Every time I go out to water the garden and feel that initial, sun-warmed blast of hot water from the garden hose as I fill up the watering can, it just kills me that we're burning natural gas to heat the water for our house. I've got my eye on a Patriot Solar Hot Water system, and I even know where it will go on the roof, but I just don't have the cheese saved up to buy it yet. Someday. In the mean time, the sun is being quite generous with us this year in the garden. Instead of teasing us with a few warm days at the end of June or beginning of July, and then bringing in the clouds and cool winds, this year the weather has seen fit to give us one of those long hot northern Michigan summers I remember from my childhood. It's been in the high eighties and low nineties consistently since early July. We've been getting a steady (yet still modest) stream of produce from the garden, steady because we're enthusiastic planters and waterers, and the sun has kept things growing, modest because I'm still a novice, a light-green thumb, and tend to make errors that crimp the harvest. But I'm learning.
The peas were a bit skimpy this year. It was my first year growing them; I wanted something that would come up early to start the harvest sooner. I think I could have planted them much more densely to get more production. Bib lettuce kept us well supplied fairly early, fresh salads every night since early July until the beginning of August. I planted another round a little late, and after the first round bolted from the heat, we've had a lag time as the second round is still struggling to get going. Timing, timing. Fortunately my father-in-law has the lettuce thing down, and we've been enjoying the results of his garden too. My daughter and I also made a recent trip south to Akron to visit friends and came home with a huge, farm-sized barrel of fresh produce from aCSA operation that they started there. So by our own developing skills and the sharing of our friends, we've managed to keep ourselves in fresh vegetables and some seasonal fresh fruit without relying on the grocery store.
Not that I have anything against the grocery store, mind you. We patronize an organic food store in the central part of our town, and also a neighborhood grocery store on the west side where we live. My game is to make fewer trips and to choose items that have traveled only locally, or the shortest distance possible among the choices, in order to lessen our footprint. We also love pulling off to the side of the road when we're enroute somewhere to buy a dozen ears of corn or fresh-picked fruit from one of the farm stands that dot the landscape up here, or riding our bikes to the down-town farmers market. What we haven't done since starting this project over a year and a half ago, though, is buy food from any of the big box grocery stores in the area. We just don't need them.
Here's what else we've been producing with decent results: cucumbers - we've been picking them on the small side, and they are delicious! Zuchinni - yes, I planted fewer this year, and we still have an excess in the fridge, but the plants are dying one-by-one from some sort of root rot that I have to learn about. Green beans are plentiful. We could eat them every night if we wanted to. We have to keep up with picking them to keep them from growing too large and losing some of their flavor.
And then there's the tomato. That's right, tomato in the singular. I've harvested exactly one tomato so far this year. Last year we had such an excess of cherry tomatoes, and a steady supply of early girls and beefsteaks that I thought I'd back off a bit on them this year. My last year's planning didn't figure in the eventual size of the plants either, and they over-shaded my pepper plants (and so last year got one measly pepper). This year I thought I'd get smart and use the topsy-turvy upside down tomato growers to save space too. Something I did stunted their growth. I can't tell if I'm over or under watering, and I also think I waited too long to put the potted plants into their upside down homes. We have a handful of struggling green tomatoes, but it looks like we'll be relying on friends for that crop this year.
In the on-deck circle, we are close to harvesting: purple pole beans, green and yellow bell peppers, russet potatoes, carrots (we could pick some now, but I want them to get bigger), another round of green beans (you can never have too many), more lettuce, a tall box full of broccoli that is crowning now, and in another couple weeks, watermelon!
The hens should start laying eggs in a few weeks too. They've been dining all summer on corn cobs and kitchen compost, bugs and grass (and all sorts of leafy things) from the yard (and sometimes from the garden when we let our guards down!), and their prescribed laying ration. One twenty pound bag of laying ration lasts well more than a month, as these hens seem to prefer their yard foraging to hanging out by their feeder. We're looking forward to those eggs!
I read an article in Mother Earth News (June/July 2010 issue) about a group of people who call themselves hypermilers, meaning that they intentionally dive their cars using habits and techniques to get the maximum miles per gallon. I started driving a hybrid (Honda Insight) over a year ago and immediately enjoyed significant fuel savings over my old car, but what enthralls me most about the car now is the constant feedback it gives me about my driving and fuel efficiency. It provides real-time mpg data plus trip averages and over-all averages, and it lets me select different modes of displaying the information. It also has a color-coded background display integrated with the speedometer (almost like a 'heads up' display in a jet) so that it can keep me informed peripherally without pulling my attention away from the road and traffic. The result of that feedback is that the car has taught me over the past year how to drive it more efficiently. While the EPA rating for the car is 41/45 mpg, I routinely achieve low 50's to low 60's around town and mid 50's on longer trips. My average over 11,000 miles since buying the car sits at 52.3 mpg
The techniques my car has taught me agree with those in the Mother Earth News article. The first tip the article gives is to slow down. Not always easy to do in our "imina hurry" and "need4speed" culture, but fluid friction being what it is and physical laws not caring about our cultural self-image, reducing your speed is the easiest way to save gas. Here is the quick lineup of easy gas-saving tips from Mother Earth:
1. slow down
2. brake less
3. lighten your load
4. minimize air conditioning
5. keep up with engine maintenance
6. avoid excessive idling
The article also includes some more advanced tips such as 'smart braking', that is, braking early to anticipate stops lights to avoid needing full stops, planning routes to minimize required stops and to use lighter trafficked roads so that you have more flexibility in your speed and braking.
I think of it as driving as though I have a wedding cake in the back and no brakes.
If I drive off without thinking and pretend I'm in a race car, then sure, I'm getting 41, 42 mpg in the Honda, but if I pay just a little attention to how I'm driving, and if I can chill a little and not be in such a hurry, then 54,55 mpg is no problem.
This time of year, though, my favorite way to save gas is still to ride my bike.
Every spring we get these ant infestations along the edge of the cement walk in our back yard.Tens of thousands of the little buggers mass at the edge of the grass and build their highways, tunnels, and hills. They're not a terrible nuisance, but they do seem too numerous for our small yard; plus there is the thought that they may decide to extend their parade into the house. That I don't want.
I've tried a variety of remedies including standing there with the garden hose blasting their earth works to smithereens. That pisses them off, but doesn't get rid of them. It's also quite a waste of water. The ants set right to rebuilding their colony, seemingly with more resolve.
I've also used nasty chemicals in the past. That tends to work after a while, but then there's the bit about spilling toxins into the ground. Growing up I used to think nothing of it, but I've come to a much different opinion of that now after educating myself just a little. Toxins in ground = bad. Plus you have to go buy a can of the stuff (it's not cheap), and stand there scratching your chin over the list of noxious ingredients trying to pick the least dangerous, yet most effective one (huh?).
This year I realized that I could try a different approach. We've got hens pecking around all day on the ground in their chicken tractor. I wheeled them over to the ants the set them partly over the sidewalk where the colony was established. Talk about a dedicated staff! Who says you can't find good help these days? Those girls made quick work of it. I came to check on them about fifteen minutes later and not an ant in sight!
It occurred to me that perhaps the ants got scared (Tyrannosaurus Rex’s closest surviving relatives running around above you frantically trying to munch you up with a lightening quick jackhammer? Okay, I can see it) and went under ground. Later I moved the hens to a new spot. The ants still have not returned, so maybe they went the way of so many snacks.
No chemicals, no need to go out and find the latest ant-killing compound, just good old fashioned henergy.
It's mid June, and we're starting to nibble from the garden already (radishes and lettuce). That's a couple weeks earlier than last year. This will be year two of vegetable gardening for us. We still feel like beginners, but certainly bolder and more energetic beginners. My memory of last year's gardening season is still fresh, eating produce from the backyard (augmented liberally from my father-in-law's garden 30 minutes north of us) for the months of July, August, and September without needing to buy much from the grocery store. What we did buy last year, we bought from the local farm market in town, or from one just over the county line to the north that we can get to on our bikes four miles on a rails-to-trails path. That's not food independence by any stretch, but it's a step in that direction, and contributes to our smaller footprint.
The idea of becoming food independent is intriguing to me, and I get a kick out of seeing how much production I can squeeze from our postage stamp, city lot. Not enough for true independence, that I know, but it's entertaining to see how far we can go none-the-less.
Since we have limited ground, we're trying some new things this year to go vertical. New project number 1 is potato towers. I've got russets planted in three wooden boxes next to the bean garden. As the shoots poke through the soil, I add compost and straw to lightly cover them up, and put another stage onto the boxes to grow them vertically. I've made the boxes two feet square out of scrap (untreated) lumber and some 2 x 10's that I bought. The idea is that the shoots will continue seeking the sun and will follow the boxes up until they can leaf out at the top. As they climb to the surface, offshoots branch out below and grow more potatoes. At least that's how it's supposed to go. I'm a tad worried that I let the shoots leaf out too much while away on a canoe trip. When I returned, I saw quite a bit of green in my single stage boxes. I've since added two more stages to each box and covered the shoots and leaves. I'm hoping I didn't do them in by waiting too long.
New project number 2 is vertical tomatoes. I'm trying four of the Topsy-Turvey upside down tomato growers (purchased at our local garden store), hanging from posts at the corners of the squash and cucumber garden. I have some misgivings about that one too. I think I might have waited too long to get my potted Early Girl and Beef Steak plants into the upside down growers. I had to mash up the root balls a bit more than seems healthy in order to stuff them through the hole in the bottom of the grower units. The cherry tomato plants were smaller, and so I think they will be fine. I'm watering them every day and crossing my fingers that I don't have to start over.
One thing I've wised up to this year is getting more from our shorter growing season in northern Michigan. I've started peppers and broccoli inside in a sunny window in the kitchen rather than waiting to plant the seeds outside. That occurred to me about six weeks after some of my gardening friends had already started their seeds, but I feel like I'm starting to get it. This food growing business is definitely an art learned over time. This fall I'm planning to try to lengthen the season on the other end using solar covers for a few of the raised beds.
We also have five hens growing in a coop in the back yard. Hopefully egg production will begin in a couple months. In the mean time, the hens are entertaining to watch. I move them to a different patch of grass every day, so they don't destroy the lawn but to trim it down and fertilize it. So far it's a pretty good deal. The eggs will be a bonus.
Here is a recap of the results from the habits we've developed over 2009 and into this year that have translated into both readily measurable reductions in our resource use and waste production as well as qualitative reductions (more difficult to calculate).
Bottom line so far is that nothing we've done would I consider difficult.
Our process has been to
1. Try out a new method, such as lowering the thermostat or making different choices at the grocery store
2. Keep it up for a week or two, and see if we can establish it as a family habit.
3. Track it over time
Other than choosing food products that are often somewhat more expensive than their non-organic or mass produced counterparts, the two things that we've spent any real money on are buying lightbulbs and insulating the basement.
-electricity: down 24.70%
-natural gas: down 3.98% (from 1386 to 1333 CCF's, pretty small change but we didn't get to our basement insulation project until late in the year.)
-water: down 16.16% (from 115 to 99 CCF's)
-auto fuel: down 64.28 % (from 84 gallons a month down to 30)
Some qualitative results that we don't have numbers for (but in some cases are absolutes):
-We haven't bought any plastic food storage bags since Fall of 2008
-We haven't purchased a single bottle of water since December of 2008
-Our use of products in plastic packaging is way down (but I haven't tracked that numerically). We buy food and home products in clear glass, metal cans, and cardboard, and only very rarely (and after looking for alternatives) in plastic packaging of any sort.
-As of December of 2009, all of the beef we consume is organic, grass fed, and locally produced
-the poultry (including eggs) we buy is also organic and local
-we're still working on the fish question, generally avoiding farm-raised fish, but treading carefully into the wild-caught supplies, not feeling fully informed yet about the impact on specific fisheries
-As of January of 2009 all of the fresh fruits and vegetables we purchase are organic and most are locally produced
-The milk and cream we buy is also all local and organic
Plenty of our food items are still coming from far away (rice, pasta, greens in winter, citrus fruit), but we're not having any trouble finding all organic versions of those foods.
We still have a long way to go ( I now see this as a lifestyle rather than as a journey with an end) and have some ambitious food production and neighborhood networking plans for the balance of 2010. I am encouraged, after a year and a few months, by how easy this has been so far.
Every now and then a glimmer of a new technological advance with the potential to revolutionize our energy reality sparks. Here is such a glimmer, the early stages of a photosynthesis process that claims a small bottle of water mixed with sunlight has the capacity to power your home.
I don't take this to mean that all of our energy questions are now answered, and that we need only sit back and watch the new technology save us. I think conservation and clean production is vital in every corner where we can establish it, but it's fun to see things like this under development.
Question about turning water into hydrogen and oxygen: doesn't that reduce the total water supply? And by how much? Is that a safe thing to be embarking on given the freshwater shortages looming? Can this process use saltwater?
We have a small crystal that hangs from a suction cup that sticks to our kitchen window. It has a tiny solar cell that powers a motor that rotates the crystal, sending shards of rainbow light floating around the kitchen walls and ceiling. Naturally, it stops when a cloud passes by, and the rainbows dim. Then the cloud leaves and the cell powers up again, starting the rainbows swimming around the kitchen once again.
I love this little device for its inspiration and its symbolism. It reminds me of what I've read now in more than a few of the books and online resources I've come across over the past year, that the sun gives us enough energy in a year to more than cover all of our needs, if we could only develop our skills in harnessing that energy. Certainly, we are making great strides there. Direct sun energy is one of my hopes that we will be able to mitigate many of the globe's environmental challenges. That, or course, will require mass adoption. Like anything else that grows into a widespread solution, it must go through its stages.
First the tinkerers and fringe thinkers try it out: dawn. Solar is well past that stage.
Then some counter cultures and small pockets of the very wealthy start using it. It's not yet practical in that it's very expensive to produce modest return and requires uncommon expertise to pull off. Think of the room-sized mainframe computers of the 1970's, how large and mysterious those environments were with their lab-coated attendants, card stacks, and vacuum cleaner-sized disk drives. I have more computing power perched on my knees right now, in a two pound netbook, than fit into one of those rooms of the 70's, and the 15 or so watts this device requires to operate is a micro fraction of what those mainframes and their staffs burned up. Early morning.
As the benefits become better understood in the marketplace, more people become interested and the cost of deployment begins to come down. The sight of solar panels on a roof is no longer considered such a novelty, but people still make assumptions such as: "I couldn't afford one of those," or "those are for show, but they probably don't work very well." In many cases, those assumptions still hold true, but the tide is beginning to change.
Mid morning. I think this is where we are now in the solar energy day. This is still the realm of the early adopter.
Noon is when the technology and the market progress to the point where solar power systems become economically competitive with other energy sources, and the sight of solar panels on residential and commercial roofs becomes commonplace. (And to extend the analogy, afternoon is when another technology begins to emerge while solar propagates and does its work powering our civic lives).
So it's mid morning here, and in my mind, I already have a solar space heater on the side of our house, an evacuated tube solar hot water system on the roof, and an array of photovoltaic panels on the garage roof. This is my major wish list, but I don't have the funds to do it all. Were I to do all of this now, I'd be among the early adopters and would spend quite a bit more than folks will have to five or ten years from now.
To justify the spending to do some of it (can you hear me trying to justify this?) I'd have to add in some unconventional ingredients of value such as: entertainment and mission. I could spend a thousand bucks or more on a home theater system and some comfy chairs to watch movies in style, OR, we could continue to watch movies on my laptop set on a side table with the family lined up on the couch and devote that money (and add in the electricity we're not using to power the big screen) to a solar space heater. I admit that I would find my lower gas bill, since the furnace would not be running on sunny days, very entertaining.
And mission? That too. The market needs early adopters willing to shell out some cash now even though the costs will come down in the future, because fueling the market with spending is how the market creates the economic conditions by which the costs come down allowing more of the population to start participating, further improving the economic efficiency.
Yes indeed, *justify *justify. There is also the factor that I think solar is cool, and I want one.
Here's what I'm geeked about today:
The Can Solair solar space heater. Not cheap, but very groovy, appears well constructed, gets good consumer reviews, and has the potential to pay for itself (even in northern Michigan's climate) and ultimately provide free home heating.
I started this project last year with the question: "Do you have to lower your standard of living in order to reduce your carbon footprint?"
So far we've managed to lower our carbon footprint somewhat, and haven't lowered our standard of living at all. In some small ways, I can say that we've actually raised it.
A byproduct of buying food that requires less petroleum to produce, contains fewer damaging chemicals, and travels vastly shorter distances to reach our table is that we're eating more nutritious and better tasting food. That's an increase in our standard of living.
I also think it's cool to be driving through town while the loudest sound my car makes is the tires on the street (because it's getting most of its power from electricity at those speeds). That's a luxury. It's really a sweet ride. We're burning a fraction of the gas we used to, and at the same time, enjoying a small increase in our standard of living.
The insulation project we did in our basement and under the crawl spaces was a modest one, but it's been effective. We can feel the difference this winter vs. winters past. The floors are warmer and the rooms less drafty. It's too early to tell how much gas this new insulation will save us, but we're comfortable with the thermostat set lower, so I'm anticipating a measurable difference.
Each of these things were spending decisions we made to reduce our use of energy, and each has provided other benefits in health, comfort, and satisfaction.
I think it is safe to say that you can reduce your carbon footprint without lowering your standard of living. The question always becomes: how far can you take it?
Pursuit of the answer has become a sort of hobby now. Some of my need to find amusement and entertainment is now met through this pursuit. In the course of making incremental progress toward the lowest footprint we can manage without reducing our standard of living, I've developed some pretty ambitious plans for energy conservation and production. Some of them we may not be able to hit, but planning and trying turns out to be quite fun in itself.
Part of my next phase includes producing as much food as we can in our city lot. I gardened some as a kid but then dropped it out of mind for years. I got the bug again, only mildly, scratched up some turf in the back yard a few years ago and enjoyed a good crop of string beans and a few tomatoes. But then work and summer schedules took over, and the grass and the dogs reclaimed my tiny tilled patch. Then last spring, motivated by the reading I'd done about the big food industry and its calories from petroleum program, I took up the hoe once again. I decided that this time I wouldn't mess around with one tiny raised bed, so I built six, covered a quarter of the back yard, and got the family involved in planting and tending. We did pretty well for novices. Still have a lot to learn.
This year we're ratcheting it up again. We'll more than double our growing space and play with some different ideas like growing our tomatoes upside down (in planters hanging from poles). We're also planning to add some berry bushes and a dwarf apple tree, and are considering chickens now that our city ordinance allows layers.
Ask me a few years ago, and I would not have said this, but I'm finding this city lot gardening thing quite enjoyable. The kids are into it too. Our twelve-year-old drew up plans for the whole back yard and volunteered to make the chickens her special project.
We're also beginning to talk to neighbors about forming a backyard garden network, or cooperative of sorts, to facilitate sharing produce. I'm interested to see if we can create our own spread-out farm market throughout our neighborhood to supplement the big farm market downtown. If we can pull it off, not only could be supply ourselves with some produce and save trips to the grocery store, but we'll also take care of quite a bit of our social networking too, the kind you get with your feet on the ground and your hands in the soil working along side your neighbors.
After 364 days of studying, thinking about and doing things to reduce our carbon footprint, I can say unequivocally that the most important thing I've gained is an awareness. I wake up with it every day now, and it functions as a lens that can direct my focus in any given moment to something I can do, a decision I can make, or a question I can ask, that can result in more responsible energy and resource use.
This lens may help me catch a light switch, and flick it off, that before I would have missed. It's tuned me to the faint hum of the laser printer in my office closet that I now unplug when I'm not printing (after I learned that laser printers, while turned OFF, consume 17% of the electricity they use while in use!). It helps me assess how I spend my recreational time so that I more often choose healthier, less energy-intensive ways to entertain myself. It helps me think about my company's work practices and analyse the logistics of our communications, client meetings, and co-worker interactions so that we're able to perform the same work we have for eleven years while using a fraction of the gasoline and electricity that we used to (even with having more than doubled our staff). This lens helps me perform a similar analysis at home, looking at where and what we buy for groceries, how we plan our errands and weekly routine, and how we choose to spend our family time, so that we're now burning roughly a third of the gasoline that we did just over a year ago, and our electricity use is down by close to 20% (our natural gas use is down only slightly, but we're working on that -- just completed an insulation project a couple weeks ago so watching the meter!)
My lens tends to use three different focal distances too:
1. the little things that we can do every day to reduce our energy consumption and gradually shift our habits toward that lighter footprint we want
2. the bigger things that cost money, planning, and time, but have the potential to return greater efficiencies and reductions
3. the community things that can have an effect beyond our household, and so ultimately can make a more substantial difference
When I began this project, the first two items were on my radar, but I hadn't thought much about the third. Now I understand that the community things are really the most important of all. Technology and our mobile culture have taken aspects of community common to our parents and grandparents out of our lives. My favorite thinkers on lower impact living (Bill McKibben and Michael Pollan) have me convinced that re-introducing some of the fading communal arts and events into our modern lives is a way not only to feed our human need for close society, but also a way to make it easier and more natural for us to share resources and collectively consume less.
Much of this coming year, 2010, for me will be about rediscovering and trying out historical community habits such as neighborhood farming, chore sharing, and resource sharing. I'm not about to go beating pots and pans around my neighborhood and trying to get my neighbors to do as I do or think the way I think, but I will start some neighborhood projects and invite those who are interested to join in.
Personal goal: I want people to be able to live lives just as happy and fulfilling as they do now (actually, I'd like them to be more happy and fulfilling) while using significantly less energy, resources and money. I want my kids to know how to do that naturally.
Some portion of the time I’m doing something relative to this project, actually moving my hands, feet and eyes for such tasks as mixing soil for garden boxes, monitoring the sun at different times of the day on the house and garage roofs, looking for possible locations for solar panels, researching heat sources, reviewing utility bills, or planning errands so that I can spend more time on the bike and less in the car. Some portion of the time, I think the greater portion, I’m thinking about it all, contemplating our next move, wondering how effective anything we’ve done might really be, or imagining the net effect of all we might do and struggling to see it in the larger context of global health.
I find it easy to get lost in the details of this endeavor. For my family, and I suspect for most in our culture, reducing our carbon footprint is not an event like setting a bone and waiting for it to heal. It’s more like treating a thousand cuts while trying to learn how to walk through the briar patch. Avoid one cane of briars only to walk into another. Feel the relief of one group of cuts healing only to have new scrapes appear somewhere else.
One thing is clear, however; we are progressing toward a goal. We are in motion on this journey, and while we can quantify certain changes we’ve made (example: by switching cars and changing our driving habits we’re currently burning a half to two thirds less gasoline per week – but always wondering: shouldn’t we be able to do more?), the greater change seems to be in our awareness of how we’re living vs. how we’re striving to live. And the greatest impact of what we’re doing seems not to be the energy that we’re saving today, but the approach to living that we’re nurturing in our kids. What for us requires research, thought, planning and sometimes perceived sacrifice, becomes natural for them. In their minds: sacrifice? What do you mean?
Summer months during my formative years were spent doing tricks on water skis pulled behind a big, growly, exhaust-belching ’43 Crist Craft. My grandfather would crank up that burly six-banger each summer morning, rattling all the cottage windows on our side of the lake, and my sister and cousins and I would suit up and hit the water. We progressed through the early stages of terror as six-year-olds when our parents made us HOLD ON to be dragged behind the BEAST, to our teen years when that boat was no longer a loud scary thing, but became a necessary accessory to our water-skiing glory as we gorged our teen egos on daring tricks and tall rooster tails, impressing each other and moving on down the shoreline to find others to impress. I tell you what; it was awesome! I miss those years.
Why? Because I was having fun with the gang. I was impressing my parents and grandparents. I thought at the time that I must look exceptionally cool to onlookers.
I want my kids to experience that. I want them to do the same things I did so that they feel how cool I felt, and so they know how cool I was.
I want to make them hold on to be dragged behind the beast.
Did we ever think about the fact that we were burning gallons and gallons of gas and belching out CO2 driving around in circles? Nope. Too busy having fun.
Why did that magnificent coolness come to my sister and cousins and me in the form of this highly petroleum-intensive activity? Because that’s what our parents did with us for fun.
So here’s where I get to have a realization and make a choice.
Realization: it wasn’t the boat and the skiing that did it for us. It was the fact that our parents and grandparents were with us engaged in boisterous recreation, took obvious joy in our accomplishments, gave us their applause and affection, and that we were having fun.
Choice: I’m going to have the same kind of fun with my kids, but I’m going to use low carbon methods.
Okay, for me that feels like a sacrifice. No big boat, no high speed coolness, but that’s just my perception.
In fact, my kids and their cousins have already headed down that path with little conscious help from their parents. They like nothing better than to get into a paddleboat (it’s a two-seater that you peddle like a bike) with their cousins and schlop along splashing and carrying on just as I did with my cousins, albeit at a slower pace. And when they want to hit the water, they ask to go canoeing. Why? Because that’s largely what we’ve done with them so far for fun.
Canoeing and paddle-boating to them is no sacrifice; it’s what they want to do. See? Lightbulb: on, and it’s a CFL.
We’ve been busy with our collection of carbon reducing projects: changing light bulbs, researching and getting quotes for home insulation improvements, weather stripping and hot water pipe wrapping. We’ve been learning about efficient appliances, on-demand hot water heaters, and pellet stoves. We’ve gotten rid of our old, inefficient cars and replaced them with small, efficient cars, one a hybrid. We’ve built half a dozen large garden boxes in our city lot back yard and are accumulating the compost soil mixture to fill them to begin growing as much of our own food as we can. We’ve eliminated a large portion of our lawn and are getting rid of our gas-powered lawn mower in favor of a reel mower. We’re beginning to look into solar panels. We’ve started planning our meals differently and buying our food differently to support agriculture closer to home and production that creates less waste and uses less energy while giving us healthier food.
Yes, we seem to have quite a few seeds in the ground as it were. We’re also doing a fair amount of reading on the subject to see how others are approaching carbon emissions and energy and to learn in greater detail why we’re doing this project in the first place and what kinds of effects we can have.
We’re nearly four months into what we’re loosely referring to as “the project,” and we’ve learned a few things.
1. Nothing that we’ve embarked upon, no micro-project or element of this yearlong experiment, appears to represent a lowering of our standard of living or even portend significant deprivation. Granted, we’re still early in the process, and we still have to progress far enough to measure our results.
2. This isn’t really a yearlong project. We started out calling it that, because we needed to frame it somehow to understand it and explain it, but what we’re really doing is beginning a shift toward a new way (for us) of approaching our daily living. At the end of this year we do expect to have enough learning and experience under our belts to share our process and story, but we’ll be far from finished by then. This isn’t something that you do, complete, and then move on to something else. This is a way of living and a way of viewing our world that you learn, adopt, and that replaces your old way of living and viewing our world.
3. Our reasons for doing this are continually changing and morphing. We started this project thinking that what we really needed to do was find the best ways to reduce our impact on global climate change, degradation of the environment, and use of energy resources, make those changes in our lives, and then show as many others as would care to see that these radical things we did weren’t so radical or difficult after all.
All well and good I suppose (though more than a few scientists and authors who have long been studying climate change and environmental health are crying loudly “NOT ENOUGH”)
Here’s where we are now: simply cutting back on our current consumption, trimming the status quo, isn’t going to do it, not nearly. What we need is fundamental change in how we approach our lives. That’s a tall order and perhaps an elusive thing to “need,” especially in prosperous countries like ours, because a large portion of the population will say, “we like their approach to living just fine, thank you very much, and why should we change?” History shows us that populations are not quick to adopt new ways when things appear generally to be going well. As long as gas prices are kept artificially low and the true costs of our consumptive life style are kept out of the public’s focus, our population is unlikely to be inspired to change our suburban, commuting, buying and throwing away existences.
So, what are we really striving for then? We’re attempting to retrain ourselves to think differently, to think in terms of low impact, low energy use, high efficiency in every corner of our lives so that we can teach our children that that is what’s normal. Chances are good that they will need those skills just to have what we would consider normal lives. For us, much of what we’re learning and doing to reduce our footprint seems novel, some seems retro, some very high tech. But for our kids, the saving, re-using, buying local, consuming less- lifestyle will have to be normal. High prices, scarcity of resources, and diminished natural world looks pretty certain to be what we’re leaving for them, so we’d better start helping them develop the skills needed to cope with those conditions.
I did the week’s grocery shopping today with Mark Bittman’s book, Food Matters, fresh in my mind. Much like those grapes from Chile that got me started down this road, certain food items I saw in the store today took on a new hue, like they were off-gassing the cumulative product of all of the fossil fuels, fertilizers, and other chemicals that went into their production and transport. That perspective made them less appetizing and effectively kept them out of my cart.
The list I carried was very much like every other week’s list I’ve shopped with. It contained the ingredients and staples we’d need to for the week’s planned meals plus school lunches and snacks. The difference today was what I reached for to fill each item. If the label showed a long list of ingredients with extensive names, I didn’t put it into my cart. If it came from too far away, I looked for a more local version or simple didn’t buy it but found something that would make a reasonable substitute.
I stocked up on fruits and veggies first, then some dried fruits and nuts, taking care of snacks and lunches. I grabbed a couple loaves of bread, as I usually do, but chose different ones this time, only whole grain with organic ingredients, locally baked (only blocks from here in fact). I bought a dozen eggs from a local farm instead of the slightly less expensive ones from a few states to the west. I bought less meat and fewer dairy items and made sure they were certified organic and local. I caved on the Greek yogurt, though. Yes, it comes from far away, but I love that stuff. The honey and granola I mix with it will be locally produced however. The cheese I bought came from Wisconsin, just one state over.
On balance, my shopping cart’s contents represented a much lower carbon and chemical footprint than is usual for me. Did it take me longer to shop this way? Not really, maybe a few minutes, but nothing I’d notice. Was it more expensive? The ticket came in at $140. That’s not unusual for our family of four. A week’s worth of food for us usually ranges between a hundred and a hundred and sixty or so. Certainly some of the items I chose were more expensive that what I’ve bought in the past, but again, on balance, not a big change on the bottom line.
I’d say it was easy too. I walked in with some new ideas in my mind and new criteria to use in choosing among items. Nothing tricky about it. But looking at my cart, I could see the potential for a large cumulative effect if we shop like this every week. Based on a pound of grapes and six pounds of carbon, I’d estimate that we saved 120 – 150 pounds of carbon just in the groceries this week.
So how’s it all taste? So far (all of two meals and a snack) just fine. We’ll see the week goes.