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Thoughts on Energy Conservation: Morocco vs. USA

— Anne Wilson-Siembieda, U.S. Peace Corps

Reading Goodnight Moon in Darija to Malik and Anis

Anne is a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco who Barb worked with on a library for her host village in the Atlas Mountains. In her previous life, she was a primary school librarian in Fairfax, California.

After living in Morocco for 22 months, I have had a lot of time to think about energy consumption as it exists here and compares to the United States. The difference is vast. People here pay pennies on the dollar for their water and electricity, and yet they consistently use it sparingly. Families of five spend roughly $35 a month on electricity and $2 a month on water. Internet WiFi is rare in homes but costs $20 per month when and where available. Yet most people in Morocco struggle to pay their utility bills; they must keep their costs down.  

Energy Consumption in Morocco

  • One light at a time is on in a house at night and then only in the room you are using at the moment.  

  • Most toilets are the two-footer Turk style, into which you pour a small amount of water from a bucket after use.

  • Buildings generally do not have heating or air conditioning in Morocco — not even a fan in most homes. Temperatures in winter can go down to the 30s F in northern Morocco and considerably below that in the Atlas Mountains. In the summer (daily, for three and a half months), the temperature reaches the low 100s F in most places away from the coast and above 110 F south of the Atlas Mountains.

  • Not only is there no air conditioning but there is also no insulation in the cinderblock buildings (the most common building material), which turns them into heat producers themselves, never cooling down at night. Government buildings, schools, and businesses generally have no heating or air conditioning, either. Students and teachers wear coats and hats in their classrooms for 2 to 3 months in the cold weather.

  • Cars are almost all standard transmission and diesel, and taxis travelling between cities always fill up with six passengers before they leave in order to recognize a profit.  

  • Instead of natural gas lines directly to the house, people go to the corner store and change out their empty propane tank for a full one several times a year. I have one gas tank for hot water and one gas tank for my stovetop. No oven. Hot water heaters, if they exist at all, are most commonly 6 liters. People do not leave electrical appliances plugged in when not in use.

These conditions would be considered intolerable in the U.S. and most Western nations.

Energy Consumption in the U.S.

Contrary to common practice in Morocco, many of us living in the U.S.:

  • Have computer systems that do what would be considered miraculous elsewhere, like turning lights on for us when we're out of the home to fool would-be thieves

  • Set our thermostats to keep our living spaces at 68-75 F degrees year-round

  • Have and use large quantities of hot water; in my American home, I have 50 gallons of hot water ready to go at any time

  • Carry sweaters or coats with us even in the summer because some businesses, malls, and movie theaters are often too cold because of air conditioning

What You Can Do to Make a Difference

So what do we mean when we talk about energy conservation? Are we in the West ready to tolerate extreme discomfort like the people of Morocco and a hundred other developing nations? How about moderate discomfort? Some Peace Corps volunteers of my acquaintance have even gone home because of the unbearable heat/cold; they just can't tolerate the extremes. We in the U.S. have been brought up to expect comfort — Moroccans are brought up to endure extreme discomfort. Energy conservation has a direct correlation with economy, of course. The vast majority of Moroccans must scrimp and save, even while their standard of living is much lower than ours. Toilet paper and paper towels are a luxury that many families here do without. Toys and books aren't available. How do Americans, as the world's top energy consumers, even begin to talk about conserving energy without foregoing some of their creature comforts? The talk in the U.S. is always about making energy more efficient so that we can have our proverbial cake and eat it too. It is almost never about us cutting back on or eliminating the activities that require so much energy.

I confess that I am looking forward to returning to my forced-air heating next year when my Peace Corps stint is done. I will happily get in my private car instead of cramming into crowded vans or buses without heat or a/c. But I will also remember the experience of my life here, where wearing a coat in the winter in the house is not difficult and a 6-liter shower is plenty to get clean. My personal goal will be to cut back on my energy consumption to about one-half of the average American — and that will still be extremely luxurious compared to my 27 months in Morocco. But for the average American who has not lived through an experience like mine, I fear only economic forces or martial law will tear the impossibly high standard of comfort from their lives.

A glimpse of the busy new library

It can be done gradually, of course:

  • Make a goal to set your thermostat to 2 degrees lower in the winter and 2 degrees higher in the summer

  • Take a 4-minute shower

  • Turn off lights when you leave a room

  • Complain to businesses if it's too cold inside in the summer — or conversely, too hot in winter

  • Walk, ride, or use public transport once in a while​

None of these things are hard when done in small chunks. And while you're making these changes, always try to keep in mind all the people around the world who make do with so much less — making our American lifestyle a true embarrassment of riches.  

Thank you for reading.

Anne Wilson-Siembieda, 2018