Monday, August 16, 2010

One Less Car: One Year Later

Last May (2009) our second car threw a timing belt which sucked into the engine and effectively destroyed the vehicle. Although we are a family of 5, with one student in school 25 miles away due to custody issues, we have never replaced that car.

In that one-less-car year I put about 800 miles on my bike (900 the year before the car loss) but my spouse put an additional 500 miles or so on her bike and the kid trailer.

In that year, we have used some public transit, lots of bikes, carpooled rides and a couple of times calling cabs. But we havn't really missed the car terribly.

Cold Turkey

We were working on driving bikes more anyway. I put 900 miles on my bike two, three and five miles at a time around town the year before we ditched one car. We increased that to about 1200 miles post-car, but and this is key we rode in an auto nearly 10,000 miles fewer. The annual mileage on the missing vehicle mostly went missing.

Oh a couple thousand miles just transferred to the remaining car -- but in the end, by going cold-turkey and losing one car, we saved thousands of car-riding-hours that we would not have saved by just trying to drive bikes more.

Where We Live
Where we live is important. Pasadena is relatively bike friendly; lower speed limits, smaller streets, share the road signs, everything we really need is available locally (within, say, five miles). Last week, for example, I drove my bike (including trailer) to my school site for work 2.5 miles from my home. My son and I rode our bikes to the dentist on Friday; on Saturday my wife and I took the 5 and 12 year olds to do our grocery shopping by bike. (She towed the 5 year-old's trailer, I towed the empty one for the week's groceries.) The type of community we live in has been important in facilitating our one-less-car year.

So, the short report on reducing car miles: (1) Live near your work and a complete community (not a bedroom suburb outside of a "real" city); (2) Insist that your community by bike and pedestrian (transit user) friendly; and (3) Kill a car cold turkey.

Monday, July 27, 2009

904 Bike Miles For the Year

UPDATE: Ended the bike-year (on the solstice) having driven 904 bike miles that I didn't ride in the car. See the prior post for the details on how you can become less of a car-rider . . . and for links to the Red Tag Your Car series.

So far this summer I am at about 150 miles, and will probably get to to 300 before Labor Day. Will this save the planet? No. Does it help? Yes. Could you help. You betcha!

Something holding you back? Maybe you have a "Would-But!" Check here and see.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

800 Miles & Counting: Creeping Green(er) Every Day, One Errand at a Time

It is interesting that last week, on Bike to Work Day, May 14, I logged an even 800 miles on my bike over the preceding 11 months. (I will probably hit 900 by the end of the school year, and may make an effort to hit the symbolic 1000 mile point.)

As miles go, that's not a lot: Its not a lot of car riding saved, and from a hardcore cyclist's perspective its not much when such a person will do a 100 mile "Century" recreational ride in a day.

But I suggest that it is an important milestone for three reasons: (1) it is a lot more mileage than I have put on in the last two years or so; (2) it represents a sea change to my own mindset regarding car riding and (3) it is an example of what can be accomplished if you start simple and slow.

Last year, I did about 500 miles on the year. The year before only about 300 -- a mere six or seven miles, average, of a weekend running errands.

And that is the point of my third point: Having mentally red tagged the car years ago, I started slow. Driving a bike for local weekend errands, quick mid-week runs to the store, or to breakfast out or to the to park with the kids on weekends. ( See Red Tag Your Car, Part I, Part II and Part III)
As the weekend trips improved my skills, comfort level and physical stamina, I began to ride more to work during the week. Now, I ride most every day that I do not have to deliver my son to school near his mother's house 25 miles away. And in the summer the car I use for those errands is parked so much we sometimes start it to keep the battery up.

At this time (see item #2) I tend to view the need to ride in a car as a failure; of errand route planning, of ability to find a truly local option, of trying to squeeze too much to fast into a life on the road.

As for the mileage, if you don't bike much now it seems like a lot. I promise that the longest stretch I ever rode to get that mileage was across town in Pasadena, California -- five miles at best. I work 1.80 miles from where I live; my daughter's preschool is 1 mile away; we shop 1.98 miles in the other direction, next to my other daughter's school and my employer's main office. One reason I am able to accumulate these miles two and three miles at a time is we have largely resolved one of the major "would-buts" of non-automobility: Live where you want to work and play.

You can do this too. It's easy. It's green. It's even healthy for you!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Watch Your Language! How We Refer To Things Can Affect How We -- and Others Understand Them

It's a fairly ancient and standard joke that in the world of Politically Correct Terminology a trash hauler is a "sanitary engineer." Despite that, it is actually true that how we name things does affect how we perceive them. Here are a few suggested alternative terms for things that just might help folks understand why the green version is important:

  • "Conventionally Grown Food" is, really, something of a misnomer. Using heavy doses of petrochemical neurotoxins and artificial growth stimulants to grow our food has only been "conventional" (i.e., the usual manner) for the last 50 years or so. Before that, much more organic and near-organic food reached our tables -- because that was the norm. So, instead of "conventionally grown" may I suggest "chemically grown food" to accurately reflect the state of what's in the super market. Or as we sometimes call it around our house "dirty food." Try this term swap yourself, and suddenly organic food seems a lot more reasonable.

  • "Organic Food" as a term is itself problematical. It makes that food seem special, even unusual. This is not good for at least three reasons: First, many large producers charge unnecessary premium prices for organically grown products, trading on the implication of "specialness" to make a higher profit. Second, organic food should be the norm -- i.e., "conventional" should mean "organic," but it never will so long as we refer to clean food as something special. Third, "organic" brings with it all sorts of baggage suggesting hippies eating brown rice stored in hand thrown pottery jars that many folks just don't want to be associated with, even if they really aren't all that excited about poisoning themselves or our farmland by eating the chemically grown variety. So, in our house, we call organic food what it is: "clean food."

  • "Bike rider" or "cyclist" similarly does not convey the (should be) mainstream nature of human powered transportation in our cities and suburbs. I have taken to referring to "bike drivers" when discussing vehicular cyclists. Bike drivers have a right to use the road; bike drivers are serious vehicles, going places and doing things, not just sports enthusiasts out for a little ride.

  • "Drivers" or "car drivers" used to refer to motor vehicles operators does not either accurately include all vehicles on the road, or the activity that takes place in a car. I actually drive my bike; I push it forward under my own muscle power. If you are in a car, the best that can be said is you are out for a ride. Thus, of course, I often refer casually to "car riders," both as the flip-side of "bike drivers" and to demonstrate the passivity of the activity.

So, you might hear me say something like this:

Tomorrow I'll drive my bike to the market after work; because of the bike I'll have an easier time parking than most of the car riders making the same trip. I'll buy our favorite clean pasta and sauce to cook for a big group of folks, but will probably compromise and buy chemically grown dark chocolate for the dessert we are making, and dirty artichokes because the clean ones are currently out of stock. "

See what I mean? The need to buy chemically grown and dirty food over clean food is terribly reduced. In my revised paragraph, the patchouli-tinged aura associated with a fluffy bike ride to buy organic pasta is reduced, as is the whingeing and whining factor that comes of complaining that your store is out of organic vegetables. No one could blame you for griping about having to buy chemically grown food -- even though most people don't realize that's what they're eating already anyway!

Remember the advice of good old Humpty Dumpty:

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sustainable Food: It's All in Your Head, And on Your Plate

Our neighbors at the extreme-green Path to Freedom here in Pasadena recently posted an important reminder about the sustainable use of food. In one simple graphic they have captured several of the many factors that go into sustainable food use.

The first item on the list, Buy it with Thought, itself embodies several factors. I don't know what the Dervaes family had in mind when they wrote it, but to me the following questions come to mind in order to buy food "with thought:"
  • Will my family like it?
  • Is it healthy for us or is it something we should limit (e.g., high or added fats and sugars?)
  • Is the food organic, local grown or both?
  • Is it fairly traded or certified?
  • Is it heavily processed?
  • Is it chemically augmented?
  • Genetically modified?
Most of these questions go unasked most of the time, and the result, I daresay, is that we as a community support a food industry that it is not in our long term, personal self-interest to support. It is sometimes just too easy to compromise one's longterm interest in sane public policy when faced with an immediate need like hunger. But I have found that the more we practice thoughtful eating by thoughtful grocery shopping, the less likely we are to compromise and eat something sustainably-vile just because it is handy.

For me, Cooking with Care means using both sustainable and healthy cooking methods. The PTF folks make use of a solar oven regularly -- which is beyond my personal commitment level. But we choose to use natural gas for our stove and oven, since it is a more efficient and less "carboniferous" (lower CO2) method for cooking than an electric range. If we ever had a surfeit of solar electricity on our hands it might make sense to use an electric range; but we only do 70-90% solar annually, so not yet.

I also like the common sense reminder Don't Waste It (food); that's a no brainer, of course, since trashing edible food costs the local household budget needlessly, but it also affects the larger ecosystem. Where a community or country is particularly profligate, the waste can really add up to a level that moves food production into a non-sustainable place.

The other half of waste, however -- at least in my mind -- comes down to what one does with the parts of the food one does not eat. Trimmings from vegetable preparation, for example. The potato that went soft in the back of the bin. Even the green beans which no threat or entreaty could convince the three-year-old to eat. Can we avoid wasting them? You bet!

A small bin on the counter and simple compost bin in the yard or on an apartment patio (yes they do have a sealed compost bin for just such a situation) is a great way to reduce landfill mass and avoid wasting the excellent fertilizer and soil builders one might otherwise throw away. For a longer rant on composting, click here.

The final concept -- Homegrown is Best -- is both one of the easiest to achieve at some level and hardest to achieve at a significant level. But it is an excellent aspirational goal -- especially since you know that the food is organic, definitely local and fair trade. More interestingly, I have found I am far less likely to be wasteful with food that I have grown. I know how long it took to get that bowl of broccoli or pan of fried potatoes, and you will see me turn positively miserly when it comes to using up food I have invested months of time in!

In the end, most of these concepts come down to awareness; consuming while mindful of the real inputs and consequences of one's consumption, and of the options available to be a sustainable element in the natural system rather than a destructive and disruptive factor.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reusable Bag "Would-But" Remedies

The other night a lady spoke at a meeting of our city Environmental Advisory Commission, calling herself an "uncommitted reusable bag user." She had come down to the City Council chambers to support a proposal to prohibit single-use plastic bags and place a disposal and education fee on single use paper bags.

She commented that she had some reusable bags, but she would often forget them when she walked to the store. She asked for the prohibition and fee to give her -- and others -- some additional incentive to be mindful of their choices (and especially to help remember to bring her bags!)

Until such a gentle reminder is the rule in your area, here is a capsule summary of a few cures for the "Would-Buts."

  • Own reusable bags. It may seem obvious, but if you don't have a set of reusable bags you will never remember to bring them into the store. You can make them yourself -- as a surprising number of folks do -- or collect them from all sorts of advertisers, or just vow to buy one (1) each time you shop for, oh say, two months.

  • Own More Bags Than You Think You Will Need Reusable cloth bags get used for all sorts of things, especially transporting gear to special events or stuff to work or school. When a bag is otherwise engaged, it cannot be used for groceries. Also, we have found the most effective technique is to keep a set of bags in each car, and one or two sets in the house.

  • Use Fewer Bags Than You Thought You Would Reusable cloth bags hold a lot of stuff. Four Trader Joe's-size canvas bag hold as much 10-12 of the plastic flimsies. So, even if you only have one bag -- take it! It makes a big difference. (Note: If you buy eight bags as noted in "Own More" above, you will have two sets.)

  • Torture People If you have not yet come out as a green, reusable bags can be a little, well, embarrassing. So, turn the tables. Deliberately bring your reusable bag with you into a store that doesn't seem all treehugger-ish. Smugly watch the checker struggle with your reusable, maybe even trying to stuff their plastic bags into your cloth one. Kindly, but with unmistakable surprise and disdain, comment that those plastic bags will be illegal soon. Realize that now that you are outed, you can be your sustainable-self anywhere.

  • Torture People II Take your reusable into a store that sells reusable bags but is not yet particularly sustainable . Watch the people in line eyeing your bag. Feel paranoid and embarrassed at being such a Green Goofball -- for a split second. Then accept the checker's heartfelt "Oh good! You have a bag!" Answer the follow-up quip from the person behind you that they "never remember to bring their bags" with equanimity and encouragement. Remember that that person was you yesterday!

In all seriousness, the reusable bag would-buts fall into three major categories -- old habits, self-justification (not enough bags, too many needed), and embarrassment at looking like an enviro-loon. None are insurmountable. You know you have made it to the sustainable place when you make an unexpected stop, feel just a little upset that you had to take a plastic bag for something that you couldn't at least carry away without a bag!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Do Nothing, Save the World! "Black Friday" Goes Green on Buy Nothing Day

Reduce, reuse, recycle.
Of this triple mantra "reduce" is, in some ways, the hardest for folks to find quick and easy ways to implement in one's daily life.

Reducing consumption often feels too much like some sort of deprivation. For my grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression and WWII privations, the concept of thriftiness and making do with what you have was common sense.

But for that generation, and for many of their children, those days are over and the idea of voluntarily doing without where there is no imminent and identified threat is anathema.

Similarly, their grandchildren (my generation) were born in an era of plenty, grew up into the 1980s boom, and with the exception of gas rationing in the early 70's, have lived comfortably, even lavishly, without great difficulty.

Now, there are many ways to reduce consumption. But the whole thing starts with awareness. As noted in a previous post, The Story of Stuff is great introduction to the problem of over consumption. But it's not very specific, or personal. So here's a personal statement to make to remind yourself -- and our consumer driven culture -- that as people we are more than the sum of our stuff:

Celebrate "Buy Nothing Day," November 28

Stay home. Decline to participate in the consumer madness retailer's call "Black Friday," known as The Day After Thanksgiving to you and me. Stay home and make a present. Read a book (from the library of course).

Sure, plenty of people stay home to avoid the traffic and insanity, so don't celebrate Buy Nothing Day alone. Copy and reproduce the graphic below as your email signature for the next three weeks . . . remind folks -- and oneself -- that "reduce" is the first and most useful of the triple-mantra.

Going to miss a sale? Probably. But frankly, in most cases it will be cheaper later if you decide it is something you really do need. And by explicitly declining to participate in Black Friday we send a reminder to the industry and ourselves that a sustainable future is the, in the long run, the only future.

NOVEMBER 28, 2007

Going Green: Are We There yet?

We are a just one family trying to make the transition from an unsustainable lifestyle to a reasonable one, and this blog has chronicled some of our discoveries and experiences about the "easy" green things to do.

We still are not as green as some, much more green than others. The journey continues.

Meanwhile, contemplating what to do next it occurred to me that we had hit a plateau; we seem to have maxed out most of the easy options, and our next steps are all a bit bigger.

Buying that electric car, for example -- either the all-electric pickup truck here, or (the one I really want) the Aptera, here -- is a step we are not ready to take right now. (Mostly because we are not ready to buy a new car.) Or making a commitment to 100% sustainable food options --organic, local grown, fair trade, etc. (Largely because some clean foods are still priced in the region of luxury items, and we just can't justify the cost; in other cases we have our over-processed, chemically grown food vices we are not willing to give up.)

"What next?" I have recently asked myself.

It's hard to know where to go if you don't know where you have been, so in a coming post I hope to review the sustainable elements we already have in place, list-style, and "wish-list" those we want to implement, and set some goals and priorities.

In the meantime, I will note that we have achieved something like success on overcoming one of the three main obstacles to sustainability, a green mindset. We (and I include most of our family members most of the time in this "we") have reached a stage where we have internalized the concepts of sustainability such that when only non-sustainable options are available we at least have the good grace to cringe, and may, in fact, skip buying or using or doing something at all until we can do it cleanly.

Three Obstacles and an Objection

What are the three main obstacles you say? Well, one is obviously Mindset. This itself includes several elements, not all of which can be achieved at once: The recognition of the basic need to live sustainably is the beginning; an understanding and awareness of the natural cycles that affect our lives and make our lifestyles possible helps; a commitment to live so as to not affect those cycles adversely; and finally, the integration of those things into one's life so completely and seamlessly that it happens without much conscience effort, as a way of living not something layered over an existing non-sustainable lifestyle.

The next obstacle is Cost. This includes the sometimes actual additional cost of a more sustainable product, but also includes upfront costs on retrofitting sustainable solutions for long term savings. (The latter can be legislated away, in part, by rules requiring deeply sustainable new construction, for example, and retrofit-on-sale type rules.) Cost also includes the more common "wrongly perceived additional cost," which is related to (because it fails to account for) hidden additional costs and public subsidies for unsustainable practices.

Hidden additional costs include things like personal illness from chronic ingestion of chemical food, to higher costs of education for masses of kids developing learning disabilities due to poor chemical nutrition. Hidden costs include indirect subsidies such as allowing free waste "disposal" by dumping it into the air and water. And they can include taxpayer-paid subsidies for certain products or industries known to be unsustainable and which would be economically unsustainable but for the hidden subsidy.

Availability is the final obstacle. Sometimes one wants to do the sustainable thing, but finds that manufactured products or those one chooses not to make for oneself by hand, are simply not available. From time to time clean technology is hard to find; green options are not very green. One does what one can to encourage products and services in this vein, and moves forward. (This obstacle should not be confused with the false objection and/or "would-but" that relieves one of the need to find a sustainable product or service because it is more difficult to locate than the unsustainable variety.)

Finally, The Objection is a really any one or more of a large set of (false) rationalizations for ignoring the need for sustainability. The Objection has many causes and guises, and although rightly a part of the Mindset obstacle, often seems to act as a block to sustainability.

Within The Objection sometimes is a belief that the deity gave man dominion over the earth and its resources -- and thus humans may loot and pillage that trust property without guilt.

There is also the (sometimes deliberate) confusion of "Sustainable Impact" with "No Impact." Every plant and animal has an impact on the environment, and a role to play in natural cycles; we need not eliminate ours, merely change and moderate ours so that it does not threaten to destroy us and the system of which we are a part. The sneering taunt "your locally grown, organic hemp reusable bag used resources, so why should I feel guilty about a plastic bag?" is an example of this confusion.

Which bring up the fact that Guilt is another factor that motivates the basic Objection response. So much about sustainability implies that if one has been doing something in a non-sustainable manner for years one must be a bad person, stupid, or maybe even malicious. People don't accept guilt readily.

Finally, sometimes the Objection comes down to simple embarrassment: Caring for the environment is seen as a weak, touchy-feely, tree-huggerish, emotion-laden activity -- which is inconsistent with the aggressive self-image that seems to dominate popular culture.

One rarely encounters a person for whom The Objection can be removed directly. Largely it is a matter of finding a point of entry to an Objector's world view, and finding sustainable practices that are consistent with it. Once the Objection is overcome, even a little, it is simply a matter of working on the Three Obstacles one bit at a time.

With this grounding then, we can look to my households current and future practices and see where to go next . . . for a sustainable, not an undetectable, interaction with our biosphere.

Coming Soon: The Checklist: The Good, the Bad, the Etc.