13 August 2008

Summary of not-very-thought-out rant on pending video

  • Aug 13, 2008

Summary of not-very-thought-out rant on pending video

A few weeks ago the creators of faircompanies.com came to my home with cameras, and I gave a tour of my home, and spoke of some of my political and philosophical ideas while I worked.

I didn't prepare what I was going to say, and in retrospect, perhaps I should have.

After, I tried to figure what exactly my overall point has been.

Some things in personal life have been getting in the way of writing for a while, but I think I can summarize it all now.

The overall point is this:  Do the big stuff.  Having done that, don't sweat the small stuff.

Americans have grown accustomed to a excessively high level of luxury and convenience, to the point where some of what we take for granted doesn't even improve quality of life. 
And among the people who are aware of the implications of our impact, it has become all too easy to rationalize doing the exact opposite.
Today a great many people do all the little things, and this makes it easier to rationalize not doing what will make the biggest difference.

This is not to say that there isn't a level of sacrifice in the little things, or that they don't make a positive difference. 

We should continue to

turn down the heat or AC a few degrees
use cloth shopping bags
keep tires inflated and engines tuned
turn off the water while brushing teeth
shut lights when leaving a room

and all the rest

But, even if every American did all of those sort of things, our rates of consumption of both energy and material (per capita) are so far beyond that of any other society in the world.
Many Americans today point to China and their rapidly growing economy.  They are catching up, and projected to surpass us in, for example, use of coal and oil.  But they also have over 4 times as many people.  When they reach our levels, they are still using 25% of what we use per person.  In other words, as Americans you and I are using far more than our share of world resources.  On average, 5 times more.  If every human lived like the average American, we would need 5 times more resources (land, energy, materials, water, and capacity to absorb pollution) than actually exist.  I'd be willing to bet that if you are reading this, you are doing far better than the average American.
2 times more than ones share is certainly incomparably better than 5 times more; but it is still really not sustainable.
We are able to live this way only at the expense of other people somewhere else, both in the third world, and people of the future (including, depending on age, ourselves).

The thing is, the big things really aren't as bad as we tend to assume.

The one really big question to ask ourselves, as responsible and concerned people, is: how much will this change/purchase/decision affect my overall quality of life?
Not just "will it make life a little easier?" but "will it make me more fulfilled?" or "will it substantially decrease stress?".  How would you feel looking back on your life someday if you had never done/purchased/chosen whatever?  Would it even be an issue?

The Big Things:

Don't own a car
Don't eat animal products
Live within walking (or bicycling) distance to work and groceries
Live in as small a space as possible, preferably an apartment building

I realize that one thing people may use as an objection is having kids. A family with 3 kids needs to transport up to 5 people at once.  Nearly all compact and many sub-compact cars have seating for 5.  Since most households with two drivers have two cars, this could also be accomplished with one 2 seater and one 3 seater. Not to mention child seats and trailers for bicycles.  As far as space, there are several families with kids who live in the trailer park I live in.

Even more significant is having kids in the first place.  This issue seems to be all but taboo among environmentalists even though its the single most significant one.  If we had 1/5 the number of Americans, we would be sustainable, even at the same level of excessive consumption.  Because of the resources we use per capita, it is fair to say that we are far more over-populated than, say sub-Saharan Africa from a global perspective.  Every new American uses 20 times what a new sub-Saharan African uses in a lifetime.  To be sustainable, each new generation can not continue to be bigger than the one before (fortunately the average number of children is getting to 2, or neutral growth.)  There are a lot of kids in this country that need adopting.
In fact, I should add not having kids to the Big Things.

Not everyone is going to do all of those things.  At the least though, we can all make an effort to get as close as possible.

If you own a car, take public transit on the daily commute anyway.
Perhaps eat meat so as not to insult the in-laws when they spent a long time cooking for you.
Perhaps you can't afford to live close enough to work to walk, but arrange it so you live as close as possible.  Living way out in the suburbs in order to afford a bigger house doubles the harm; and, ironically, is more likely to decrease overall quality of life as the commute increases stress and decreases free time.
It also costs more than an equally cost (smaller) home closer to work, both in its increased energy costs and costs associated with the commute.
If you already have kids, don't have more.  If you are thinking about it, at least consider adoption.

Which brings me to the other major issue.

We often associate being ecologically responsible with being middle class (Whole Foods and the Prius come to mind).

In one of my college ecology classes, the instructor told us about how he once spent an extra $500 or so on the "extra-efficient" engine of a new Honda Civic.  He had calculated how much fuel he saved over the life of the car, and concluded that he never recovered the extra cost.  His point was that high efficiency often costs more upfront, and this cost may or may not ever be recovered.
However, I think the more important comparison is between the Civic, in either configuration, and a full size car, or an SUV, either of which would have cost many thousands more, and gotten far worse mileage than even the "in-efficient" Civic.
With few exceptions, being more efficient, more environmentally friendly, costs far less than the alternative - not only in the long-run, but up-front as well.

A Prius may cost more than similarly sized cars, but the Geo Metro got the same mileage, and cost under 10k.  Better yet, even a top of the line premium bicycle costs no more than a few thousand, and eliminates the need for fuel, maintenance and insurance.
A plant based diet is cheaper for the same reason it is more sustainable; the animals we eat themselves eat food that could be feeding humans, and the majority of those calories go into the animals own metabolism. 
Obviously a small house costs less than a large one, and living close to work costs less than a 60 minute commute.
Obviously not having a child is incomparably less exspensive than having one.

Similarly, buying everything used (aside from food, stuff that gets used up like soap, and maybe underwear) costs a small fraction of buying new, and is far superior in terms of environmental impact, not only to buying standard new products, but also is far superior to buying the more expensive "green" products which have become so popular recently.

I don't mean to make people feel guilty.  My hope is that people think about things differently, and make changes that don't take away from their lives, but make them more sustainable.

Keep doing all the little things.  Just remember that spending extra money isn't enough by itself.  Instead of buying carbon credits, drive less.  I promise after the first few weeks you won't miss it.  (If you do, try a month.  If you still do after that, go back to the car with m blessing).  Driving less miles will always make more of a difference than buying a hybrid.  If you can't afford a hybrid, don't feel bad.  Make up for it by driving less.  If you can, that's great, most have far lower emissions than average.  But drive less anyway. 
This is something I need to remind myself too.  My truck runs on veggie oil, and sometimes I feel lazy and figure what the heck, its veggie oil, I'll just drive.  But it isn't 100% clean either, and I should ride my bike.  Sometimes I do.  Not always. 

I should amend the list
Drive less.  Much less
Eat animal products rarely if ever
When you move, make the commute a primary consideration (studies have shown a short commute contribute more to life satisfaction than a big house does)
Buy used whenever possible.

With all the money you save from those things, go ahead and spend the extra on "green" products, buy carbon credits; or just treat yourself to something decadent, and enjoy it to the fullest.  After that, if you have a little time left over, maybe check your tire pressure and unplug the cell phone charger.


Here are few links where you can roughly estimate how much you personally are using.  They are not all that detailed, and they give slightly different answers due to asking different questions and making different assumptions, but they give you an idea and a place to start from.  All of our goals should be "1 Earth", because that's all we have.


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