I’m slightly perplexed. I’m almost positive that we can all save the planet (post, “Getting This Figured Out“), and I’d like to live my life in a way that I’ll be doing my part, and in a way that if others were to use me as an example, that we would indeed achieve that goal (though that ideal lifestyle isn’t going to be the same for all people around the world, at least not until we have a lot less inequality on the planet. See post “Pondering Kant“). But I don’t think I’m quite there, and yet I’ve done most of the easy stuff. I read a question in a book the other week that gets to the heart of the issue—“How much can we expect people to actually change their lifestyles?”. This is a key question, and one that includes me. For example, I’m more than happy to find a way to heat water for our house with solar power. BUT—am I willing to only take a shower every other day in order to save energy or water? (Or, can we all have our cake and eat it too?). Similarly, I can see cutting back on optional travel, but does that mean never getting on a plane again? How much is enough; can we all do what needs to be done without becoming zealots? Or, is zealotry required? And even when we cut back, how do we deal with the fact that, for those of us lucky enough to live in the richer parts of the world, that there might not be enough resources for all seven billion people to live like we do, even after we cut back? How do we solve THAT?
So, I’m not sure I have a definitive answer. I suppose that there are several different issues here. First, how far do I need to go to do my part? And, to what degree can we have our cake and eat it too; i.e., could we set the world up so that we can “decouple” our lifestyles from their environmental impact? And to throw in yet another difficulty, the answers to all of these questions are likely to be currently in a state of flux as our world and technologies change. Our economies aren’t decoupled from their environmental impacts, it could be that even with large degrees of change on my own part, that I’m still negatively impacting the planet, because I live and work and consume in a world whose systems aren’t sustainable. Just to use a simple example—to buy a printed book today has water and energy and pollution impacts. But, books being 100% compostable and recyclable, it could be that in the future I could buy a book that was printed on recycled paper, with natural inks in a publishing house powered with renewable energy (RE), and delivered by FedEx in an EV van powered with RE, in such a way that the entire process could be decoupled. I’m not sure there’s a reason that we can’t all eventually have material goods that are created sustainably and can be fully recycled when we’re done with them.
But despite these difficulties in even setting up this question, let me take a stab at it. I think, at a minimum, that I should live in a net-zero house (post, “Net-Zero is Possible“), I should drive electric vehicles and power them with renewable energy, I should avoid consumerism, I should purchase and eat food that is grown or raised in sustainable and/or humane ways, I should recycle and compost and minimize waste, I should invest money that I don’t spend in ways that further these values, and I should spend at least part of my time actively participating in efforts to improve the direction that humanity seems to be heading. And I suppose this list could be even longer (hmmm, and I wrote something like that last year: “Ten Ways to Move in the Right Direction“). But, let’s just keep it short for now. And here’s the point that prompted this whole post—I’ve done most of the easy stuff that pertains here, and I’d say I’m only 2/3 of the way to fulfilling the spirit of even this relatively short list. So here are my thoughts on the easy parts and the hard parts:
The Easy Parts: Well, relatively easy, but for me much of what I’ve done to this point is the low-hanging fruit. Our house is powered by solar and wind, but that was originally (ten years ago) due to the fact that it would cost too much to bring power lines in. We have leased (and really love) the Nissan Leafs, and power them, at least part of the time, with renewable power. But, it hasn’t been a sacrifice in any way, and the Leafs are cheaper than the gas-mobiles. We buy grass-fed beef from a local farmer, we buy local and organic groceries when we can, we have a big garden and fruit trees. But, though some of this food is more expensive than conventionally-produced food, we would probably buy it anyway, for health benefits. And, I’ve “minimized” quite a bit in the last six months. But, far from being a sacrifice, I’ve been able to sell the bigger items, and have quite a bit less clutter in my life overall. I could probably make this paragraph a bit longer, but the basic idea would be the same—the moves I’ve made toward sustainability, to date, haven’t been much of a burden. As I often find myself saying when asked about our off-grid lifestyle, “we live like normal people”. But, the low-hanging fruit is mostly gone, and now comes the hard part, I think.
The Hard(er) Part: I can illustrate what I’m talking about here by using that same list that I started with–
1.) To get all the way to net-zero at our house, we probably need to bring in the power lines and rewire the systems in the house to be grid-tied. It’s just dramatically more efficient that way (post, “Not Sexy“), and there’s not another way to easily achieve net-zero. But, I’m guessing we’re looking at $15,000 to do it; not pocket change. But, this would save us the gallon of propane we use every day for hot water, and the fuel for the generator in the winter.
2.) As for the electric vehicles, we have them, but they aren’t powered full-time with renewable power. The easiest way to achieve this is also to be grid-tied, and then to add PV capacity to our system. We have 3,000-watts of solar now, and I’m guessing we’d need 2,000 more to fully power both cars. This would be about $4,000, I think, after we were grid-tied, if I did the installation. Again, not really cheap, and not really easy.
3.) Consumerism. I actually think I’m doing ok here.
4.) So, food, since I think I’m doing ok in the consumerism department. I really don’t want to support the factory-farmed meat industry, and I think that in many cases we humans need to eat less meat anyway. Or, we’re going to need to eat less meat in the future, in order for humans to grow enough food to feed our burgeoning population. I have to say, I’m not fully doing my part here. Related, we probably need to source all of our groceries from known entities, in order to support farmers who are moving agriculture in the direction in needs to be moved in. That’s going to take some time and effort. To really achieve this, we’d have to cook nearly everything. We already cook a lot, and further moves in this direction will take up more time in the week.
5.) Recycling, composting, and minimizing waste. Two things stand out here— we should be moving toward a zero-trash household, and we shouldn’t be wasting food. Both require thought, effort, and self-discipline. We currently do better than most with regard to trash; we might make one bag of trash a week after recycling and composting. Not too bad for a family of five. But, there’s room for improvement there, though I haven’t studied that one. Not wasting food is something that we do know how to do, but it’s something that we have to pay more attention to. When the whole family is busy, the tasty and easy-to-prepare food gets eaten first, and the leftovers get bypassed. If we’re not careful, fruits and veggies go bad and end up in the compost, or leftovers end up in the trash. It’s not hard to not waste food, but it takes (like everything else) a bit of discipline.
6.) Investing in responsible ways. We do save a chunk of our incomes every month, and that money does get invested in run-of-the-mill retirement accounts and mutual funds, but the problem here is a lack of knowledge about how to do it differently. I’ve known this for awhile (one of my first posts, “The Environmental Paradox of Thrift“), but haven’t had time to pursue it. Our energy co-op is hosting a workshop on this topic next week; I’ll be attending.
7.) Participate actively. And, I also think I’m doing ok here.
So, there you have it; my challenge to myself. Not super easy. On the plus side, most of these items, if completed, have a monetary payoff. This is worth a few sentences here—achieving net-zero by grid-tying the house would have a payoff, though I need to run some more specific numbers. My guess is a return on investment in about 10 years. After that, powering the cars with solar would also pay off in about the same period of time (because we don’t currently pay for some of the electricity that we charge them with, the payoff stretches out here). Reducing consumption has an immediate monetary effect. Changing the source of our food is probably a net wash (organic and local food is more expensive, but cooking more instead of eating out or buying processed food is cheaper), though improved health is probably priceless. Trash reduction has a very small monetary payoff, but reducing food waste might add up to more savings than I would guess. And, lastly, investing in sustainable ways probably has about the same returns as my current investments. All together, however, while “hard”, I’d come out with more money in the long run if I did all of the things on my list.
Lastly, it has struck me about how we all trade money for convenience. This isn’t always bad (I could go to a local restaurant and buy local food, and support the economy while enjoying a healthy meal), but it often is, either in terms of health (processed food for supper, paying for gas instead of riding a bike) or in terms of the environment (using the plastic bags at the grocery store instead of bringing the reusable ones) or both (eating a less-healthy fast-food meal that is served in lots of disposable paper, plastic, and foam). So, it could be that with a dose of self-discipline, that I could be wealthier, healthier, AND more sustainable. Not a bad thing to work toward; I’ll let you know how it goes.