Monday, January 23, 2012

Sometimes it takes a few years

Have you felt frustrated trying to communicate the importance and urgency of the end of the age of oil? We all want our loved ones and close friends to be prepared for emergencies, protected in case of market crashes or job loss, and emotionally ready in the case of black swan events - like an oil shock. Yet the majority seem stubbornly oblivious to the economic and energy disruptions coming our way.

You may have discovered that a full-frontal assault of peak oil hysteria isn't overwhelmingly effective. Even plain and simple logic may not be too effective, as logic is directly counter to the prevailing assumptions of our era. Maybe you switched to more soft-ball and indirect techniques, like encouraging gardening (without mentioning peak oil), giving Richard Heinberg books as Christmas presents, or telling everyone how you lost forty pounds biking to work.

Like most people who become peak oil aware, I am concerned about the well-being of my friends and family in the case of food, energy, or financial disruptions, or just the problems associated with the long energy descent. Several years ago, I had a (gentle) direct discussion with my parents, who responded quite well and now have a large garden, strict energy efficiency habits, an emergency woodpile, and even some food storage. They pay attention to their health and shop locally.

Other family members and friends were not as responsive. Some seem to understand the problem without taking concrete action to address it (the "not taking it personally" problem) and others just blew it off (the "someone would have told me if our entire way of life was completely unsustainable" reaction). I can understand those responses without being judgmental.

I know what it's like to not have any mental bandwidth to address anything more than dragging myself out of bed and going to work, or just getting through another day with a cranky young child. In our society, without a decent safety net or social support, any problem can loom so large that it consumes all our time and mental energy. So many people are depressed, anxious, isolated, sick, unhealthy, overwhelmed, dealing with parents with Alzheimer's and kids with chronic infections, and on the edge of bankruptcy or unemployment that I surely don't want to be the one who pushes them over the edge into a full-blown breakdown.

So, after an initial push of information, I decided to simply be a model and a reference - taking the actions we all recommend, generally being open about what I think, and being available to answer questions. In other words, planting seeds of ideas and knowledge without preaching.

But is this effective? Is this enough?

Sometimes it seems hopeless, and our children, parents, brothers, cousins, best friends will never, never respond to the Just in Case book we gave them three years ago for Christmas or get all the hints we are dropping about food storage.

But then - you might get an e-mail like the one I got from a relative on Friday. Here's the actual text:

1. Can I buy ground beef from you? If not, next time we would like to be in on a cow purchase!

2. What is in your car for emergencies?

3. What is in your emergency backpack in the house?

4. Where do you keep your important documents? (In a fireproof box, safe deposit box, etc.)

5. Do you have a carbon monoxide detector? Where is it located in your house?

If you ever get an e-mail like this, you can respond with all the information you no doubt have at your disposal and rejoice that your patience has been fruitful.

Or you might get an e-mail like the one my husband got after a conversation with our friend, who is a hedge fund manager in another state. He sent us a list of the food storage that our friend's friend had accumulated and asked us about the top 20 survival items. Apparently, the word is getting out. And if you've dropped enough lines in the water, some people will start to bite.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Riot results: cutting consumption by 50 - 85%

The Riot 4 Austerity 90% Emissions Reduction Project challenges participants to cut their negative environmental impact in seven different categories: transportation energy, electricity, other fuels (i.e. natural gas for heating), water, garbage, food, and consumer goods.

As individuals, we may not have "much" impact, but the point is to model these positive changes for others, share results and tips, and work together to make the changes needed for society to follow. Hopefully, the changes each family makes will not only result in less environmental harm but monetary savings, greater life satisfaction, and improved health through more exercise and better food. Cutting consumption is not only good for the environment, but also helps prepare us for a world of declining energy and resource availability.

I should first state that I do not feel deprived of anything that I or my family want or need. We maintain a regular middle-class urban/suburban 2000 square-foot household with two parents, one child and a small business on-site, and everything looks rather... normal. My point is this: we use 50 - 85% less in most of the seven categories, without much of what I would consider a sacrifice. It really isn't "austerity" at the level at which we have been participating.

There are various rules and regulations (all voluntary, of course) for playing the Riot game. I put together a handy spreadsheet to compare our usage to the average American household (per Riot and other sources of statistics). The specific data are below, and feel free to do fact-checking on the averages, but first let's look at an overview of how we did in the seven categories.

Water: Our water use in 2011 was much higher than in prior years due to drought and heatwave conditions (63 days over 100 degrees last summer), but at 68% less than the American average, and growing a garden in a year of drought, I would call this a success. (Note: I used the average American consumption reported by the American Water Works Association for comparison).

Energy: Although we used only 28% less electricity than average, our house is completely electric. When we add in our (lack of) natural gas usage, our total energy use is 80% less than average. Also, we are on OG&E windpower.

Gasoline: If we count our 4-year old as a person who consumes gasoline, I estimate that our household use is 59% less than average. Since *most* of the trips I have to take are specifically for his benefit, and involve driving many miles (to grandmothers every week for childcare so I can work part-time), this seems fair. We also live in Oklahoma City, which incidentally ranks 48 out of 50 cities in the national "Walkability Score". I wish our family did better than a 59% reduction, but I'm not willing to sacrifice more trips for both economic and family reasons. Perhaps when we replace our 13-year old Jetta with a Prius or other more efficient car we can improve in this area.

Garbage: We use about one trash bag per week, weighing in at 4.5 pounds (I rounded up to 5 pounds to account for weeks that are greater than average). After adding in the occasional "big bulky" item we place on the curb, our garbage disposal is about 85% less than average. Frankly, it's hard for me to believe that the average American household disposes an average of 40 pounds of garbage per week. But that's what Riot statistics report.

Food: We did not measure food, as the rules for the Riot are complicated and hard for me to track. However, I do buy local eggs and grass-fed meat directly from a local farmer, visit the Farmer's market weekly, grow a lot of food in our garden, and buy organic most of the time. We also eat meat an average of only once per week (a leftover from my vegetarian cooking days).

Consumer Goods: Another one we did not track. Generally, we buy used clothes, cars, toys, books, and furniture and furnishings, get most of our books from the library, give service gifts when possible, and purchase online music rather than hard-copy. However, we have purchased several electronics gadgets over the last few years, replaced our old carpet with wood floors, purchased a (heavy) energy-efficient fireplace insert and a steel tornado shelter, and bought assorted other consumer goods. I'm not sure I'd call this category "successful."

Summary: The details are available for your leisurely perusal below, but overall I'd have to say that I feel satisfied with our Riot participation. We came close to the 90% figure in several areas. We invested money over the last six years to improve our energy efficiency, and our investment is now being repaid every year. We save quite a bit of money - I believe that the money we spend on quality food reflects in our lack of medical bills (although good food is only one aspect of health), and the money we invested in our Prius and weatherization saves us money on gas and electricity. And all these savings were achieved without feeling deprived.

As I mentioned earlier, there are other steps that we could take to cut consumption even further. We could turn the thermostat lower than 66 degrees / higher than 78 degrees, refuse to take trips to see family, abstain from participating in community events, quit buying fresh fruit that is not in-season, and other sacrifices that we are not currently willing to make. If we had a convenient bus system or sidewalks in our neighborhood, we could walk, bike and bus more. If we had more land, or if I plowed the front yard, we could grow more food. And if I were tougher, I'd hang laundry outside in the dead of winter.

Still, for now, we'll keep looking for the little ways to consume less, save more and enjoy living a little lighter. In the meantime, I'll share some tips on how we cut our consumption (and ask for your insights as well) in upcoming blog posts.

Spreadsheet analysis (average statistics are from Riot 4 Austerity and American Water Works Association):

Average American household use 127,400 gallons
Patton use (2011) 41,000 gallons
Water saved compared to average: 86,400 gallons
Water saved as percentage of average 68% less than average
Average American household electrical use 11,000 kwh
Patton use (2011) 7892 kwh
kwh saved compared to average 3,108 kwh
kwh saved as percentage of average 28% less than average
Natural Gas
Average American household natural gas use 1000 therms
Patton use (2011) 0 therms
Saved 1000 therms
As a percentage 100% less than average
Total Household Energy use (with therms converted to kwh at
Average American household energy use 40300 kwh
Patton use 7892 kwh
Energy saved compared to average 32408 kwh
Energy saved as percentage of average 80% less household energy than average
Gasoline use*
500 gallons per person per year average 1500 gallons
Patton use est. only 616 gallons
Gas saved compared to average 884
Gas saved as percentage 59% less gas use than average
Garbage disposal
Avg: 40 pounds per household per week 2080 pounds
Patton use 5 lbs weekly 260 pounds
Additional disposal on big trash day 50 pounds
Total 310
Garbage saved compared to average 1770
Garbage saved as a percentage 85% less garbage use than average

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Putting on my oxygen mask

I had many plans for 2011, but what I actually ended up doing was spending an excessive amount of time helping launch several large Transition OKC events and supporting many other TOKC efforts through Facebooking, Constant Contact-ing, and updating our website. And attending a full-length Permaculture Design Course.

And serving on my neighborhood Board, including writing the newsletter and helping organize the neighborhood Halloween Spooktacular, Litter Blitz and Summer Social.

And joining the Board of Sustainable OKC.

And of course, raising a four-year old and running a small business.

I wouldn't call myself burnt out - but my feet might be smoking, just a little.

So I didn't get too much done on my personal list of goals, and I even neglected some things that are important to me. Dear readers, I realize this blog was one of the casualties. I have noticed that my posting has dropped off... a cliff. One of my resolutions this year - well, goals, really - is to rediscover the joy of writing.

In light of last year's mild problem with over-commitment, I am stepping down as co-chair of Transition OKC at our retreat later this month. After three years, I need to pass the torch so that some fresh faces can take over leadership. Although I will still stay involved, I am going to put on my oxygen mask by spending more time with my family and my garden and paying more attention to my health and my writing.

I hope those of you who are still with me will enjoy some more frequent posting. See you soon!