Posts Tagged ‘energy efficiency’

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.

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Why technology and energy efficiency will not save the planet

Greener than a Prius?

Let’s play a quick game of word association! I say ‘green car,’ you think:

a) Prius
b) Chevy Volt
c) Nissan Leaf
d) Model-T

David Owen, author of  The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, would go with D. His theory is that technological advances, including the ones that increase efficiency, actually tend to increase consumption. And also, good intentions don’t count for much. Case in point: New York City has a lower per capita impact than Portland because of high density living (shared utilities, no yards, less space = less stuff, really good, highly used public transportation). Your average NYC dweller might not care about vermicomposting, but probably has a lower impact than a treehugger living in suburban California. Feel-good vibes or not, the bottom line matters.

Let’s go back to the car thing for a minute. So, we have it on pretty good evidence that two things that effectively reduce driving are fuel prices and inconvenience (traffic, lack of parking). Getting a hybrid actually reduces your fuel price and, if you’re in an area where hybrids can use the carpool lane, makes it more convenient to drive.  Does getting a hybrid encourage you to drive more and offset your saved emissions? Or alternately, does the money you save get spent pursuing some other form of consumption? Same thing for air conditioning, solar power, EnergyStar televisions…If our technology is getting more efficient all the time, why are our emissions not heading satisfactorily south?

It’s a provocative question. David Owen suggests that looking to technology to save us might just be ass-backwards. For example, he thinks that a car that would cut down on emissions far more effectively than a Prius would be the following:

Or maybe mandating inefficient equipment wouldn’t be a terrible idea. During a talk I gave in New York in 2011, I described one possible vision of a green automobile: no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty-five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon.

In other words, something kinda like a Model-T. Paired with today’s gas prices. And with most of the lanes on our highways closed and parking lots turned into high density housing. If this were the only car available, would you drive it? Or would you start looking for ways to live, work, and play closer to home? (This, more than just the emissions, is why cars make such a difference in our lives.) What if Australia were still a two year journey with 50% mortality away? Would you not cross it (and all other far away locations) off the list for your next holiday?

Neither galloping technological advances nor efficiency provides an incentive to reduce energy useQuite the opposite. Owen suggests that we need, if not mandated energy inefficiency that acts as a deterrent to the whole high-consumption structure of western civilization, then at least energy efficiency combined with enforced caps on how much we can use.

One problem is that the environmental movement emphasizes making small, voluntary changes. At the same time, technological advance makes it cheaper and easier for us to consume more, so it often comes down to individual willpower. Do I have the willpower to never fly for another holiday? Do I have the willpower to not drive my car, to not hit the button that turns on the AC on a hot day, to not take hot showers, to not use the electricity my condo is wired with, to not upgrade my 5 year old phone, to not replace my laptop? Even knowing the high environmental impact of each of these activities, I don’t think I do — at least not all the time. But a century or less ago, people did without these things and still had fulfilling, interesting lives. The more technology lowers the price of admission for all of these things, the more they start seeming like necessities rather than luxuries, the more the energy we use on them feels like a necessary expenditure.

One other interesting idea in Conundrum is how good intentions aren’t enough. It’s easy for us to point a finger at corporations for the planetary damage they cause, but how willing are we to make the type of big, infrastructure changes in our own lives that would make an effective difference? I’m not talking about changing a light bulb; I’m talking about the stuff that really matters personally and on a gut level: where we live, what we eat, how many children we have. Owen argues persuasively that high density living is the lowest impact option, while moving out to the country is essentially extending suburban sprawl. How ready am I to give up my dream of a cabin in the woods for the sake of being greener? I’m not.  Given how huffy people become when anyone suggests adopting a primarily vegan diet or having fewer kids, I’m skeptical that we will voluntarily make these types of changes on a species level.

No one likes to talk about sacrifice, and I don’t think self-sacrifice is going to be effective on the scale we need anyway. But something’s going to give eventually if we don’t want to live on a dead planet: maybe our free market economy, maybe our personal freedom to make unsustainable choices.

I guess my question is: at what point will sustainability become more important than my individual freedom to screw up the planet to the fullest extent of my financial limits? Would you support restrictions that sharply limited the amount of water, electricity, gasoline, and other resources you (and everyone else) could use — all in the name of sustainability?

Photo by Bill McChesney

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