Is DIY Really Greener?

Home canning: a high energy proposition?

I was whipping up a batch of homemade mayo last week (and by whipping, I mean letting the blender do its thing while listening for the choonk-choonk-choonk sound of successful emulsion) when I started to wonder: is my homemade mayo a better use of resources if I end up throwing half of it away because it goes bad (due to the unpasteurized raw egg)? Is it a better use of resources if I get salmonella poisoning and have to go to the doctor? Is DIY always the greener way to go?

And the answer, as it is for so many things, seems to be that it depends.

Here’s one case that deals with the energy efficiency of canned vs. dry beans. Up until you get them home, the dry beans are a clear winner. They’re lighter, so they take less fuel to transport; they don’t involve nearly as much packaging (especially if you get them in bulk); you save the considerable energy that goes into the canning process. They’re certainly cheaper, which might make a difference in the type of job you have to support your lifestyle. But once you start the long simmer that it takes to cook beans from dry — at least if you have an electric stovetop — things take an unexpected turn. From the Slate article: “cooking those beans on the stovetop would take up to 11 times as much energy as at a commercial facility.” Yow!

These types of calculations get really dicey because of all the different factors that come into play: where you get your energy (renewable / fossil fuel), whether you have an electric or gas stovetop, whether you use a pressure cooker, whether beans are replacing a significant portion of your meat consumption, how locally your beans are grown…

Regardless, sharing resources does tend to reduce our individual impact, whether we’re talking about public transportation or electricity. David Owen of The Conundrum points out that New York City dwellers have a lower per capita impact than Portland residents due to dense urban living that makes individual yards, large living spaces, and personal cars difficult. Living alone is significantly more resource intensive than living with a partner. (Sorry, fellow misanthropes.) I expect that a commercial bakery producing many loaves of bread each day has a lower per-loaf energy impact than my small scale bread baking.

So although DIY is often equated with being greener, is it? That’s a hard question to answer. I like the mentality, and I like knowing how things are made and how to make them. I’d also argue that DIY has a number of real but difficult to measure benefits like:

  • Greater sense of connection with planet / community / food. Don’t know about you, but I find bread baking downright therapeutic.
  • Reducing the amount of time we spend on more ecologically destructive pursuits
  • Shift towards a less consumerist society

Even if we could do the math, it’s probably an insignificant difference in impact, given the context of the rest of our lives as developed world citizens. Other decisions make a much bigger difference. So why bother sweating the small stuff at all?

For me, this stuff is worth thinking about because it gets me to question something that I’ve come to think of as the environmental litany. This is a collection of simple, absolute, often-repeated, binary rules ‘to be green’ that more or less excuse us from having to think critically about our decisions and consider them on a case-by-case level.

I really, really don’t like the environmental litany. For one thing, I hate being told what to think. I resent it when complex problems are made to appear simple or hard things are made to appear easy, even if it makes sense from a marketing perspective. (I’m terrible at marketing.) I have a huge problem with binary thinking and ideology. And I suspect that this kind of litany can actually cause us to make choices that are at cross purposes with what we want to be working for. If some organic-OK’d pesticides are less effective (resulting in lower yields for the same amount of land and water) and have greater negative effects on natural enemy species, are they still more sustainable than conventional ones? As a vegetarian and an animal person, it has been a long, hard slog through EPA reports and scientific studies full of animals that were ‘sacrificed at the end of the study’ (or worse, one lab macaque that sticks out in my head was ‘euthanized’ due to repetitive self-destructive behavior) to realize that calling for better chemical safety testing [still] usually means more animal testing. I still don’t know where I stand on that one. Learn enough about any issue, and it will no longer seem simple or straightforward.

If something is worth knowing about, it’s probably worth knowing enough about to say, “It depends.” Worth it, but definitely not easy.

What kinds of environmental litany have you started to question? How green are your DIY hobbies?

Incidentally, I may be quiet on the blog through July. I enrolled in a college biology class with the idea of maybe going back to school for a BS, and my head is stuffed so full of new and half-remembered vocabulary and ideas that there may not be much room left for blogging until it’s over. This might also be the summer that I finally set up an Etsy shop for my pottery. We’ll see.

Photo credit:


43 responses to this post.

  1. Coming from a totally different background I find the question very odd. In general, I would bet that making your own preserves, jam and mayo (and almost anything for that matter) is more expensive, less energy efficient and more time consuming than buying at the supermarket. However, at home we don’t kid ourselves that we are doing it because it is better for the planet. We do it because the flavor and the quality we achieve are far superior compared to what we can buy in the supermarket. On top of that, there is the personal satisfaction of creating something we enjoy.

    In my opinion, not everything has to be a political statement, particularly when the consequences of ‘green’ choices can be as questionable as (or even less green than) mainstream choices.


    • Hi Luis,

      Taste definitely matters! (Actually, for me, it seems to almost be more about the smell. I feel like I could live off the smell of baking bread alone.) And I agree that there’s a personal satisfaction and sense of connection that comes from making something yourself that our largely disconnected and alienated society probably needs more of. What I’m questioning here is the assumption of an overlap between DIY and green that operates without any particular evidence.


    • Luis is right on the money. Do it for your likes, not for a green ethos. (I hope I’ve not put words into your mouth Luis)

      Economies of scale make items less expensive per unit. This is often “greener” i.e., it takes less land, fewer resources (than doing it ourselves), and less energy to produce something. The author of “The Rational Optimist,” Matt Ridley notes that today’s technologies take less land and often use materials other species do not want: “[E]conomic development leads to a switch to using resources that no other species needs or wants….Contrast Haiti, which relies on biomass (wood) for cooking and industry, with its much (literally) greener neighbour the Dominican Republic, which subsidises propane for cooking to save forest…. [E]conomic growth leads to a more sparing use of the most important of all resources – land.”

      Economic growth and technology isn’t a wonder cure that works with no side effects? But, then everything has its upsides and downsides.

      If we humans continue to move from rural to urban (cities are denser), drill and mine for our energy rather than grow it, continue to wring more food and fiber from each acre, and develop incentives for conserving water and our fisheries, we will yet leave a better place for our (and Nature’s) children and grandchildren.

      I know, what I’ve said is the opposite of ‘green.’

      But, Ridley sums it up well: “Seven billion people going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.”


      • Hi Timberati,

        Funny, I’m starting to also think of the idea ‘green’ in quotation marks as I become more skeptical about some of the things that are often touted as being lower impact. I admire homesteaders for their gumption and probable ability to outlast me in a zombie apocalypse, but I agree — with so many more humans on the planet and a destabilized climate, what used to be sustainable may not be any longer. I’m struggling to find a compromise between my personal ideal (cottage in the middle of nowhere) and the ecological ideal (dense urban settings). We’ll see how much I’m willing to bend there!


        • I live in a rural area, which is one of the least ‘green’ places to be. I like it but I don’t flatter myself that I’m greener than those in the cities. By getting away from the land, we can allow forests to return. The northeastern forests of the US are a good example, as people moved off their farms into the cities, the forests have returned.

          I believe, land was freed up from agricultural production not by eating less meat, but by using machines for farming (since machines don’t need pasture thus nearly doubling the land available). It was the discovery of how to use coal, instead of wood, to power machines that saved forests, not from deciding to use less wood. More land was freed up by making each acre more productive via synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, not by fasting once a week. Whales were saved from extinction, not by lowering the amount of whale oil one bought, but by people buying the newer and more affordable kerosene (derived from coal) for lighting. Even habitats can benefit from trade. According to Susan Hecht writing in the publication, Nature, El Salvador’s forests have increased, not shrunk, due to globalization, Salvadoreans working abroad send remittances to relatives so they no longer have to clear forests for subsistence farming. (Source: )

          If you want a book to challenge your assumptions (it shook and changed mine) try Matt Ridley’s, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (my review here:

          Obviously the other book to challenge one’s assumptions would be Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist.

          I wish you a good journey, Jennifer, as you try to find your balance. I have found mine and it runs counter to what it used to be.


      • Posted by Rosa on 06/26/2012 at 06:52

        except that in a capitalist society that externalizes most of the cost of inputs, you can’t measure real efficiency by cost. If a chunk of the cost is fossil fuel cost, and I am dehydrating food with windpower electric, the cost is going to be higher on the less destructive energy source.

        There’s no easy metric for these things, that’s why they are complicated questions.


        • You’re correct in that there are trade-offs. Is the electrically produced wind power from wind turbines? Are they safe to raptors? In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the domestic wind turbines are killing about 440,000 birds per year (many of them raptors). How many cubic yards of cement went into placing them into the ground?

          There’s a reason electricity from wind turbines costs more, it’s much less efficient. Math, chemistry and the laws of physics are stubbornly non-partisan. They care not a whit whether you are conservative or liberal, right or left, green or tutti-frutti. Robert Bryce, managing editor for the Energy Tribune sums up the choice this way: “[Political leaders] want to replace high power density sources that are dispatchable, reliable, and relatively low cost with low power density sources that are not dispatchable, highly variable, and high cost. This makes no sense. I’d call it insane but it’d be an insult to crazy people.”

          Bryce: “Over the past six decades tens of billions of dollars have been spent on renewable and alternative energy schemes such as wind energy, solar energy, corn and other biofuels, and electric cars. All have aimed at cutting our hydrocarbon use. And yet only nuclear power, which went from zero to about 8.5% of the U.S. primary energy over that time frame, has managed to steal significant market share from coal, oil and natural gas.

          “In other words, despite these huge investments, renewables’ share of the energy market has been shrinking….the simple truth is that coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear can satisfy the Four Imperatives: power density, energy density, cost and scale.”

          The power density of wind energy, which is about 1.2 Watt/sq meter. Simple math shows that a marginal gas or oil well has a power density at least 22 times that of a wind turbine.

          “[Compare] the land use needs of a nuclear plant with those of a wind energy project or a corn ethanol operation. The two reactors at the South Texas Project produce 2,700 megawatts of power. The plant covers about 19 square miles, an area slightly smaller than the island of Manhattan. To match that output using wind energy, you’d need a land area nearly the size of Rhode Island. Matching that power output with corn ethanol would require intensive farming on more than 21,000 square miles, an area nearly the size of West Virginia.”


          • Posted by Rosa on 06/28/2012 at 20:23

            Most of the cost difference between wind and coal is purely financial – the coal plants have been in use for decades and the capital investment has been paid off, while wind is newer and still carrying debt. That’s from my local power company. Their nuclear power is more expensive than wind when you add in the future liability of all the waste that still has no permanent storage venue.

            Unlike nuclear, wind doesn’t have to be in giant centralized areas – you can put a little wind generation in small underutilized spaces and often use the land right up to the base of the turbine tower for crops or grazing (have you ever seen sheep grazing around turbines? It’s not common in the Midwest but I have seen it in the UK and California). Here what’s more common is to grow corn or soybeans around the turbines.

            Total land use is something that’s not as easy to compare as your source claims – how would you measure the area despoiled by a spill for that? Totally aside from the plants that make the well’s product into actual fuel. And the reactor needs a space to dispose of spent fuel & other waste. Our local reactor still doesn’t have a permanent place for it’s waste and is made out of really massive amounts of concrete.

            I’m not even going to get into the bird thing – it’s tragic but since we don’t require that radio towers, residential neighborhood lighting, or skyscrapers to be bird-safe using it as an attack on wind power just looks like grasping at straws.

          • No doubt. As economist Vaclav Smil notes “turning around the world’s fossil-fuel-based energy system is a truly gargantuan task. That system now has an annual throughput of more than 7 billion metric tons of hard coal and lignite, about 4 billion metric tons of crude oil, and more than 3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. This adds up to 14 trillion watts of power. And its infrastructure—coal mines, oil and gas fields, refineries, pipelines, trains, trucks, tankers, filling stations, power plants, transformers, transmission and distribution lines, and hundreds of millions of gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and fuel oil engines—constitutes the costliest and most extensive set of installations, networks, and machines that the world has ever built, one that has taken generations and tens of trillions of dollars to put in place.
            It is impossible to displace this supersystem in a decade or two—or five, for that matter. Replacing it with an equally extensive and reliable alternative based on renewable energy flows is a task that will require decades of expensive commitment. It is the work of generations of engineers.”

          • Expecting renewable energy to grab a greater share of production over the next 50years when it has declined over the past 60 years, despite tens of billions in subsidies, is very likely just wishful thinking.

    • Dearest Sam,More than twice as I read this chapter the mixed metaphor, “dropping petals and folding my tent.” popped recalcitrantly into my mind. Your descriptive prose brings me great pleasure and the last paragraph sweetens the bitter smack of the ones before it; an emotional flavor that will stay with me for days and for years to come.Thank you for writing this and for sharing cocsogeaurly.Peaue and prosperity,R.


  2. My brain almost explodes with the complex, yet important topics you choose to tackle, Jennifer. I was struggling the other day with whether to buy a bag of organic apples from Chile due to the large carbon footprint I might be imposing by purchasing such a distant source of magical nutrition. Yes, I could find some other semi-local fruit in place of apples, but all the health studies show how beneficial they are, and I want my damn apples! But I think many food related eco-quandries such as these and your diy scenarious will become less crucial if and when mass consumption of meat becomes a chapter in our history books. I was deeply moved today, though none of this info was new to me, by the power and passion of this recent speech by Philip Wollen, former VP of Citibank about the devastating effects of consuming meat, and maybe helps to illustrate my point:


    • Hi Donn,

      Definitely, meat (perhaps not if you live in Alaska and live mostly on fish, or if you’re somewhere in Africa where grazing has a lower environmental impact than growing grains…) is one of the more demonstrably higher impact decisions. I think some of the other big choices that matter a lot more than canning are things like family size and transportation. All choices are certainly not equal!


  3. I never connected DIY for the sole purpose of being green. In my opinion, DIY started because we are naturally curious creatures. We are always looking to be challenged or to challenge others, like companies that spoil us with ready made products. We are always thinking “I can do better”. Ask the canning people, gardeners, seamstresses, and shoe makers.

    Having said, to make one jar of mayo, it may seem like a total waste but I can’t tell you how many jars of moldy store bought organic mayo were thrown out in my house because we don’t use it fast enough. Making a small batch, when needed, is ecologically and financially far better in my house.

    Beans are different story. We eat enough beans for me to use dry ones because I can’t afford to buy BPA free canned beans to feed my family. And I refuse to buy cheap canned anything because of BPA. Our health comes first before worrying about how many hours of energy is being used to simmer beans. Energy used still beats eating any type of meat.

    But I also don’t wield glue gun sloppily or even use toxic glue or paint. I do sew, so mending and repurposing clothes to make them last longer is definitely greener than throwing them out prematurely and buying new. Heck, I fix many appliances before I think about buying new, so no brainer there.

    So there are different levels of DIY’ng and different intentions why people DIY. Many DIY’er may not think of the environmental impact first but if it reduces the need to rely on energy sucking companies or if it brings them immense satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment (and maybe become a better human being as a result :)), then, that’s good enough for me.

    I don’t mean to sound sarcastic but since you brought it up, how green is firing your pottery at thousands of degree of heat? How about using electricity on the computer to operate an online business on Etsy? Shipping your delicate pottery pieces with extra packaging so they don’t break? Even if you used recycled materials, pottery is a costly proposition to ship, no matter what materials you’ll use to ship.

    So yeah, lots to think about when you are a DIY’er. But just enjoy it and be green in other areas of life and Keep Calm and DIY.


    • Hi Karen,

      I agree that DIY serves lots of other purposes; what I’m questioning is the assumption that it goes hand in hand with reducing our impact, which I seriously doubt it does. In the long run, I think being able to cook and sew considerably reduce our need for transportation and new resources. You’ve had commercial mayo go moldy on you before?? That sounds so bizarre. The mayo I get from the store seems basically inert for…dunno, a year? I don’t use much mayo, so even a single batch of homemade (can’t split an egg in half) takes serious effort and planning to use up in two or three weeks.

      There’s nothing particularly green about my hobby, although since I work at a shared studio, the kilns are always packed full before firing, we use water in big tubs for rinsing rather than running the tap, and many tools and resources are shared. And I’m extremely conservative about what gets fired in the first place. If it isn’t damn near as perfect as I can get it, back in the mush pile it goes. Pottery is permanent, in shards if not in whole. It’s nice that you think I’ll actually sell things on Etsy. I’m nowhere near confident that I will!

      I do try to be green in other areas of my life. But I also continually question what that really means, and whether the changes I make are actually working for or against my desire to inflict less damage on this planet.


  4. yeah, this is a difficult question. I think your answer of ‘it depends’ really applies. We’re not a DIY family, mostly because often the crafting after requires a lot of storage and space- which we don’t have. Also, because I don’t have the time or patience.
    The “it depends” has to do with a lot of things, I believe.
    Like, it depends on what you’re trying to decrease- energy, chemical exposure, transportation costs or unfair wages or staff treatment (if the company has questionable labour practices).

    What I have found to be a bit much is some DIYers sense of entitlement. As if they are more “Green” because they make it themselves.
    Sometimes we have such a fear of “The Man” (or woman 🙂 ) that it’s perceived that indie is automatically better.

    You always bring up such interest points! 🙂


    • Hi EcoYogini!

      I wasn’t even thinking about the social justice aspect of DIY (I can see why someone would want to make clothes from scratch rather than buy from the developing world), but it’s a good point. I buy honey from a local honeyseller who talks about her bees with great affection, but I’m not about to set up my own hives — I live in a condo!

      The sense of entitlement is annoying. As first world citizens, we all have a lot to answer for, regardless of how much we modify our personal lifestyles.


  5. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about these issues, and I think you’re right. The answer is: It depends.

    Let’s take the idea of tomatoes. Is it more eco-friendly to grow your own or buy them at the market.

    I’m willing to grant that a large-scale tomato growing operation *might* be more efficient with its use of water, but there’s still the issue of how they grow those tomatoes. Do they use organic fertilizer (say chicken manure that would otherwise be discarded as waste) or synthetic fertilizer produced using fossil fuels? How are the tomatoes transported to the market and from how far away? And what is the cost of my driving back and forth to the market to buy them?

    But again, lots of variables — Am I driving to the market in a gas-guzzling SUV or in a hybrid car? How far away is the market? What if I walk to the market or take a bicycle or use public transit? Where does the energy come from to power public transit?

    If I’m growing tomatoes at home, am I do doing so using just the water that falls from the sky or the water from a well or from a municipal water source?

    One could go crazy considering all these questions on a daily basis, but I think it is incumbent upon us to consider them nonetheless, if not constantly, then at least consistently.

    Also, while a couple living in a 300 square foot apartment in NYC (been there, done that) might be the most eco-friendly choice, living stacked on an island with millions of other people may not be a viable choice in terms of sanity or psychological well-being for most people for most of their lives.

    Given that many people want to have a little space and greenery around their homes, the real question to ask may be whether we are maximizing our usage of these resources. Whom does it benefit to have millions of acres of short grassland (much of it sprayed with herbicides and pesticides) surrounding our homes? I’ve read that ~60% of water usage in the West is spent on lawns. If only a small fraction of these lawns were replaced with vegetable gardens, especially vegetables that could grow with relatively small water inputs, we would likely go a long way toward food self-sufficiency and reduce the amount of acreage that needs to be devoted to agribusiness. This could be the ultimate DIY eco-dividend.


    • Hi Aaron,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree that while big ag is more energy efficient in some ways, we also have to consider the externalities of farming that way when trying to look at long term sustainability. The sheer number of factors makes it daunting to try to calculate, but it’s good to at least think about.

      I’m amazed you managed to live in NYC. I’m impressed by how resource sharing lowers impact, but not impressed enough to move there myself. Given how anxious even being in San Francisco makes me, I doubt it would be a happy experiment. At the same time, I feel like I know plenty of people who like city life, wouldn’t mind living in it if they could afford it.

      The roofs of the parking units outside my window are flat, get full sun most of the day, and would be perfect for a rooftop vegetable garden or at least some solar thermal pipes to heat my water. Alas, there’s no way my condo association would be open to that. I’m struggling just to get them to replant a tree in front of the building!


    • Posted by EcoCatLady on 06/29/2012 at 13:34

      Hey Aaron, I sorta doubt you’ll see this reply since I’m late to this party, but I just have to give a shout out to the idea of replacing lawns with gardens. This is my philosophy… if I have to spend time, energy, water and resources on my yard, it might as well give me some food in return! A home-grown tomato may not be more “efficient” than a farm produced one, but it’s a helluva lot more efficient than the Kentucky bluegrass that was there before!


  6. I’d have to say the answer is “almost always, definitely not; and very rarely, yes.” It is the difference between doing good and feeling good about what we do. Again, if you want to take the time and expend the extra energy to make, grow, assemble, cook, render, etc. something that is your privilege. But, the fact will remain that more energy and resources will be expended to do the work, if you do it yourself.

    For instance, I brew my own beer. I find it fun and rewarding. It’s also terribly inefficient.

    Any company can make beer as good as mine (and many do). As an example, I go through 3-4 gallons of propane heating water and boiling the wort (raw beer). Then the water I use to cool the hot wort is lost–ending up on the ground. Companies, in business to make a living and keep brewing, cannot afford to waste heat the way I do. They will capture heat to raise temperatures of something else within the constantly operating brewhouse. The water used to cool wort will be used in the next batch to be made because the water is pre-heated. There are hundreds and perhaps thousands of places for a company to be more efficient than I am (without “cutting corners”). Efficiency correlates to a smaller footprint. I make beer because I enjoy doing so; I can experiment and have fun. I’m sure it would be orders of magnitude greener for me to not brew my own and simply buy it.

    For more see: “I, Toaster.” (


  7. Posted by smallftprints on 06/25/2012 at 14:50

    It’s important to question everything … to always be open to the concept that what we know right now just might be wrong. Unfortunately, there are never absolute rights or wrongs when it comes to living green and making decisions. So we balance things as best we can. I do a lot of cooking “from scratch”. I think about all the elements required to get processed food to my table, including chemicals used in the growing process and again at the processing plant, natural resources used, packaging, travel and the nutrition of the item. If all things were equal, then yes … perhaps cooking my own beans would be less environmental than buying cans of them. But things aren’t equal. The energy I use to cook beans is only one element in the whole cycle. What I do know is that every method … every decision … can be better. So if we do choose DIY methods, we owe it to the environment to continually search for greener ways to do things. There’s a big difference between the energy used to cook beans on the stove and cooking them in a crock pot or pressure cooker. Our impact will never be zero … but we can make sure that we take the time to get the facts and make the best decision possible. Your posts go a long ways to helping us make those decisions. Thanks, Jennifer … and I hope you enjoy your class! 🙂


    • Hi Smallfootprints!

      I’ve just picked up a new book from the library, James McWilliams’s Just Food, and just from flipping through it have realized that my favorite homecooked meal — long-simmering soups — are one of the less energy efficient ways to keep myself fed. Doh! Maybe there was something to that raw diet after all…

      I think it’s great that you keep looking for better and more thoughtful ways to do things. I can get complacent once I’ve settled into a routine.


  8. Posted by EcoCatLady on 06/26/2012 at 00:42

    Ha! I’m seriously starting to think that you and CatMan must be some sort of weird cosmic twins separated at birth – seriously this is the sort of thing he starts spouting whenever I start to beat myself up for some behavior that isn’t quite “green” enough. We were just having an interesting discussion this evening about all of our “environmental” friends who are in the path of the fires because they simply have to live in the mountains…. never mind the three hour commutes, the destruction of wild land, the impact of heating a home in the high country, etc etc…

    The thing is, every living creature has an impact on its environment… that goes for us as well as the pine beetles that are consuming the forests, the aphids eating my broccoli and on and on. I think there are just too many people on the planet.

    And BTW – how can you say you suck at marketing? Don’t you work in the marketing industry?


    • Hi Cat,

      It’s easy to assume that rural living is lower impact, but the numbers usually don’t back that up. Which is too bad, because I’d love to pack up and move out to the middle of nowhere. (Not interested in subsistence farming, so I assume that kind of move would involve longer drives just to get groceries and such.)

      I quit my marketing job and don’t want another one. I hate marketing. I just want to say what I really think and encourage other people to think critically as well. That makes me a crappy salesperson in so many ways.


      • Posted by EcoCatLady on 06/29/2012 at 13:28

        Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back here to read your reply – I fear I’ve been totally absorbed watching my state burn to the ground.

        But WOO HOO!!!! Congratulations on quitting your marketing job! I can’t wait to hear what you’re up to next!


  9. Posted by Rosa on 06/26/2012 at 07:01

    I think we overlook the middle options of scale. Smallish – not tiny, not gigantic – farms are the most productive. Small factories local to production are more efficient than ones that require a lot of shipping of raw and finished products – but then they are often undercapitalized and can’t invest in efficient practices. It seems like people are getting caught up on the difference between change and actual solutions – DIY is opting out of Big Ag, but the real fix is fixing the system Big Ag is imbedded in so it accounts for environmental effects instead of just financial ones. How do you value an inch of topsoil? Right now we don’t, at all. But it has real value, for human and nonhumans who depend on it.

    Some of my canning is not at all efficient – tomatos take a lot more energy to can at home than in a factory, which probably outweighs the energy & environmental savings of reusing jars and buying local tomatos. Dehydrating local apples is more efficient than buying fresh apples shipped in the spring. But neither category is absolute for comparison. I have friends who buy imported canned tomatos from Italy. Mine might compete favorably on impact with those (and they compete in quality).

    The bean thing is pretty easy to fix; get a pressure cooker. Then the dry beans use less energy than the amount needed to recycle the can the canned ones come in.


    • Hi Rosa,

      Excellent point. I don’t know much about mid-size options at all, but I agree that opting out doesn’t fix the fundamental problems with our system (nor does passively going along with it, of course). Fixing systemic problems is a lot more daunting than making small personal lifestyle changes. I know you’ve had some thoughts about mobilizing systemic changes in the past. Would you be interested in guest posting about them?

      Confession: I don’t actually like beans very much and only eat them about once or twice a week. I’ve gotten one new kitchen appliance in the last few months (an immersion blender that was a present) and have put a hiatus on my appliance buying due to lack of space. I wonder how often you’d have to use the pressure cooker for it to be worth its manufacturing / disposal impact.


      • Posted by Rosa on 06/26/2012 at 08:20

        I really think city-scale cooking & preserving facilities paired with piece-rate small and medium-sized local raw production would be the most efficient and resilient. But right now the only way to make them work financially is to go really, really upscale because they’re competing against underpaid labor and cheap transportation. Local production that has to charge double the market price can’t scale up.

        But in my ideal world, all the tiny-scale farmers growing tomatos by hand on community garden & wasteland sites in my city would be served by a local greenhouse that would start plants for them – starting at home under grow lights is way energy- and space-inefficient – and be able to either operate a coop cannery/processing plant or sell to a few local ones that shared space so that they weren’t sitting unused for 10 months of the year or having to buy from far away to stay in production. There’s a business-incubator here that rents out commercial kitchen space and has been really successful, but it relies on public money because it’s so hard to get the capital together.

        I visited Growing Power in Milwaukee last week and I am just ITCHING for the extra cash to buy a currently empty greenhouse in one of our inner ring suburbs and put it back into production – but the cost of retrofitting for energy efficiency, and the cost of labor if you pay a living wage, are huge barriers. Even a grant-funded farm like that relies on volunteer labor to get by because the ag economy underpays so badly nobody can compete with decently paid hours.

        Not every city has lots of empty space the way the Midwestern cities I’m most familiar with do – but every city is full of big empty flat roofs just wasting space and sunlight for food production. And right now we have a lot of unemployed people, too – we could produce a LOT of food and other goods with what’s currently wasted and unvalued.


        • Hi Rosa,

          I don’t have enough time to respond to this fully (ack! another midterm on Monday!), but I really appreciate how thoughtful and do-able your ideas are. If you can point me to some more books to continue my environmental education, I’d be grateful!


          • Posted by Rosa on 06/27/2012 at 08:26

            Oh man, i wish I had a comprehensive reading list. I’ve had a lot of obsessions over the years, from 19th century ag science to utopianism and back to the land movements, and every couple years I think I have a meta-level idea about human culture and sustainability, and then I learn more and it changes.

            Weirdly I think the best jumping in point might be urban design – Delores Hayden’s books of design history, especially Redesigning the American Dream and Building Suburbia are not just urban vs. suburban, they’re about different kinds of built environments and what they encourage and discourage.

            But it really depends on your areas of interest – there are a lot of articles about the Cuban Miracle, the way they jumped food production after Russia cut off aid in the early ’90s, that point to the questions of resilience and sustainability, for instance, and a lot of efficiency studies/articles for manufacturers and farmers. I’m more interested in farming, but I had a friend who worked as a water efficiency consultant for businesses, and that’s really fascinating stuff – water pricing systems at the city level, reuse systems from DIY to Vegas hotel size.

            I really think the problem is that “green” isn’t just one thing. You can pick any specific thing (like Wildlands Projects current mission: putting together useful corridors for animals and plants to migrate as the climate changes.) and use it as a prism for everything else.

          • I’m with you that ‘green’ isn’t one thing. The books that got me started on this path are not considered specifically environmental books (Jared Diamond’s Collapse was very formative for me), and I find that I continue to read more biology and botany than anything shelved in the ‘environmental’ section. It’s pretty hard to read any science-oriented non-fiction and not see the ways in which climate change is already affecting the world.

          • Posted by Rosa on 06/28/2012 at 20:33

            I heard Richard Louv on the radio talking about the despair of professional biologists and how many he’s known have suicided, so I think you’re not the only one seeing that in the bio & bot literature.

            Have you read anything about pre-Columbian new world agriculture? We’ve visited the Southwest a lot in the last few years (my folks have been in AZ/TX/NM/CO a lot) and there are all these little things about native agricultural systems – we saw a 1000 year old agricultural canal at a Sinagua site in Arizona. But they’re sort of incidental, I guess the Park service thinks nobody cares about agricultural technology. Most of the sources I can find that are at all specific are in Spanish, which I don’t read well.

          • I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Pre-Columbian agriculture. I haven’t yet become fascinated with growing plants — just interested in plants at the moment! My guess is that what you’ll want will be in academic journals. If you have access to a university or know someone with JSTOR access, that might be a good place to start. I’d be surprised if no one had written about it.

            That’s really upsetting about the biologists, but not very surprising. In a lot of ways we’ve already reached the point of no return, and it probably seems like most of us are fiddling while Rome burns. I’m hoping to work with a conservation biologist for a guest post soon. I think my biggest question is this: what can I do as an ordinary person that will make the largest difference for biodiversity?

      • Posted by Rosa on 06/26/2012 at 19:06

        p.s. I have to evangelize for the pressure cooker. I got Lorna Sass’s Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure and we cook out of it 3-4 days a week. Beets take 4 minutes. Stuff that would usually simmer a long time (like veggie stock) you just get the cooker up to pressure and then turn it off. It’s amazingly more efficient than pretty much anything – with some practice I even learned to pressure cook on the propane grill, and not heat up my summer kitchen at all.


  10. I do think that certain types of DYI _are_ greener, simply because of the laziness factor. Example: since CelloDad went gluten-free, he’s had to rely on the charity of his family for baking him cookies. I can report that his cookie intake went WAY down.

    Other example: I really wanted wool sweaters for my children, but those are very, very hard to come by. So I knitted them sweaters – usually one a year, and that’s what they had to wear. Saved me a lot on that horrible poly “fleece”. (Do I knit socks? No: that’s where I draw the line. Especially since I discovered Smartwool et al.)

    If you made it yourself, you tend to hang on to it, and repair it instead of tossing it and replacing with a new one. I’m thinking of my curtains, quilts, and toy boxes made by my dad, even a bed.

    Another way that DYI is greener is that if you know how to make stuff, you also know how to repair it. I regularly mend my family’s wool sweaters, saving us a few hundred a year (and the manufacturing energy + materials for new ones that we’re not buying).

    For food, cooking from scratch is undeniably greener when compared to ready made frozen meals packaged in plastic. Never mind the health benefits – and the pleasure.


    • Hi CelloMom,

      Nice examples. I think DIY can make a difference if, like you, people focus on making quality, long-lasting goods that considerably outlast poorer quality manufactured goods. I can’t make that argument for pottery; my stuff is no less breakable (probably more, actually) than the factory made equivalent

      I wasn’t considering mending DIY, but I agree that the resources and energy that go into a repair usually work out to less than getting something new. (Exceptions could be things like old, inefficient cars or appliances.) I have a few slightly hole-y sweaters. Care to share your best tips? 😉


      • Do you know how to darn? There are tutorials, including on YouTube. If you’re not happy with the way it looks afterwards, make it into something fun: sew a crocheted flower onto a darned patch.
        For larger holes, sew on a wool felt patch. It could be some pleasing shape, perhaps decorated with buttons. Your old favourite sweaters will end up a very unique garment.
        If frustrated and stuck, see if there is a repair cafe close to where you live: started in Holland, it’s where volunteers get together and will teach you how to repair your stuff. I love that idea!


  11. This seems like the essence of the post and resonates for me: “to think critically about our decisions and consider them on a case-by-case level.” That’s mind-expanding information about dry beans. You are encouraging me to think more critically. In the meantime, I try to keep my life simple so it doesn’t require too many decisions.


    • Hi Sandra,

      I think reducing the number of decisions you have to make is incredibly smart. 🙂 Instead of planning a ‘green’ wedding, Kevin and I got married at the courthouse, in our regular clothes, with no flowers, fanfare, or anything else. Saved us from having to make a lot of decisions and choosing between higher and lower impact options.


  12. Posted by San Diego Plumber on 06/30/2012 at 01:05

    I agree on what Luis said, too. I also think that people do their jams not only because of the taste but also because they prefer to choose their own ingredients for the preserves, which in most cases are lacking in chemicals or preservatives. Going green isn’t really the top priority.


  13. […] the inevitable caveat: not all of these ideas are low energy, but they’re still more energy and water efficient than throwing it away. […]


  14. […] the inevitable caveat: not all of these ideas are low energy, but they’re still more energy and water efficient than throwing it away. […]


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