Hybrid cars are the least environmentally damaging automobiles available on the U.S. market. The Honda Civic Hybrid gets over 40% better mileage than its non-hybrid counterpart (1).But there are alternative possibilities to dropping $20,000 or more on a machine that further encourages our auto-based culture, and all that comes along with it (air pollution, government funding for road repair, nightmare highway projects like Boston’s big dig, etc).
Carpooling is a great option: 4 people traveling together to work in a 4-seater car, instead of each person individually driving a car, can nearly quadruple the efficiency of their collective commute, while also saving loads of gas money and relieving traffic congestion. Also, driving a car half as many miles in a given time frame doubles the efficiency of that car, even though the car’s mileage remains the same. Consolidate errands into one trip to save time and to cut gasoline consumption. Ride a bicycle to destinations in close-range; improve cardiovascular health while canceling pollution and saving money. These are just a few options to alleviating the problems of personal transportation.
There are many simple ways to improve our lifestyles and wean ourselves from a trend of endless consumption. It’s critical to recognize that Toyota can’t sell us conservation. Ford won’t run an advertisement campaign which endorses less driving, and certainly not one which promotes walking or riding a bicycle. Corporations can’t sell us simple living; conservation is inimical to their cause of higher profits. It’s paradoxical, the idea that sustainability can rapidly emerge out of an infinite-growth paradigm. We may not be able to implode the current economic landscape, replacing it with a model for sustainable living, but we can shift the paradigm to our liking with our money and with our habits. We can make simple decisions in our homes, as well as on the roads, that significantly improve the amount, and the way we consume.
Household appliances are a pervasive part of our lives. Air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, et al initially cost us thousands of dollars to purchase, and then thousands more in utility costs over the course of their operation. Air conditioners are the ultimate symbols of gluttony, essentially refrigerators on steroids, and we should get rid of them. We should use them exclusively to protect the young, sick and elderly from heat waves, as these demographics are the most sensitive to extreme weather. Air conditioners strain our electric grids, and they are main contributors to black outs during hot weather. Further, we can make improvements in our more essential resource-intensive appliances, to dramatically cut consumption in many categories.
Available energy-efficient products like refrigerators and washing machines are most definitely an improvement from appliances of the 1980’s, but they are too accommodating to our preferred consumption levels as a culture. Despite improved efficiency, the common North American refrigerator is too large for the amount of food it cools. Most of the space in our refrigerators is open air, which can be cooled quickly, but also changes temperature rapidly. If our refrigerators are normally half-full, meaning half of the container’s volume is filled with food, and the other half with air, we should purchase a smaller refrigerator to save energy and space. Western Europeans are doing quite well with refrigerators half the size of North Americans. If we refuse to get rid of our larger refrigerators, we can at least move them to a cooler part of the living space than the kitchen, both giving the refrigeration system a break and saving electricity, if inconveniencing us slightly. We’re just beginning to streamline our lives. A close look at the resource-heavy aspects of our lives reveals ample room for improvement.
Traditional top-loading clothes-washing machines require us to fill a whole tub with water, in which we douse our dirty clothes. A smaller, front-loading washing machine requires 50 to 65% less energy and 40 to 50% less water than standard top-loaders, while cycling the clothes on a horizontal axis (2). For years we’ve been told to fix dripping faucets and to turn off the lights when we leave the room, but these simple actions are only part of the conservation equation. While these actions can ease our consumption, they don’t address large sources of our energy use. We shouldn’t trick ourselves into believing that turning off the light when we leave the room is saving the world, because it isn’t. We’re taught to think so because theoretically, if everyone fixed their dripping faucets, and if everyone shut lights off when they weren’t using them, we’d greatly improve our total efficiency as a population.
However, we can’t trust or expect that everyone will take steps towards a less wasteful, more sustainable lifestyle, without a tangible incentive. We must start with changing our own lifestyles. Considering the volume of water and electricity we use in our washing machines, we can slash huge chunks out of our consumption by switching to front-loading machines and by washing only when we have large loads of laundry. As for drying our clothes, we’ll use lower-temperature cycles, or we’ll try a traditional, emissions-free clothes line.
Another large source of our water consumption is what we do in the bathroom. We know not to leave the water running when we brush our teeth or shave our faces, but there are more opportunities for us to conserve water. Showers should last 5 minutes, as low-flow nozzles pump out a surprising 12.5 gallons in that time (3). But this doesn’t mean we have to be in and out of the shower so quickly. Turn on the shower and get wet, then turn off the shower and apply soap and shampoo. Turn the shower back on, and rinse. Saving water and soap couldn’t be simpler. But we don’t only shower and brush our teeth in the bathroom.
Our toilets shouldn’t consume more than 1.6 gallons per flush. We can replace our older toilets, which may use up to 7 gallons every flush, or we can simply update our toilets with an early closing toilet flap, available at hardware stores (3). If we are concerned about water conservation, yet we have swimming pools in our backyards, and we’ve done all the other following steps to save water, we have to consider removing the pool (especially in the dry western and southwestern states) or risk an extreme lifestyle hypocrisy. Swimming pools, like air-conditioning, are trademarks of over-consumption, which sprang up in the 20th century with the advent of cheap energy and abundant natural resources.
We must first realize that our right to have a swimming pool is not greater than the biosphere’s need for fresh water, and then we must decide to make use of our knowledge or not. Small effects on the environment can permeate throughout ecosystems, a notion that humanity is now grasping as human-induced global warming is recognized as a scientific truth.
The availability of biodegradable consumer products is an objectively positive advancement for our environment and our culture. However, don’t let these environmentally-safe products encourage us to consume more than we otherwise would, just because these products affect the environment less. The companies that make these products, while guaranteeing bio-degradability, can’t and don’t guarantee that they operate on a sustainable-business pattern, consuming resources only as fast as they’re replenished, and not altering the atmosphere with particulate or green-house gas pollutants. We can’t physically control the way businesses run themselves, but we can control how we run ourselves, thus effecting a model for sustainability.
A common necessity that binds all of us together is caloric intake, or food. Get this: if you’re reading this article, you’ve probably eaten food at some point in the past two weeks. Recently, organic foods have become widely available in whole foods stores, farmer’s markets, and even nation-wide chain supermarkets. Food labels are incessantly confusing because of ambiguous rhetoric, illegibly small print, and convoluted list of ingredients. But the USDA now regulates if and how food producers use the word “organic” on their labels. The USDA allows almost no wiggle-room: if the word “organic” is anywhere on the front label, the product is made of at least 70% ingredients (4). If the front label bears “organic” as a lone phrase, the product is 95% organic (4). And of course, “100% organic” is self-explanatory (4).
Organic foods have fewer toxins, better nutritional value, are less fossil-fuel intensive and environmentally harmful than conventional crops. Organics are more expensive than normal produce, but the advantages substantially outweigh the disadvantages. We should start to buy organic food, preferably local and in-season, whenever possible. Also, we need to start eating lower on the food chain, as plants are the least energy-intensive product to produce, and meat from cows the most energy-intensive.
For a thought experiment, picture a cow as a crop; a quite unusual crop indeed. We’ll call it the cow plant. From the time this plant sprouts from the earth, the farmer (or more accurately, the agribusiness employee) must feed the cow milk and fodder to make it grow. The cow plant grows in a pretty harsh and diseased environment, so the farmer injects the plant with antibiotics, growth hormones, and other drugs to sustain the plant’s life. Also, by the time the plant is full grown, it has eaten many tons of grain, and emitted large amounts of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere. Then, the farmer rips the plant out of the ground, processes, packages, and refrigerates the plant, making it suitable to sell as food. The same process applies to poultry, except chicken and turkey are much smaller than cows, making them a less-energy intensive meat option. Growing plants for food is a more simple and efficient process, partially because of the advantage of photosynthesis, so we should start focusing on a plant-centered diet to decrease our negative impact on the environment.
If we take even half of these conservation initiatives, we’ll cut a significant amount of our consumption. With the money we’ve saved, we can invest in renewable energy, start up a garden in the back yard, or simply deposit the funds into a local bank. We are ahead of the pack; we’re educating ourselves on the problems with our political system, our economy, and our Earth. However, we needn’t and shouldn’t feel helpless in front of the daunting problems of peak oil, global warming, and climate destruction. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change the way we live. We need to be catalysts for this change. The general public doesn’t know what we know, but we can educate them. We are capable of progress, but only if we commit ourselves without hesitance to progression. The quest for a better life begins today.