Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ten Easy Ways to Reduce Your Ecological Footprint

In January I started a short list of things I could do to lower my impact on our earth. What can I do to use fewer resources? What can I do to use less energy? Somewhat indirectly, what can I do to lower my financial costs? I jotted a few ideas down and after talking about it with a couple of mates, decided to expand on it a bit.

1) Purchase re-usable cloth type bags to carry groceries home. To be effective this will require some planning. Pick a day to do a major shopping trip and remember to actually bring the bags. A backpack is also a good idea, but try fitting a weeks worth of food in it - you can only carry so much. In Sydney there has been an on going campaign to use "Go Green" bags to reduce waste of plastic bags. In the US we could do this to reduce use of both plastic and paper. The bags cost a dollar and proceeds go to an environmental fund. Yeah, it is a bit of a trendy was to be green - people flaunt their bags like bling and I'm sure a lot of people who buy the bags drive in rather than walk or take public transport, but it is about small steps and making cultural change so that the next, more difficult step only seems only marginally harder to make. I worked in the grocery business for years. It is quite amazing to see how much paper and plastic (pallets!) goes into the simple task of bagging up groceries when there is a completely impact-free method of doing this. I like Ireland's take on this: 5 cent bag tax if you don't bring your own.

2) Buy organic. This is easy to do in theory but difficult in practice for a couple of reasons. First, not every store has an organic section or even organic products (this is quickly changing!) So basic access to organic food might not even exist via the market. Second, if that market access exists, price may be a barrier to making the switch. Organic food can be anywhere from 25-100% more expensive than non-organic. Can you take that kind of hit to your grocery bill? I make an attempt to buy it when I can but having been a backpacker for the last couple years makes it difficult. In my view the benefits of buying organic ultimately compensate when price isn't an issue. For one, the food tastes better. Have a sandwich with organic bread, tomatoes, etc or use org. eggs in cooking or organic fruit and meat and the difference is immediately noticeable. Tastes are stronger and more distinct. Secondly, based on my initial research into organic farming, and actually having worked on one, I am fairly confident in saying that these farmers are more likely to practice crop rotation, soil/water conservation, sustainable agriculture, permaculture and holistic farm management than non-organic, green revolution era corporate farms. What does all this mean? Mechanisation will be less likely to be used - reduced diesel for farm output. Pesticides and artificial fertilizers won't be used, preserving the natural soil balance of nitrates and reducing demand for natural gas that goes into the fertiliser. These are just a few of the pros to organic farming; it is too vast to list all!

3) Start a compost heap to reduce waste output. This is directed at the home owners out there. For those with flats or are renters there are alternatives. Set aside a small part of your yard and construct a small box to start. Have a quick look on the internet to see what makes a good compost pile (Wikipedia!). Where I lived in Sydney, free classes on home composting where offered through local environmental agencies, so I've no doubt something similar is offered where you live. An important reminder: it is not an outdoor garbage can! Incorrect setup and poor maintenance can lead to an increase in greenhouse gases. It is very rare that waste inputs can be turned into useful outputs; it's why I like this idea so much. A decent pile will create a fair bit of "black gold" and you can use it in conjunction with #6. For those without yards, volunteer a couple hours each week at a local urban garden or greenspace. If you don't have one, organise with a council, parkboard or other authority to start a new project on unused land.

4) Don't use the dryer. Invest in a clothes drying rack or put up a clothes line outside. During the winter when I lived in London, we would use the house radiators to dry out clothes, though for most of us this is only practical in the summer months. Either way, taking a major appliance out of use will reduce electricity consumption during the peak summer months when the cost of electricity is highest, cutting down your utilities. I don't want to hear the groans about how air dryed clothes are too stiff and abrasive - you'll get used to it ya pansies! 10 minutes after you put your clothes on they are soft. There is no reason for a machine to artificially (wastefully?) dry your clothes when nature can do it for free. Call it solar power.

5) Turn off your computer! Do not put it on stand by or leave it on over night. A computer/monitor can cost $25/month to run nonstop. A home PC probably won't be used more than 8 hours each day - usually less - so save yourself $96/year and click 'Start Menu' ---> 'Shut Down' ---> 'OK.' Do this at work too. As computers get faster, power usage will only increase. I remember buying 250W power supplies a few years ago. These days they are closer to 550W/600W!

6) Start a garden. With all the nutrient rich compost you have been churning out, put some of it to good use in your own garden. Easy and useful things to grow include potatoes, tomatoes, onions, carrots, celery, raspberries, herbs. If you live in Iowa you might even have corn growing back there too, no matter whether you live in the city limits! You have the major ingredients to stews, curries and pasta sauces in your back yard, not to mention the fresh factor. No tomato in the grocery store is naturally ripened the way it is in your garden. Even by growing just a few of your own foods, you are reducing your dependence on logistics chains thousands of miles long. What you can't do with #6, carry on to #7.

7) Buy Locally! As in, utilise the farmers market. Buy fruit and veg, meat, fish and dairy and other products from your state or region rather than from the other side of the world (Vietnamese cashews, Nicaraguan bananas) or even the other side of the country if you live in a big one. I'm not sure whether petrol that is used in the transportation of food is classified as an industrial/commercial or personal transport purpose, but no matter. Transporting food for long distances requires huge amounts of fossil fuel inputs. In theory, reducing demand for things that travel along shipping or trucking lanes that are thousands of miles long should reduce the use of diesel. Ultimately, as global oil production declines, economies will have to localise anyways so you might as well get used to it now. Ones food miles will be forced into reduction. In fact, us northerners may well be USC when it comes to wintertime food. Canned, jams, conserves and preserves to the rescue.

8) Switch to halogen light bulbs. This is probably one of the easiest ways to reduce a) your energy bill b) your light bulbs bill and c) your eco print and personal chunk of greenhouse gases (it's not that light bulbs individually take up lots of power, but rather that we leave them on unnecessarily for long periods of time). Al Gore was recently infront of the U.S. congress giving an address on greenhouse gases, global warming and the like and rightly proposed the banning of incandescent bulbs. These are the traditional type that give off that soft, yellow glow we all grew up with. Example #1 of what we grow up with will not be what we live with in the future (the recency effect - it was this way yesterday, it will be the same tomorrow). OK, maybe example #2, after petrol prices. Incandescents produce far too much heat along with light given the amount of energy used (watts to lumens) compared with more efficient halogens. Of course, just buying and installing these is only the first step. Other actions go hand in hand with more efficient devices. Technology will not be the silver bullet of our plight (and neither will the supply side Jesus!). General conservation is will become a way of life no matter how far technology advances. The mantra will always exist: technology is not a substitute for energy.

which is a great segue for #9!

9) Conservation. Lots of ideas, both good and bad, come to mind when people hear this word: tree huggers, hippies, environmentalists, political suicide, activists, why bother? why me? pointless, asinine, etc. In the near future we will need to begin a concerted effort of conservation on a grand scale. Fact is, we cannot continue with our Western lifestyle. I would argue that the US (or at least the English speaking countries) is the envy of most of the developing nations. People from those countries see how we live, and they want to match (surpass, most likely) our way of life. Look at China and India with the demand soaring for cars as an example. As the global leader of extravagant lifestyles, we probably have a moral responsibility to lead the way in reducing our energy consumption via conservation.

A lot of the other ways to reduce your eco print already listed are a way of conserving energy (#'s 4, 5 and 8), but my idea of conservation goes further. We have to start thinking more about need versus want in all of our everyday actions right up to the grand scheme of things. For example, do I need or want to drive 6 blocks to the grocery store for a couple of things. Or, do I need or want to have the A/C or heating on today. I believe if we give a little more though to this concept we can change our resource consumption patters and still not suffer any sort of decrease to creature comforts and standards of living - Europe is able to! This is a population that has similar or even higher standards of living than us in the U.S. yet consume less oil/fossil fuels, water and other natural resources per capita (Richard Heinberg in his book Powerdown, and my own personal experience). I have my own disconnect between what I believe are necessary steps for the world to take and how I am living my life at the moment. Do I need or want to live around the world, flying from place to place (28 times in the last 18 months) and touring for extended periods of time, doing things that no doubt harm the environment? This is certainly a want - yet there are those who would not recognise this. Not because the are unable to but because they simply don't bother.

10) You, your mind and your creativity. I've come up with a few things here, and will no doubt continue coming up with new ideas and setting new goals for myself to use less energy. This year I want to take fewer flights, for example. I saw in a book store recently a title 500 Ways to Save the World or something like that, a lot of them having to do with conserving energy. Come up with a couple of easy changes to make to your lifestyle. Get used to those, then make a few more changes that may be a bit more difficult. I believe that Peak Oil and the coming energy crisis are bigger threats than global warming and terrorism. The Media, Academics and Politicians are not giving any attention to this oncoming storm. Because of their inattention, it will necessarily be up to us to make change. At the moment it seems our only available mechanism to make that change is with our pocket books. When all goods and services related to increasing energy costs rise in price, will we sit back and whinge about petrol prices and demand action from the government? Probably. Or we could start change while we still have that choice. Soon enough, that choice will be burnt off with the remainder of our cheap fuel.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Somebody Do Something About These High Gas Prices!

Dispatches from a nation of addicts:
"It is time for Congress and the administration to do their part to help alleviate the pain consumers are feeling at the pump," said Mark Cooper...
* * *
The rising price of gasoline has certainly increased the amount of complaining from drivers paying $3 a gallon or more to fill up their cars, but it so far has done little to curtail how much people are driving.
* * *
Most Americans are locked into their driving habits and can do little to alter their fuel-buying patterns when prices rise, experts say.
* * *
"I drive 55 miles each way to work every day," Sandy Colden, of Medford, N.J., said one recent morning while loading groceries into her Honda Pilot SUV. "So I really don't have a choice, unfortunately."
* * *
Weekly gasoline demand in April increased as much as 1.9 percent over the same weeks in 2006, even as the average national price of a gallon of gasoline grew from $2.71 to $2.97 by the end of the month, according to Energy Information Administration data.

Only during the first week of May, when prices jumped to $3.05 a gallon, did demand for gasoline abate slightly — by about two-hundredths of a percent, EIA figures showed.
* * *
Eddie Engles, 37, didn't blink twice after he filled up his GMC Yukon at a gas station near downtown Chicago on Tuesday. At $3.71 a gallon, the fill-up cost the clothing distributor $83.89. "That's a new record. Every time I pump up, it's a new record," he said.

Engles, who uses his sport utility vehicle to haul his wares, said he has few options when it comes to cutting down on travel and gas expenses. "I just need it," he said. "What am I going to do? Not fill up?"
* * *
"People complain about higher oil prices ... but they still drive their cars, they still buy their SUVs, they don't want to carpool," said Fadel Gheit, an energy analyst at Oppenheimer & Co.
* * *
While higher gas prices haven't done much to cut demand, they also don't appear to have had much effect on consumers' car-buying behavior, according to Autodata Corp...Light trucks and SUVs continue to make up the majority of vehicle sales in the U.S., or about 53 percent.
* * *
William Hill, of Pittsburgh, said he'd consider downsizing from his minivan to a hybrid sedan if hybrids weren't more expensive.

"They charge you more for a hybrid to compensate for what you would pay for gas," Hill said while gassing his minivan along the Pennsylvania Turnpike one day last week. "So either way, you lose."
"Either way, you lose." Truly a nation that will keep the all the cars running at any cost, as James Howard Kunstler is fond of pointing out.

And no, it doesn't help that Saudi Arabia's production has fallen by 1 million barrels a day in a year, and that it's main supergiant oil field may have less oil left than we gluttonously dream it has.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Cell Phone Nation

We are a cell phone nation, and it might as well start with me.

My bill for the last billing period was $136.00. It was supposed to be about $45, after taxes and fees. I have a plan with 200 anytime minutes per 30 days. I used 356. That's 156 minutes at $0.45/minute.

Next billing period doesn't look good either. I'm already 124 minutes over my limit, and I still have two more weeks before my minutes reset.

How the fuck did this happen?

Partially it was because I naively and stupidly thought incoming calls were not counted against my minutes. They are. Partially it was because there were a few peak periods when I needed to use my phone quite a bit. It revealed one of my flaws: I pretended I wasn't using as many minutes as I was. Thus I didn't bother to keep track. I convinced myself I was in the clear. Boy was I wrong.

Two hundred anytime minutes per month is low relative to a lot of cell phone plans out there today. I purposely bought only 200 per month to save money and to force myself to use less minutes. So much for that purpose.

Am I nationalizing my personal anger at myself with this blog post in order to cope? That's definitely part of it. But it is still very true and relevant to say that we are a cell phone nation.

We've only had cell phones for a short time. Ten years ago, only 34 million Americans had cell phones. Now, over 200 million do. (Source - PDF) That's what you call a cell phone nation.

Grade school kids have cell phones now. So do some elderly people. So does every member of my family. According to a survey (Ibid), 75 percent of people have their cell phones turned on and within reach during their waking hours. We have become addicted.

The art of making plans and meeting up some place is fading. We're sloppy about it now because cell phones afford us that sloppiness. If I want to meet you somewhere at 9pm, I'll call when I'm leaving wherever I was before, I'll call when I get close, and I'll call again when I show up. Whatever happened to both people just showing up at 9pm?

When I ride the train or take the bus, how often do I see people (mostly women) immediately pull out their cell phone and stare at the screen as soon as they sit down, if they are not already on it?

How important are all those calls or text messages that we make? Sixty-one million people have tried text messaging at least once (Ibid). Is even talking on the phone too direct contact for us these days, that we have to text people now?

T-Mobile markets a feature that allows you to create a "Fave 5" with whom you get special calling privileges. You know what is among many of our "Fave 5" friends? Our cell phones themselves. They have become our best companions, with I-Pods a close second. (I-Pods guarantee that we now have some electronic device keeping us occupied all of our waking hours. We now can distract ourselves while we're in transit.)

It's induced demand, just like induced travel. We don't need to make all those calls, but, now that we can, we do. A tragedy of modern/postmodern society is that we make ends out of the things in life that should really be lower-order means, if means at all. One of these things is the cell phone; we have made it an end in itself. It's what to do in our leisure time rather than a device that serves a purely practical purpose.

It was suggested that the glut of cell phone use might be related to the quite disturbing disappearance of honeybees. My emotions tell me the two are related: we better stop pretending that large-scale activities such as the burning of billions of barrels of oil and millions of tons of coal or the creation of radiowaves all across the globe don't have any effect on the earth's natural balance.

My emotions are also telling me, After you finish this cell phone contract, don't start another one. Simplify your life by at least that one thing. I'd love to, but who knows, in 1.5 years, when my contract is up, I'll probably just succumb to the "necessity" of a cell phone and get another plan. And then I'll continue to be a model citizen of our cell phone nation.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Bush Decides to Continue Risking American Lives

George Bush, who started a war in which 3,350 American citizens and tens of thousand Iraqi citizens have needlessly lost their lives, vowed to continue the carnage by vetoing a bill crafted by Democrats in Congress that set a deadline for withdrawal.

George Bush has already done great harm to humanity and much to benefit himself at the world's expense. Why aren't we taking to the streets every week until the war is over?

Today in Chicago I saw hundreds of thousands of people protesting American immigration policy; why can't there be a similar protest every week to call for the safety of American and Iraqi citizens whose lives are in jeopardy because of the carnage Mr. Bush has started.