The Quest for "2,000 Watt" Living

This story was filed by CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer.
"If I keep my boat, my Hummer and fly to the Caribbean twice a year, how many species will that make extinct?" says the boorish hero of a British comedy sketch.

It's a biting satire of the pull we're all feeling — weighing the personal cost of environmental responsibility. Wondering how much consumption is too much. And how much green sacrifices will hurt.

The "2,000 Watt Society" initiative tries to come to grips with this by proposing an individual energy "budget", and by pushing for innovation to make that budget realistic.

Is was originally the brainchild of a group of Swiss engineers and architects who, one day in the early 1990's, did a rough calculation of the amount of energy being used on Earth, then divided the result by the number of people on the planet.

It worked out to just under two thousand watts each. That is, the amount of power that it takes — continuously — to power twenty 100-watt light bulbs.

This, goes the argument, is what the Earth can probably sustain and so it would be wise, and fair, for each one of us to try to consume no more than 2,000 watts every minute of every hour of every day.

The Blum family are closing in on the 2,000 watt goal:

Some residents became enthused enough to see how close to the 2,000 watt goal they could get at home using the latest technology, and some ingenuity. Meet some of them in the videos at left.

Data clearly shows that everyone in the developed world consumes far more than that, with America topping the list at 12,000 watts — twice the European average.

On the other hand, many millions of people don't use anywhere near "their share".

Of course, 2,000 watts is an arbitrary figure. The Earth's population isn't stable. The amount of energy consumed globally fluctuates with the state of the economy.

"Evening News" report: Can a City Cut Its Energy Use by 2/3?

The building that uses (almost) no energy:

Nevertheless, 2,000 watts is a provocative goal, and it's driving policy in Switzerland.

The Swiss now consume slightly under the European average of 6,000 watts per person. Switzerland hasn't been a 2,000 watt society since the early 1960s, when people had fewer of, well, everything: cars, appliances, vacations.

That hasn't stopped the City of Zurich, and its small neighbor Winthertur, from adopting the "2,000 Watt Society" as policy. In a referendum, 76.4 percent of the voters cast a ballot in favor of making the initiative into public policy.

Now, the cities use the 2,000 watt objective as a guideline for investment — in mass transit for example — and for subsidizing home renovation.

Beat Meier's home will soon make more electriciy than it uses:

It's working. Forty percent of Zurich's households no longer have a car.

I can tell you that none of them have managed to meet the 2,000 watt goal (and all acknowledge a common problem — flying anywhere instantly blows the energy budget), but they're getting close.

In the process, they've discovered proven technology that can, at the very least, halve an ordinary family's energy consumption without too much pain, and that is a very good start.