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Thoughts on Energy Conservation: Morocco vs. USA

Our friend and guest blogger Anne Siembieda-Wilson reflects on her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. We collaborated on a library for her Peace Corps community. Anne returned to the U.S. in 2018.

by Anne Siembieda-Wilson

After living in Morocco for 22 months, I have had a lot of time to think about how energy consumption in Morocco compares to the United States. The difference is vast. In Morocco, people use energy only sparingly. This is probably due more to the fact that they struggle to pay their utility bills (even though they amount to pennies on the dollar) than to a commitment to reducing energy consumption for the sake of the environment. Nonetheless, we can learn a lot about how to conserve energy in the U.S. from the Morocco example.

Anne reading "Goodnight Moon" in Darija to Malik and Anis

Energy Consumption in Morocco

  • At night, only one light is turned on at a time and then only in the room being used at that moment.  

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

  • Most buildings are made of cinder block, which turns them into heat producers that never cool down at night. They generally have no heating or air conditioning, and most homes don’t even have a fan despite vast temperature fluctuations. For example, temperatures in winter can go down to the 30s Fahrenheit in northern Morocco and considerably below that in the Atlas Mountains. In the summer, temperatures can reach the low 100s F in many places and above 110 degrees F south of the Atlas Mountains. During winter months, students and teachers wear coats and hats in their classrooms to stay warm.

  • Cars are almost all standard transmission and diesel, which is more energy efficient, and you almost never see one person per vehicle. Taxis traveling between cities always fill up with six passengers before they leave.

Anne's host village in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains
  • People use only the gas and electricity they absolutely need in their homes. For example, I had 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 six liters. People do not leave electrical appliances plugged in when not in use.  

Energy Consumption in the U.S.

Energy consumption in the US is vastly different from Morocco. For example, most of us:

  • Have computers 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 degrees Fahrenheit 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

  • Air condition our businesses, malls, and movie theaters far cooler than necessary, requiring us to carry sweaters or coats even in the summer

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 hundreds of other developing nations? How about moderate discomfort? Some of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers 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 to economics, of course. The vast majority of Moroccans cannot afford to waste energy. They must scrimp and save, even though 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 then can Americans, as the world's top energy consumers, even begin to talk about conserving energy without foregoing some of our 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 cutting back on or eliminating the activities that require so much energy.

Now that I am back in the U.S., I happily get in my private car instead of cramming into crowded vans or buses without heat or a/c. But I also remember that wearing a coat in the house during the winter is not so difficult and that a six-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 force them to reduce their impossibly high standard of comfort in order to reduce their energy consumption for the sake of our planet.

It can be done gradually, of course. Here’s some advice based on what I learned:

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

  • Take a four-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.  


About the Author

Anne Siembieda-Wilson was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco from 2016 to 2018, where she worked with MLP on a library for her host village. In her former life, Anne was a primary school librarian in California. She is now volunteering for other education initiatives.


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