental lessons are as relevant today as they were in Franklin's, Thoreau's, or Roosevelt's time. Rather than an annual publication, once-in-a-lifetime book, or presidential mandate, our megaphone is the prevalence of social media and the interconnectedness of millions of people. Rather than sayings and astronomical information, a declaration of independence, or federal management, our call to action is grassroots participation in the environmental movement.

    This is why we launched -- a social network where eco-minded individuals can interact, with carbon footprints and conservation efforts being the conversation-starter. We know that the average American can trim their carbon footprint by 1/3 to 1/2 through conservation while saving money in the process, but it's the act of sharing your personal carbon reducing experiences that can help to inspire others to do the same.

    We're gearing up the Mastering the Art of Sustainable Cooking contest to give people, regardless of their culinary experience, the opportunity to inspire others to create great food that's also good for the planet. We're asking food bloggers, professional chefs, and people talented in their home kitchen to share their stories of how they use less energy and reduce waste without sacrificing nutrition, flavor, or the joy of sharing a delicious meal.

    In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, "Unless we fight climate change, unless we stop this trend, we'll have devastating consequences for humanity."