Getting My Numbers Down

Sharon May 20th, 2007

I promise, the FAQ is coming early this week. In the meantime, I’m finding myself mulling over the ways that I can get my numbers down. A surprising amount of it involves buying new stuff, which is worrisome in some ways, but also, I think inevitable. That is, I think all of us are going to end up spending some money this year if we’re to make this a permanent way of life. Hopefully what I save will offset them economically, but there will be an energy cost.

Miranda and I have been worrying about how to calculate those purchases - should we give everyone a break on their responsibility for the emissions of things that will lead us to fewer emissions in the long run? Miranda, I think, is pro, and for good reasons - she points out that people want to succeed, and she’s afraid that we’re risking making people feel like they’ve failed right up front. So even though this year is to be transitional, she thinks we should give credits for those necessary things - insulation, or clothelines or solar ovens - that make this possible in a comfortable way. And I think she’s got a point.

On the other hand, there’s an anal part of me that says “But even good stuff creates emissions in manufacture. Shouldn’t we be responsible for those things, even if we need them.” I also worry because I think that reasoning is seductive to the selfish part of me. I’ve had people say to me, “You should come talk in our far away place, because you’ll help more people save more energy.” But I wonder - what if I don’t? What if I’m not quite inspiring enough, and I’m just using this as an excuse to take a trip? What if people don’t go home and plant gardens or stop using their dryers, and then I just flew all this way? All of which is just a way of saying that I worry about my own temptation when excuses are put my way. Would it be just a little too tempting to buy something mostly just to buy it, rather than because of its environmental benefits. I know myself well enough to know I like loopholes ;-). Anyway, we’re still figuring this one out, but I suspect I’m tarring other people with my own occasional bouts of weakness here. Apologies if I’m maligning the rest of you by thinking you might be as easily tempted into cheating as me ;-).

Speaking of cheating, am I the only person out there doing this who is having a “oh, crap, gotta do X before it starts “counting.”" Now of course, we all know it counts anyway, so I’m trying really hard to keep those urges under control, but I think I will get a couple of things I need anyway - shoes that my oldest son can’t take off easily and lose in the yard, more clothespins, vodka for making homemade liqueurs, and my husband will be buying some beer. I will not buy yarn. I will not buy books. I really, really won’t buy yarn or books. I believe my own statements. Really.

Ok, down to the plans for how to reduce my emissions. The one I’m worried the most about is water. First of all, I really like my shower (often the only cone of silence I get in a day), and my kids are usually so filthy by the end of the day that spot washing them would require more water than a bath does. Second of all, you should see the clothing at the end of the day. It poured here for two days, and Eli resembled the swamp thing from the comic book more than a child by the end of the afternoon. In weather like this, with the six of us, and two and half in diapers, I wash every day.

I also need to set up a more formal grey water system than “dumping the water out in buckets.” Which means a call to our friend Woody, who fixes cool stuff and tries not to laugh at how un-handy we are. He’s already building us two nice looking composting toilets, so we can stop using the commode we inherited from Eric’s grandparents for that purpose. Pee already goes straight to the garden anyway. But I’m definitely going to have to think about this water one. Do you think the children will stop getting dirty any time soon ;-)? On the bright side, Isaiah is nearly toilet trained - hurray! He wore underwear to synagogue this weekend, which is quite a milestone. Let us just say that that’s one of the last bastions of training pants.

Electricity - I think I’m going to have to get a laptop. The desktop uses a crazy amount of power. The thing is, it is probably necessary anyway, now that Simon wants to use the computer in homeschooling so much. I’ve been resisting because of the embodied energy, but I’ve got *two* book contracts for this year, and I think I’m going to have to have better access and less energy intensive solutions than I’ve got now. We can sell the desktop. I’d use the local library, but that’s a five mile walk or drive, and they have a 45 minute time limit. The fridge is going to go - we’re going to keep the freezer for a while and see how that goes, but we’ll unplug the fridge and use rotating ice packs in a cooler to keep food cool. We’ve already got some solar lanterns, and we use pretty minimal lighting. The killer will be the electric stove - I’m hoping to build at least one more solar oven, and maybe buy a professional one, since mine don’t get much over 320 except on crazy hot days - which we don’t have many of. We’re also going to build an outdoor masonry oven, as seen in the book _Earth Ovens_ so we can use small quantities of wood to bake and keep the heat out of the house. Also, a good tip I got at Sue Robishaw’s website - whenever the solar oven is empty, heat water in it, and use thermoses to keep it warm - instant soup, tea, coffee or whatever water.

Heating will be tough because the house is so crazy huge. We always shut off a portion of it, but the problem is that we have a lot of guests, and while we don’t mind having the heat at 55, not everyone really likes it. Most of our wood will be no problem, but I’m not sure what we’re going to do about the visitor thing. The thing is, we love our visitors - they are people who are generally important to us, and we want them to be happy because they’ve often travelled a long time on a rare occasion to get out to the boonies to visit us. I don’t want everyone to respond to being here by running rapidly into the night.

Ok, more on this when I get a chance, because my soup, cornbread and asparagus are waiting!


13 Responses to “Getting My Numbers Down”

  1. Gwynon 21 May 2007 at 12:38 am

    Hey - I think we ahve to be very careful not to tweak things SO we can get down to 10% usage. The result of this challenge may be that it is impossible in some areas without political support (green cars, electricity, public transport). I think the challenge will be full of balancing acts - like to save on heating, you may need to buy more clothes, to save on packaging you may need to use more cooking power. I got the impression that the consumer goods category was about money spent on non-nbecessities - frivilous luxury items like new cds, new books, perfumnes etc - so I would have thought that money spent on things like solar ovens and the like would not fall into that category. ANyway … computer poff!!

  2. KMHon 21 May 2007 at 1:09 am

    Well, for better or for worse, my family has decided we are in. There is one category where we are opting out — actually just one of us is opting out. My husband’s job is 35 miles away and no public transportation until he is within 3 miles. He also has to cross a major interstate and the Ohio River so he won’t be biking or walking! The rest of us will learn to keep within our gas budget.


  3. Kiashuon 21 May 2007 at 1:46 am

    I think it’s fine to buy things which have a large embodied energy so as to save more in the future. It’s like spending $1,000 on fruit trees to put in your backyard (for us non-CSA people) so that you never have to spend $1 or $10 on fruit again - fruit which may have come from miles away.

    I don’t think you need feel guilt about buying a laptop; though it may not contribute to your own ecological footprint shrinking, the writing you’re doing with it will contribute to others. You have to prioritise things, and look at the overall goal. It’s just like how we’re told that if life is in danger, we can break almost any prohibition in Jewish law, for example by saving a life on Saturday morning, we break one Sabbath so that someone else can go on to fulfill many Sabbaths.

    Regarding cooking, I don’t know what you have on your farm, but if you have a cow or two you could perhaps look into biogas. Apparently in Nepal there are biogas plants, the rotting manure from 2-3 cows will actually keep a single burner going most of the day. Whether it’s practical for you to do this I don’t know, but it’s another idea, anyway.

  4. mimuluson 21 May 2007 at 4:31 am

    i’m in! Howsa about creating some kind of logo folks who are particiapting can add to their blog? i would offer to do so, but haven’t the foggiest how it is done. Iparticipated in teh eat local challenge last Mayand they had a nifty tomato logo….i still have it on my blog becuase a year later my eating habits and changed and I eat about 70% local ( i let soy and wheat back in)

  5. Anonymouson 21 May 2007 at 11:48 am

    Hi Sharon,
    This is your ‘neighbor’ Heidi; we’re thinking we’d like to be in. We’re very concerned about the following; reducing our electricity usage. We switched over to the Green Power people of Vermont so we pay more for hydro and wind but our usage is still WAY too high. We have a big house that we close off beginning in November. We cover all but one window. We wear multiple layers, hats and so on. We sleep in frigid rooms. We hang our laundry. We have a water heater timer. We take low-flow five minute showers. We heat with wood BUT when it’s really cold our electric backup comes on and it just CRANKS on the electric meter. Unfortunately it seems necessary to keep the house at around 50 degrees or so at night. Insurrection might begin below that temperature… We’re good on our wood source; it’s both local and sustainably harvested. We’re getting better on our gasoline rationing. DH works from home 3-4 days and commutes with another guy the other 1-2 days. I’ve been clear-cutting our activities-outside-the-home list; a difficult task for our family since we homeschool our three children and they do actually need some activities that I can’t provide. Like violin. Although I could teach them piano…or flute or recorder… Hmmmm… I think we’re good on water and I know we’re good on food. But, of course, we could be better. And we will be! Where do I post my numbers?
    Heidi in Schodack

  6. jlpicard2on 21 May 2007 at 1:12 pm

    I’m a computer professional, and I think the notebook computer may not be a good idea from an energy perspective.

    Notebook computers can not be repaired easily. Unless the power supply goes bad, or the hard drive, you usually have to ship the entire notebook back to the manufacturer to be repaired. You have to spend a lot extra for a long warranty too. The cost to repair a out of warranty laptop can be close to or exceed the price of a new laptop. When the notebook computer is broken, you can not usually use any of the pieces in another laptop (save possibly the PS or HD). Regular desktop computers can usually be repaired by replacing whatever part has failed. Most desktops are standardized in some way. Each notebook model has mostly custom parts. If you need to upgrade a desktop, you can reuse your old parts that work (disk drives, dvd drives, monitors, keyboards, mice, sometimes power supplies, etc).

    Notebook computers can not be beat for their mobility, but they come at a premium in energy use other than electricity. Note that not every desktop uses the same amount of electricity. AMD processors typically use less electricity than Intel. You can also make a big difference in using an efficient power supply over a regular one. Having a LCD monitor instead of a CRT monitor can save a lot of electricity. The key here is to turn the backlight or brightness down as low as tolerable. A LCD monitor can really reduce its power usage this way. Of course, turn everything off with a surge strip to prevent phantom loads.

  7. nulinegvgvon 21 May 2007 at 2:29 pm

    I think books should be exempt or at least allowed for purchase much more freely than they would be if held under the consumer spending category. I know their creation involves emissions and simultaneous takes more trees out of the business of absorbing carbon dioxide (among other nifty, helpful behaviors) but the knowledge contained in and disseminated by books is and will be invaluable to us in the future.

    I know libraries are a wonderful shared resource of just such information, but their current condition has a few scary sides. First of all they require travel. Perhaps many people live within walking or biking distance of a library, but many folks, especially those in rural areas do not. How many miles driven to the library would equal the amount of emissions created by printing a book instead? Also libraries are currently not frequented by a large percentage of the population. If readers begin to feel the economic pinch of peak oil, climate change, and other converging calamities or if readers begin to voluntarily limit their consumption because they begin to understand the enormous implications of climate change, there are likely to be many more library users in the future. But lots of libraries are already under-funded and contain out of date material. They are unlikely to receive more funding for new resources as municipalities also few the coming economic crunch. In my mind it makes sense to hedge against this real possibility of not enough relevant books to go around by buying and using and sharing books now while the sun shines. If we’re talking about books concerning preparedness then I think it makes even more sense to purchase and hold onto these information containers. But even fiction could serve as a welcome relief from what might prove to be a tumultuous time. Plus, well kept books can last for centuries, at least decades and can be shared often even if not through a formal library system.

    Many people will say that the Internet could serve this purpose of information sharing much better than books can. In part I agree, but electrical interruption, lighting strikes, solar flares or other events could eliminate access to the Internet, at least for some periods of time. Even just general use proves print publications to be much more durable than hard drives or monitors. I do not expect my home computer to last nearly as long as my hard copy of Heating, Cooling and Lighting a super resource on natural systems information concerning region indoor and outdoor design. Internet info is also harder to reference and nearly impossible to take outside. Several years ago my wife “reorganized” our main bookcase which meant she took down many of my books and put up a lot of pictures. The books got boxed and I began frequently to reach for a certain reference only to find it missing. I would offer to loan a particular text to a friend only to find it gone from the shelf. “Must be in the attic,” I would tell my would-be recipient. Over time, I have repopulated the bookcase. ;-) In fact I have three copies of “How to Grow More Vegetables…” just so I can loan them out several at a time. One copy is dirty with garden soil from being referenced outside.

    I even have a short list of older books I always look for in any used bookstore. I always buy any copy of “The Universe and Dr. Einstein,” so as to be able to give it away later when asked about a good layman’s guide to the theories of general and special relativity. And of course this brings up the fact that many books, even those published just a few years ago, can be purchased at a much reduced price and without necessitating another copy printed. Hopefully I’m seeding the future with more copies of good information for a time when purchasing books is not very economical and when libraries and schools aren’t able to make enough useful, up-to-date information available. I would like to think that in general, the information embodied in books out weighs their cost in carbon emissions so I submit this idea to the project.

    Which could stand a snazzier name by the way. Maybe back to ‘The Riot for Austerity’, with social and ecological riot logo to boot?

  8. e4on 21 May 2007 at 4:59 pm

    I think the purchase of items that decrease fossil fuel usage should be encouraged, at least up to a point.

    I was thinking maybe a “discount”, based on the lifetime of the item. Maybe something like:

    0-5 years: No discount
    5-10 years: 25% discount
    10-50 years: 50% discount
    50-100 years: 75% discount
    > 100 years: Free

    That way, the more permanent the solution, the more incentive there is to implement it.

    (There’s an English teacher somewhere marking the phrase “more permanent” with red ink on their monitor…)

  9. Scoton 21 May 2007 at 5:09 pm

    Hey - I think you should consider a graywater system, if you don’t already have one. It is cheap to put in. RealGoods has the basic valve that does the jop. With the water diverted, it can be used again in the garden or for outdoor cleaning jobs. Graywater you dishes and showers. With the water used twice maybe you can justify those showers you like so much.

  10. GK4on 21 May 2007 at 5:28 pm

    I have been calculating my CO2 emissions since the beginning of January, using a spreadsheet I’ve put together. Part of it includes a way to calculate for products and services purchased. It’s kind of complicated, and admittedly sketchy, but a sketch is better than nothing.

    My figures are based on the book “The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists” (1999). Basically, I have an Excel worksheet which includes every kind of product and service in one column, how many kg CO2 are produced per dollar spent (in the next column), and then columns for the days. Each day I enter the price of my purchases for the appropriate line item, and the spreadsheet calculates both the total cost and the total CO2 emissions. I had to modify the figures to calculate for an individual rather than a household, for CO2 instead of just carbon, and for the increase in the U.S. overall emissions since the book was written. (I can go into more detail if anyone wants.)

    It’s admittedly only an estimate, but I didn’t start out accounting for my purchases and the difference is significant. I think everyone should include it in their emissions calculations. Buying a new laptop really hurt (computer hardware=0.3100416 kg CO2/dollar), so I suggest you do it only when your old computer is beyond repair. Books cost more per dollar at 0.5135064, but who ever bought a $1500 book? I did buy a clothes-drying rack this year, which I guess cost me about 34.59 kg CO2 for manufacture (etcetera) and nearly as much for shipping, but it’s helped me reduce the use of the electric clothesdryer. That’s where the positive effects are felt.

    I can list my figures if anyone is interested. There are nearly 200 line items.

    And I’ll have more to say elsewhere.

  11. Anonymouson 21 May 2007 at 6:17 pm

    ….Speaking of cheating, am I the only person out there doing this who is having a “oh, crap, gotta do X before it starts “counting.”….

    Oh, thank [diety] it isn’t just me! I pulled off the wallpaper in the room I’ve been meaning to get to. And I painted (green!).

    However, I did do it differently than I used to. I used the existing brushes and roller/pan. I used a color I already had–I was surprised to see it still looked so good after a couple of years. And I plan to re-do the room with an old futon I had in the basement instead of buying something new. Maybe some new fabric, but not new furniture stuff. Everything exists in this house. I’m going for accidental-eclectic.

    However, I did generate a couple of bags of trash (lightweight, but still…) and a lot of water for washing brush/roller.

    Well, at least I’m aware of it now. I wasn’t in the past.


  12. Rebekkaon 23 May 2007 at 6:59 am

    Regarding the 55 degrees not being comfortable for guests thing - we hardly ever switch our heater on, but I do give guests a wheat bag heated in the microwave if they are cold, and/or a woolen rug to wrap themselves in. No-one seems to mind, as long as they’re warm - and I don’t really like having the heater on, I get too hot and then we can’t sleep - so it works well.

  13. Annetteon 26 May 2007 at 11:56 pm

    If anyone finds a really good solar cooker/oven that isn’t ridiculously expensive, please post it - name. where you got it etc. Its very hot here (Mexico) much of the time and I think I could do a lot of solar cooking if I had a good one - the one I have is truly crappy (I paid $17 for it, so I guess I got what I could expect!)

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