Time to Riot!

The Riot for Austerity came about this way. In 2007, after the release of the IPCC report, and a number of books drawing attention to climate change, a friend of mine and I were discussing our frustration that no political organization was considering any kind of emissions cuts that even resembled those necessary to limit the damage from climate change. In fact whenever we discussed the 90+% emissions cuts required to give us the best chance of a reasonable stable climate, the immediate reaction was "that's not going to happen!"

Stealing a great line from George Monbiot's wonderful book _Heat_, in which he laments "no one has ever rioted for austerity" Miranda Edel and I, both mothers of children who would be living for this world, wondered if it was really so inconceivable that people could change their lives. After all, our grandparents had done so during WWII - was it really so alien, so far away? Frustrated at lack of political responsiveness, we decided we wouldn't wait - we'd see if we could make the cuts in our own lives. Someone, we argued, had to model a way of life that was actually viable given the limits of our planet's resources and pollution absorption capacity. So, why not us?

We set two goals. First, we would spend a year trying to get our emissions down by 90% over the American average. Second, we'd use this as part of a larger public strategy to point out that it can be done - that we don't have to wait for political action - indeed, that we can't wait.

What we didn't expect was that the Riot would take on a life of its own - at its peak in 2008, several thousand people in 14 countries were rioting - and talking about it in a lively, sometimes contentious, often very funny discussion group. Wjat was most astonishing about it was how much fun all of us were having getting our emissions and impact down.

Or maybe that isn't very surprising. The historian Timothy Breen has argued that during times of crisis, what he calls "rituals of non-consumption" arise in order to fill the gap created by the inability to consumer, for whatever reason. Those rituals - sharing recipes for homegrown teas during the American revolution, knitting socks for soldiers during WWI, etc... are as satisfying or more satisfying than the old rituals. People don't miss what they give up - provided, of course, that they can fill the gap with community.

In 2007, while it was frustrating that the people had to lead the political discourse, it seemed possible we might do something, however inadequate, about climate change. In that sense, it seems like a good time to re-start the Riot. As our government has less and less to do with what our kids and grandkids actually need from governments, as all of us face a world where we're losing control of the real essentials, it is more necessary than ever to build that way of life worth living, and more necessary than ever to not allow the political process to stand in the way of making change. The Riot was always political as well as personal (and y'all know I don't think they can be separated) - there is nothing more powerful than saying to governments - we don't need you to make change, we can do it ourselves. Strangely, that's when governments tend to get involved - when enough ordinary people start transforming the world for themselves.

To me, this isn't a rejection of the idea that there are some things governments do well - instead it is an affirmation that we can lead, rather than wait to be led. The Riot was set to point out - look, thousands of people can do what you have said is impossible, and we can do it without help. We can get to this point in our emissions production without waiting for the public transportation projects, for the renewable energy projects, for the subsidies for things that are worth having. How much more could we do with those things?

Moreover, there are practical reasons to join as well. As Dmitry Orlov points out, when the world is headed for a fall, and you have a choice of falling out of a fourth story window or a first story window, choosing the first-story window just plain makes sense. The lower we get our energy and resource consumption, the better prepared we are for our emergent future in which we are constrained by limits of climate, resources and wealth. If you recognize we cannot go on as we are, we must not wait for someone else to lead the way - it is time to make the changes that are needed ourselves.

If the only reasons were to change the world, make things better for your kids and grandkids and prepare yourself for the future, there'd probably be no reason to do it ;-). The real reason to riot is this - it is a heck of a lot of fun. There's an artistry in extracting the most from the least that offers a great deal of pleasure - the formal structures of the riot act, I think, like the framework of a sonnet or a the basic positions of dance, a discipline in which a new freedom and possibility emerges.

Ok, down to brass tacks. How does this work?

In its simplest terms, we're going to spend the next year asking "how low can you go?" Think of it as the energy limbo! The first step is to figure out what the average American uses. For this, I'm using EIA statistics whenever possible. Sometimes it is easy to figure out what the data are - other times it is more complicated. Sometimes the data is readily and accurately available in per-person numbers, sometimes you have to work with household numbers, which is more complex. Sometimes there is comparative consistency across regions, other times wide ranges, and it is hard to know how to evaluate.

One of the things that we found the first time is that there's a lot of debate and a lot of grey areas. How much does the energy you use at work count into your resources? Maybe you can affect that not at all - you don't have any control over how resources are used in your workplace. Maybe you can control it entirely - perhaps you work at home? How should we calculate renewable energy in your state - should it count as a 0 if you can afford to pay extra, even though there isn't enough renewable production to support everyone who might want to use it, even though the backups come from coal or diesel? What about wood heat? How do you could public transportation?
What about things that aren't easy to calculate, like food? Do we average things? Does doing well on some of the categories get you out of some of the others?

Other people noticed that things weren't necessarily fair. Was it fair to have to try and work around national averages when you live in a much hotter or colder place? Was it fair that single person households were at a disadvantage in some areas? Was it fair that larger households were at a disadvantage in others? City dwellers have public transport - should rural dwellers be held to the same standard? Rural dwellers can grow more food - that doesn't seem fair!

What we found in the year and more we struggled with these questions was that in fact, life isn't fair. I know that will be news to all of you ;-). Ultimately, you can do whatever you want - we set up the rules, but there's no one demanding any of us stick to them or interpret them one way. But I do know that I found the challenge of living on my energy budget to be most satisfying when I chose to calculate things in the way that seemed most in keeping with my principles. It was helpful to remember that this was a set of goals and ideals, and it isn't a race, it isn't a competition and there's no olympic energy-use cutting event. This is a collaborative project, one in which ideally we'll be proud of what we accomplish - that's what I care most about.

There are complicated questions - the answers aren't easy. Ultimately, at some point soon, we're going to have to just decide how to answer them, so that people don't get bogged down in the questions, but I do want your input. What do you think? How should we think about these things?

We're starting over from scratch, because almost all the material dedicated to the prior Riot has now disappeared from the internet entirely - we had, among other things, a cool calculator that allowed you to plug in numbers and find out where you stand without getting out a pen and paper, and a useful FAQ. These have gone missing, so we'll have to recreate them (note that "we" hint, hint ;-)).

I should say upfront that this is not a one person project - yes, I'm going to take the lead on writing and publicizing this, yes, if the buck has to stop somewhere, it will stop with me, but I NEED YOUR HELP!!! I need your help in a number of ways. I need someone to help us set up an energy calculator, and someone to volunteer to do the research for the FAQ in each category, for how to calculate grey areas and less clear options. I need a few people to volunteer to moderate the two groups I'm setting up for discussion of Riot issues, one on Yahoogroups, the other on facebook (we'll also be talking about it here on my blog, but that's not enough - people need to be able to raise their own problems and get answers). And I need y'all to publicize the riot on your own sites, to tweet and blog about it, to call up your local newspapers and publicize it. The first Riot got a surprising amount of attention - the second Riot could blow the roof off with your help.

So please, in comments, tell me what you want to contribute to this. Want to do the math on the transportation section? Ready to use your skills to set up a new calculator? Want to give the Riot a webpage and discussion group all its own so you don't have to use Facebook? Got an idea to share about cutting your usage? Want to have a meetup at your place for rioters in your area? Tell me! The part about this that is so much fun is the collaborative element!

Ok, let's focus on what we're talking about - the categories. There are still 7 of them.

1. Transportation Energy - here the average American uses 500 gallons of gas per person, per year. That makes it pretty easy to figure out - everyone gets 50 gallons per year. Then the questions begin to emerge. How do you calculate different public transport options? We really need someone to set up a calculator that covers diesel buses and hybrid buses, plane mileage, carpooling, and what have you.

2. Electricity - this is a big grey area as well. How do you calculate your share of your office's energy use? Is it fair that people who live in the far north like me don't consume as much electricity as folks who need a/c? Space cooling is the single largest use of electricity in the US, at 17%. How do you calculate hydro? What if it is environmentally damaging hydro power? Do peak and off-peak consumption matter? How do you count nuclear?

The average American uses 2,000 kwh per person *household* (not "per houseold" but "at home" as opposed to "at work and other places you go") use - total use is 4,000kwh annually. So that part is fairly easy - each person gets 200kwh per year. And the great thing is that this is the easiest part to calculate, since for most people on-grid, the utility company will be sending you an analysis of your usage every month.

3. Other fuels - mostly used for heating and cooking, but sometimes for other things as well. Natural gas, heating oil and propane are the major fuels, but these also include various forms of biomass (wood, pellets, corn, etc...). In some cases, this won't be a relevant category, if your home or apartment is all-electric, but most of us use some other heating fuel. Again, this is one of those places where a lot of grey areas emerge. Should wood be counted as carbon neutral all the time? Some of the time, depending on how it is harvested and used? How to calculate pellets or corn or biodiesel heating fuel? Which equivalencies do we want to use to allow people using heating oil to compare with those using biomass, natural gas or heating oil?

4. Water. Why include this? Well, because water resources use is a huge portion of the environmental picture. At 130 gallons *houseold* average (with an average household size of 2.6 people) that gives us 13 gallons per household per day.

Water is nice and clear in some areas, but almost no one actually made the 10% goal. I was almost tempted to take it off the list, but I think it is stands as a good goal, even if most of us don't achieve it. Water is going to be a huge source of stress in the coming century in many parts of the US. Our family actually uses about 35% of the American average, and I'm content there - but we also did go down for several months to the lower level and we know we could do it - and still live comfortably, although I admit, I missed the showers. Still with water capture and storage, and greywater usage, we weren't hurting. We live in a wet area, and I've become comfortable with this - maybe too comfortable - I'm looking forward to challenging ourselves again.

5. Garbage. Like water, there was a case to be made for leaving garbage out, but I do think it counts. Among other things, garbage is a significant source of methane emissions due to the inappropriate disposal of biodegradable material in landfills. Getting your garbage down really counts. The good news is that this is actually one of the areas where most households can do the most the fastest as well!

The average American household produces 40lbs of garbage per week - that gives you a limit of 4lbs per household.

6. Food. This is a hard one - there aren't any really good figures for figuring out how to lower the impact of your food, so we kind of made it up. Our calculation was that no more than 10% of your food should be from the mainstream industrial food system. Everything else should be either local low-input (organic isn't a very useful term most of the time because of the prevalence of industrial organic), or bulk purchased goods with minimal packaging, either organic or low-input, and fair trade if bought from the Global South.

There's a lot of grey here. For example, even though the local hydroponic tomato farm is near me, it sure as heck isn't low input - tomatoes from Florida would make more sense in March, and no tomatoes at all until tomato season still more sense. What do you do if you can't transport bulk goods? What do you do in a food desert? What if you are on WIC or food stamps? What if you can't afford these things? These are complicated questions - at the same time, every dollar we spend in the industrial food system constitutes an endorsement. Again, the fact that the goal is challenging, and perhaps impossible for some of us doesn't make it wrong.

Finally, category 7 is consumer goods. Multiple studies have found that every dollar we spend in the US results in an average of 1.6-2.kg of atmospheric carbon being produced in the process of manufacture, transport of goods, etc.... Not addressing the problem of consumption seems like missing the point. We know that Americans spend almost 1.5 trillion dollars a year on things that can only be viewed as non-essentials - luxury boats, marshmallow peeps, jewelry, Johnny Walker, lottery tickets...and those are just the things that the US commerce department feels comfortable acknowledging that *no one* needs - lots of other luxury items count as "necessary" because someone thinks they are. They don't include things like mansions (counting as housing) or $500 sneakers (clothing) or what have you. We spend almost 12% of our total household budgets on luxury items alone.

We also buy new when we could buy used 90% of the time. The average American spend 11,000 per year on items that don't include food, insurance, energy, housing and other necessities. Much of that money is in the form of debt. So everyone gets 1,100 dollars for consumer purchases - but used goods count as only 10% of their asking price, because keeping used items out of the waste stream is awesome! So if you can afford it, you can have you full 11K as long as you buy used. (Unfortunately, we are unable to supply you with the cash to do so as part of your membership in the Riot ;-)).

One important thing to know is that when numbers are for households, that the average American household size is 2.6 people, so you can get a rough estimate of the per-person usage by dividing by that. Different people have different takes on this - my family strove to meet the household averages even though we are more than double that size, other people chose to work with per-person averages.

What do you do if not everyone in your household wants to Riot? Well, you can try and persuade them, but honestly, maybe you'll have to work only on per-person consumption, and there may well be things that you can't control - if your spouse or parent wants the heat at 75 all winter or the a/c blasting, you may not be able to deal with those issues - or maybe not right away. Remember the power of benign example can do a lot.

This is a big challenge, and it would be easy to get overwhelmed. I got some criticism last time by seeing people say "wait a minute, don't we need to take baby steps?" I admit, this is a critique that annoys me - the problem is that babies only take baby steps for a very short time. Pretty soon they are off and running. Yes, at first you may need to take it slow - particularly if this is all new and overwhelming to you. At the same time, however, baby steps can become an excuse for not making real change. Sure, take your time getting started, but the goal is to move faster and faster, just like any one growing in confidence and strength.

If last time is any measure, you are going to have a lot of company to share strategies with, complain with, to compare notes and figure out with. No one can riot alone - but riots have a life of their own, they start as a little buzz, and end up making a noise no one can silence. We've seen it in the middle east - now it is time to start a Riot of our own!

Please, post suggestions for how to do the calculations and volunteer to take on roles in comments. Or email me at jewishfarmer@gmail.com, or at facebook. I've started the facebook group here under the "Riot for Austerity" name - drop me an email with your identity, and I'll add you!

Can't wait to get started!



More like this

Hi Sharon, thanks for starting this up again! I'm looking forward to participating.

I'm a little confused with your numbers for electricity. I found the website with the previous numbers and a 90% reduction was about 1,100 kwh per household per year, or 90 kwh per month. This time it appears to be 200 kwh per year or about 17 kwh per month. Did we change the measure? That is, the previous one was for an entire household and the new one is per one person? If so, this is going to be a lot harder than I thought :-P

I've done a lot of the baby steps, I'm interested in your Riot. I'll probably "fail" but it will be learning experience.

By Bureinato (not verified) on 01 Aug 2011 #permalink

This sounds fun. Joined the group on FB. Depending on my schedule, I will try to post some useful information pertaining to fuel conversion calculations for Category 1.

I requested to join the fb group. I'm sure for me cutting personal use will be easy compared with tackling household use- we inherited this house, and we're currently renting out 3 rooms. With people who aren't as conscientious of, say, turning off the lights when they head to bed (arg!).

This is our 33rd month of Rioting - we started in October 2008.

I LOVED that calculator - now I guestimate going by my old numbers and correlate to the percentages, but I'd love to have it back (have no idea how, though).

We dropped the last two categories (food and consumer goods) pretty soon in the game, though.

The Riot is fun, it is instructive, it is motivating, it is at times frustrating and mindboggling. Everyone should do it, and even better, do it together!

Wikipedia informs me that diesel buses run about 6 mpg. One could calculate fuel use by multiplying that by the number of passengers, but asking rioters to count passengers every time they take a bus might be a bit much.

How about be optimistic (same reasoning as the 90% discount on used consumer goods) and assume 25 passengers per bus? That's about 50% capacity, and works out to 150mpg per passenger.

So, calculate for public transit as if you were driving a 150mpg car.

I didnt know we were rioting when deciding not to use gas heat anymore. Beyond not using gas heat we plain ol let our propane run out only spending $440 last year on propane. From November-March we had 0% in our tank. We have a wood cookstove and a wood furnace. We save water because we dont have access to unlimited hot water in this situation having to heat water for our baths on the cookstove, also for doing dishes which also reduced our electric consumption since the pump wasnt needing to run and refill hot water. We use candles a lot at night and work outside during the day farming. WE own 36 acres and raise 4 acres of veggies, as well as livestock including heritage hogs, beef cattle, poultry, sheep and goats. We call it homesteading. We share one vehicle (no one works off farm) and although we do sell our products at farmers market and CSA we are always willing to cut back and focus on homestead then to grow our business beyond what is sustainable or reasonable. We do all the work ourselves. We have more recycling then garbage and most often find ways to reuse things before finally taking to salvage yards or donating them. WE dnont eat fast food (havent for tens of years) and we dont sho at big box stores (maybe buy a few office supplies coupe times a year). We dont buy "theneeds" as Lorax calls them. We dont need anything we dont already have. Nor do we have the means for such a lifestyle even if we thought we wanted something (the feeling always passes and replaced with contentment so never really feeling we are missing out). Movies are checked out from the good ol library along with books. All our clothes are from thrift stores. Its almost become a game to see how much we can "Riot" and do without and always feel better for it. I just didnt know there was a term for living the lifestyle we do. We often feel very out of touch with the rest of society that is still living what we consider a materialistic based and wasteful lifestyle. Although we are empowered on this path we often realize how alone we are and that we are still the great minority of people doing similar things. Still a long way to go...

These numbers started out rather intimidating. My husband and I carpool to work in a fuel-efficient car, but I think it will still be unlikely we'll make it more than half a year on 100 gallons of gas. Electricity is another tough one, though I'm eager to try.

But then! Consumer goods! This is pretty exciting. So everyone gets 1,100 dollars for consumer purchases â but used goods count as only 10% of their asking price, because keeping used items out of the waste stream is awesome! Goodwill is my store of choice for nearly everything. I'm rather giddy that the 99 cent books we buy are only going to "cost" me a Riot Dime.

I'm in. Have been but need a push to lower to the 90% level. Just the incentive I need.

The problem with most "environmentalists" ios that they are ecofascists - that is to say they do not so much want to do things themselves as to force everybody else to do them.

I personally do not see any sign of catastrophic global warming but acknowledge your right to do things yourself in support of the theory.

If you wish to not only do things but to publicly make a statement I would suggest painting your roof and yard white. Certainly if all urban lanmd were painted white it would lower the Earth's albedo by a small but measurable amount and at least significantly reduce any anthropogenic warming. It is only when eco types start insisting that others paint their roofs/pay through the nose for windmills/see their jobs destroyed etc etc that i have a problem and unfortunately I see far more enforcing of such things than I do "environmentalists" acting themselves.

I also requested to be added to the Facebook group. I myself have a reluctant (sometimes unwilling) spouse but we've made some small changes together that have made a difference. (He is keen on improving the house, so that's a definite plus.) We looked at our household spending last night, and even if I can't figure out what "normal" is, I can try to reduce my own personal consumption compared to last year, say.

I can help with the water issue. Both because where I live is a desert (but nobody acts like it is), and because there is a serious use of mostly coal-fired power to get water to us, for years, we have been aiming for 10 gallons a day. This amount allows us to eat fresh local foods- no TV dinners to save water! People can go to www.10gallonsaday.org and check this out. It DOES work!!! And yes, you do miss long hot showers, but the good side is that my skin is no longer dried out!

The best way to prepare for this ominous future is indeed to cut back NOW!

I think i'll go with what the average English household uses so it's easier to see what's possible within my country.

Should we post such information we find here?

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 02 Aug 2011 #permalink

To increase polluting effects while thinking it is nice, burning wood as fuel is also great, and would suffice.

I agree with the Riot, and I support you in this, but I think the biggest offenders in waste/destruction are, and will remain, conglomerates of all types: agribusiness, factories, fracking, etc. If they were to reduce their consumption of electricity, water, etc. There would be significantly less need for any of us to do the same.

We're definitely in! We've been gearing up for it for years.

Hi Jane,
That image was created by the original Riot group!
The second image you found is indeed of the calculator, but it's just a screenshot of it, not the calculator itself, nor does it supply the working of it, unfortunately...

I did the Compact back in 2006-7 but have slipped back into the mainstream more than I like. I'd like for both feet to be planted and moving in the same path. I think I'm up for trying this. :) I've sent a request to join the Facebook group.

"The problem with most "environmentalists" ios that they are ecofascists"

A statement that gives you all the insight you need into Biel Croag's mind.

The 10gallonsaday site is fascinating. I've slipped somewhat and my water bill has doubled. The Riot and the 10gallon site have really inspired me. Thanks


Try letting go of the bitterness and anger.

I have a very liberal friend from my childhood. All he does is post angry talking points and links from the very liberal end of the spectrum now that I've caught up with him on the Internet.

Left or Right, environmentalist or not, name calling improves nothing.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 03 Aug 2011 #permalink

Austerity will probably be forced on most of us soon enough - riot or no riot.

Susan, it isn't an either/or thing - conglomerates get their money from, well, us. 70% of the economy is consumer spending. And while corporations would love for us to love them and give them great big wads of stinking cash, they are willing to settle for the cash, that they then use to shape public policy. So cut the consumer goods, cut the expenditures, stop buying stuff from them in large enough nubmers, and you cut that line too.

Emily, yup, they count. The good news is that used goods are often available and you can do renovation projects often using recycled materials. And yes, that does mean that sometimes you won't hit your target - but having to balance those goals is part of the process, IMHO.


Wahoo! Just plain Yippee!

By Grandma Misi (not verified) on 05 Aug 2011 #permalink

I just signed up for facebook to do more with this, but cant figure out how to find this group on facebook

Some rough calculations put our household in the 10% of average usage for transportation energy already. Hooray! Enjoying warm glow of accomplishmentâ¦â¦.though maybe that is emanating from my blistered feet ;-)
I think we have plenty of work to do in all the other areas though, will enjoy figuring it out.

By sealander (not verified) on 08 Aug 2011 #permalink

Considering the level of organised looting, the very last thing they are rioting for is austerity.

So i've learnt a few things:

Ok, so i think i can do 10% water usage and petrol, though I would appreciate it if the English would be a bit more wasteful. It would currently make my changes seem a lot less drastic :)

Without some kind of renewable source, electricity is a total failure. Even a decent sized A rated fridge-frezer would use more power than the 10% allowance per year. Without extra people in the house to bump up the allowed quota it's a wash for me at the moment.

Food is about 70%, though it's my first year of gardening... it has certainly changed my diet to more greens and less meat.

Gas should be about 30% but I will have to wait until we get into winter before my new usage levels will become apparent.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 09 Aug 2011 #permalink

What figures have you found for the UK? I reckon 124litres of petrol pa, 187kWh per person pa, 891kWh per person pa for gas and 15 litres water per person per day. The figure for waste, based on a tonne per household pa is approx 1.8lb per person per week or .84kg. These are all figures for 10% of average and based on a household size of 2.3 people. Currently I am using 3 times as much electricity, 4 times as much gas and 5 times as much water. No idea what my petrol is as most of my journeys are by public transport. I find this the single most difficult thing to calculate.

I missed this - been in newborn baby land. ;) But we'll try to make a "start" on Sept. 1, I think. I asked to join the FB group too. I'm not totally sure hubby will be on board, but after the fridge project, he very well may be! This really excites me!

This is great. I hope to join you all too. I'm not on Facebook so hopefully you'll copy appropriate information to this website until a separate new Riot website comes online (if it does).
Sharon, I'm pretty good at excel. I did a first cut at an excel spreadsheet that replicates the calculator screenshot (US units only without all the filters for various units). I'll send it to you at your email address above.
I wasn't part of the original group but it seems this data was compiled into a year to date set of tables. If anyone has a screen shot of the data entry for the year to date info, please post the location. It should be easy to re-create.

I participated in R4A for a year or two and it was a neat challenge, although I did find that some of the measures seemed problematic ... particularly the PT measures.

Part of the point of PT is that those are communal systems that help support everyone. The more you ride PT, the more you support public infrastructure.

I live in a city with ok PT, but not great PT. But I make a point of taking the public transit because I believe in supporting the city's public infrastructure. In some ways, I believe that taking public transit is better even than walking because of the infrastructure it helps to build.

I think R4A is an interesting thought experiment, but it does have the effect a little bit of treating each individual household as an island as if what we do does not have an effect on our communities, which I know, Sharon, you disagree with.

Possibly a better way to calculate would be to say that regardless of whether you take PT, if it runs in your community, you'd have to count it towards your emissions because your tax dollars are paying for it. Then if you use it, fine, it's basically free. If you don't use it, then you've got double transport emissions.

Also, I understand why we don't really want to count emissions based on the taxes people pay because no one has a choice as to where there taxes go to. But what about emissions based on your investments, your 401ks, your savings accounts? Those matter just as much as your own personal consumption, if not more.