Ok, I’ve always hated those “Top 10 Ways to Green Your Apartment/Cat/Sex Toys/Shaving Equipment” articles, and yet they do serve a sort of purpose (at least the ones that aren’t total rubbish) – narrowing things down and prioritizing is helpful. So for those of you teetering on the edge of joining the new Riot for Austerity, check out the real 10 ways to make a big difference – I promise this is the only “Top 10 Green” List I’ll ever make you read!
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 it is easier to do without. 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. Just do 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.