Thursday, September 01, 2005

Live Simpler, Live Richer

I recently posted a lengthy response to a forum question over at TheWatt regarding how we will live after Peak Oil (assuming it happens). I thought I'd go ahead and post it over here as well. This is in response to another comment that included the astute line:

"Using less doesn't mean living less."

To which I replied...

While I think peak oil will require some restructuring of our economies and our living patterns (we'll see how much longer urban sprawl and suburban growth remain attractive when commute times get longer and longer and fuel costs get higher and higher), I dont subscribe to the doom and gloom, start stockpiling food and ammunition mantra of many Peak Oilers. However, we don't have to live a poorer quality of life simply because Peak Oil and the energy constraints it brings will require us to use less.

I'm quite tired of the common stigma that conservation means less enjoyment. That's why I prefer to use the term efficiency (i.e. energy efficiency, fuel efficiency, etc.) which has a much better connotation for the average Joe. [slight digression begins here] Conservation and efficiency are really two quite different things but both are generally refered to by the term 'conservation.' Here's a simple example of the difference: my car could get 80 mpg and that would be quite efficient; I could drive only 2,500 miles a year and that would be conservation (I currently drive about 10,000 miles per year). Efficiency is getting the same use out of less input/cost. Conservation is cutting back on input/saving cost by using less. I firmly believe that it will be easier to 'sell' efficiency measures to the average consumer than it will be to convince them to start conserving. After all, efficiency is just smart. Both are clearly necessary but let's distinguish between the two in order to make some of our work (getting people to enact efficiency measures) a LOT easier.

Regardless of which term we use, I would like to object to the common stigma that using less somehow means enjoying life less or necessitates some kind of decrease in standard of living. I try to practice a lifestyle that minimizes my impact on the world. There are plenty of areas where I can still improve but there are little things everyone can do without impacting their quality of life. These include:

1) Buying the most fuel efficient car you can (if you have to buy one at all, subscribing to a car sharing plan like Portland-founded FlexCar can be a good option for many urbanites as well) and drive it as little as possible. This probably means living near your work/school which not only saves fuel but also improves your quality of life by limiting the time you spend in gridlock commuting to work (definitely NOT the most enjoyable hours of your day) and increasing your free time. It also of course saves you money on fuel costs and adds to your disposable income, another increase in quality of life.

2) Making your house as energy efficient as you can. An easy and effective first step is to purchase compact fluorescent light bulbs, starting with your most heavily used lights and continueing until you run out of sockets. Each CFB may cost more upfront but consumes a fraction (1/4) of the energy of your incandescent bulbs and will save you lots of money over its lifetime ($20.00 USD or more over its lifetime Ive read). That lifetime is, incidentally, much longer (3+ years, compared to maybe only a few months for an incan bulb) and thus requires less time chaning bulbs, going to the store to purchase more bulbs etc. Another great step is to shell out a few more bucks to replace major appliances (like your microwave, water heater, stove, fridge etc) with EnergyStar rated appliances when they get old or when you feel like making an investment in your home. These again cost more up front but save you lots in reduced energy use. Other energy efficiency upgrades include better insulation (a very cost effective option), double-paned windows, storm windows in the winter, awnings over windows in the summer, utilizing ambient sunlight as much as possible, the list goes on. Again, lower utility bills = more disposable income = higher quality of life, not lower.

3) Purchase clean energy options from your local utility if they have the option. I purchase 100% wind power from my local provider and it costs me a very affordable amount more each month. This one costs a bit but means that you can sleep easy knowing that no air pollution or greenhouse gases were emitted and no salmon and other river critter habitat was destroyed to power your new compact fluorescent lightbulbs and EnergyStar appliances. Heck, use the savings from your new energy efficient house to purchase green power options for the rest of you energy use. It will likely balance out for no net cost to you (Im just guessing, havent done the math here but it makes sense to me).

4) I'm gonna throw this one out there because it works great for me but I know its probably going to be more controversial than the last couple: go vegetarian! The issues surrounding uneccesarily raising and killing animals for your culinary enjoyment aside, the environmental impacts of the meat industry are astounding. The Confined Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs (aka industrial farms) that the vast majority of your meat comes from consume enormous amounts of water as well edible grains that could be going straight to feeding people (it takes something like 10 times the nutritional content in grains and other feedstocks to produce a pound of beef). They produce tons of pollution, waste and runnoff and as they are designated agricultural rather than industrial (at least in the US) they are exempted from nearly all pollution control laws like the Clean Air Act. In many areas they are THE largest polluter in the area, contributing methane (a potent greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere, nitrogen runoff into streams, etc. The Sierra Club reports that "According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hog, chicken and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states." Furthermore, "Livestock produce an enormous amount of waste - about 2.7 trillion pounds of manure a year." As for quality of life impacts, despite much common opinion to the contrary, it is EASY to be vegetarian and doesnt mean eating less enjoyable meals. I happen to think I eat quite well and have learned to cook dozens of enjoyable vegetarian meals. Not to mention that if you are a Thai, Chinese, and Indian food fiend like myself, you will find endless delicious vegetrian options when you go out to eat. If you you're not convinced, let me suggest an alternative: reduce the amount of meat you consume by having at least one meat-free day a week. That wont take much effort, is a nice incremental improvement and you may just find that you enjoy the meals you eat on your meat-free day even more than the other meals.

5) Finally, buy local whenever you can. This is one I need to get better about myself. The number of transport miles driven each year in order to get your goods from wherever they are purchased to your local store grows every year. Our economy is moving more and more towards an unsustainable model of further and further seperated supply and demand locations. As Peak Oil continues, this model will become less and less feasable. So start adapting early by buying local food and goods when you can. Shop at a farmer's market for fresh produce, fruit and dairy if there is one around (you'll probably get even better groceries for the same or cheaper prices that way - again better quality of life). It will cut down on fuel consumption (used to transport fuels) and the associate consequences (pollution, green house gases etc) associated with your lifestyle as well as do your part to start the transition to a more sustainable economic model.

We can all do our part to live a less-impactful but fully enjoyable lifestyle. Again, its more that we, as responsible citizens of the world, should all strive to do.


Robert McLeod said...

Frankly, depending on your climate, space heating, hot water, and air conditioning dominate home energy consumption needs.

The heat pumps in refridgerators and air conditioners have made extreme strides in recent years. The payback period for buying a new one can be very short, especially if the local utility is offering any incentives.

The Florida Solar Energy Center has some useful on-line pubs you might want to check out:

It seems to be up your alley. They did a survey of a thousand or so Florida homes to find the loading from various home appliances. I can't find it right now but it's up there.

WattHead said...

Thanks Robert. Ill check it out.