A friend of mine, Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man) once observed that cutting your energy usage should be as easy as rolling off a log – that as long as it is always easier to use more resources, and the path of least resistance heads towards taking the car or turning up the heat, we’re destined to struggle. And he’s right.
However, in another way, he may be wrong. While I agree with him that we can do a lot of things to make energy reduction a lot easier for people (think, using one really obvious example, how many people are simply afraid to ride their bikes in traffic, and who could be persuaded to take a bike if they simply had a safe place to ride), I’m not sure that it will ever be as easy as rolling off a log.
Why? Because there isn’t a one-size fits all answer to the problems raised by our resource use. Not everyone lives in the same place. Not everyone has the same needs. Not everyone is going to make the same changes – nor should they. If a basic principle of using less and living better is to live more locally, that alone will radically reshape our choices. Heating is going to be much more a priority for me in upstate NY than it would be for someone in Pheonix – on the other hand, coppicing some trees to do it with is going to be a lot more viable in my climate than in a water-straitened one. Local food sheds will produce different cuisines – there is no such thing as a one-size fits all diet.
Beyond location, there are differences of structure. All of us have things we’re just not prepared to do. Or we’re not prepared to do them yet. I don’t have a refrigerator – or rather I do, but it isn’t plugged in. During the cold months, we use our enclosed porch for natural refrigeration. During the warm periods, we use the smaller fridge as an icebox, rotating frozen milk jugs to provide coolth from the super-efficient freezer we require for professional reasons (since we sell meat from our farm). The substantial savings in electric costs works great for us. It freaks other people out – but there are plenty of people who’d rather die than give up their fridges but who are perfectly willing to consider going to the laundromat. Given the distance from her to my local laundromat, the size of my family and the fact that we use almost no disposable items (cloth for most), my washer would be the very last appliance I gave up. Fridge? No biggie.
The biggest barrier to making a real impact, however, is that people get confused about what matters and how much – and for good reason. First of all, there’s plenty of greenwashing “look, here’s a green chainsaw so you can deforest more of your land!” “Look, buy this designer eco-bag and save a teeny tiny bit of oil in plastic bags and feel good about your impact…” Second, it is genuinely confusing. For example one study suggested that Brits should import their lamb from New Zealand, because it used less energy than wintering over sheep in Britain. But the comparison was between the most common meat breeds of sheep in both countries, rather than well adapted British landraces that require fewer inputs. Of course, they produce less lamb – so the answer might well be “eat less lamb, and when you do eat it, choose different breeds” – but how many people shopping at even a farmer’s market ask what breed of sheep their meat came from? How many would understand the answer?
That’s why the same generalities get repeated over and over again. So we get people converting to CFL lights, which is good, but not enough. We get people buying green products, which is helpful, but not enough. And which products? How do we sort all this out?
Well, my goal has been to figure it out for my family and to pass that information along. After 3 years of living at between 1/5 and 1/10th of the energy the average family uses, there are some generalities I can offer to people. But they aren’t the ones you’ll see in most of the “10 tips to go green” articles.
1. Buy a lot less stuff. So much of what’s out there focuses on replacing one consumer need with a marginally less toxic or awful option. This is a lousy way to make substantial reductions in your energy usage. What makes a huge difference is reducing consumer spending radically – that is, cutting back on everything from lumber to underpants. When you do buy things, but them used. This is really hard for most people – but the reality is all those dollars operate like votes – they say “make another one, and make more packaging for it, and run the factory a little longer.” Not buying stuff is one of the most powerful tools we’ve got.
2. Structure your life so that it is easier to be green than not. Most of us have a limited mount of self-discipline – we are a little lazy. So if there’s a choice between a mile and a half walk or just hopping in the car, we find that despite our best intentions, we just didn’t get going in time to walk. Well, the harder you make all that stuff for yourself, the better. That means disconnect the appliances you don’t want to use, and put them up on a high shelf, so that it is easier to use the manuals (or you could sell them). Don’t have a car, or don’t have second car, so that if you want to go to the library you have to walk, bike or take the bus.
3. Take a Sabbath or a no-use day and enforce it. Try and establish at least one day a week in which you don’t drive, don’t turn on the computer and don’t shop. The value of this is that a. it gives you the gift of what we all say we want anyway, time with family and friends, quiet time, etc… But it also prevents us from constantly powering things up. Turn stuff off – start with one day, try and add more if you can. What’s amazing about this is how much of a pleasure this comes to be – but it is hard to disconnect.
4 Pick the low hanging fruit. You probably have some really obvious ways that you are wasting energy. For example, not putting your tv and vcr on a powerstrip allows them to continue drawing power when you aren’t using them. Eliminating this “phantom load” is a pretty easy step. Or perhaps you don’t meal plan so you’ve been running out to the store two or three times a week. But it isn’t really hard to to shift to doing it once, while doing other errands. You’ve been meaning to stop your junk mail, and you don’t really like it, but you haven’t gotten around to it.
5. Do things that are just as easy with human power, with human power. Got a little postage stamp of a lawn? Well, get a push mower. By the time you change your oil and get the thing out of the garage, you will have used more of your own energy than simply running a good push mower (if you’ve never used a new, light one, don’t assume it will be too hard) over that bit of lawn. Want to start baking your own bread, but assuming you need a bread machine? Get a book that shows no-knead recipes that rise overnight – you can have better bread for breakfast with less effort. We tend to assume that labor-saving devices save labor – we assume it so strongly that we often don’t check, and it turns out, they don’t.
6. Eat appropriately to your place and season. What grows well there? What’s in season? What’s local? What’s in your backyard? No one should eat as much meat as the typical American does, and often recommendations on diet focus on not eating meat or as much. This is important, but the kind of meat matters too – what grows well naturally near you? What do local farmers have. Did you know that meat, eggs and mil are seasonal as well? What is ready now? What can you get inexpensively? Can you preserve some of what is abundant now for the time when it won’t be? Local diets are really local – the food you’d eat in Nebraska and the food you’d eat in coastal Maine are not the same, and shouldn’t be.
7. If it is the end that matters – change your means. Consider household heating for example – most of us want to be warm enough to be comfortable at home. There are lots of ways to accomplish this, however, including wearing more clothes, putting on a hat, heating a rice bag or hot water bottle and placing it strategically, using space heaters or radiant heaters, adapting to cooler temperatures early in the season, heating the whole house, etc… Focus on achieving your goal (being comfortable) and on finding new ways to do it – you can focus on heating you, rather than the entire house. You want to have tea or coffee available all day? Ok, try a thermos, instead of running the coffee pot all morning. You need enough light to read by? What about an LED book light? You want the kids to look like their friends? How about finding a nice consignment shop, or organizing a clothing swap with friends? Sometimes we mix up ends and means, and assume that the means are the point – that what we care about isn’t being warm, but having the house be 70.
8. Go at the big hogs. The things that are probably your biggest energy costs are heating, cooling, refrigeration, transport and your meat consumption. So when you try and figure out how to make an impact, start there. Find that carpool. Try the bus. Make more vegetarian meals. Replace your fridge with a smaller model. Put jugs of water in fridge and freezer since it runs more efficiently full. Reinsulate. Run the a/c only when it is above 82 in the house.
9. Cut things in half. Nobody enjoys giving things up, so consider halving them instead. Use half as much detergent, shampoo, conditioner – those measures on the bottles are meant to sell things. Spend half as much on movies and treats. Wash towels and sheets half as often. Try and walk or bike half the time. Try and waste only half the food you have been. Remember, things don’t have to be 100% – and often, the impact of doing something half the time includes you recognizing that we could do it even less.
10. We do like things to be easy, but not everything we like is easy. For all that it is important that people not feel befuddled and overwhelmed by the idea of reducing energy usage, it is possible to get people involved by the creative, fun and engaging elements of doing this. That is, even if it never is as simple as rolling off a log, people are engaged by complex things when they derive a sense of artfulness, accomplishment and pleasure from them. That is, you can get people to try and navigate a local diet, even if that’s more complex than “don’t eat X” if you can convince them that really local diets taste better and offer opportunities for creative expression. It may not be easy to figure out how to make your own, mend your own or do without things – but if people get to be pleased and proud that they learned something new or accomplished something difficult, they may do it anyway. Making the hard stuff interesting goes a long way to making people forget that it can be hard.