I feel like I'm eating oil for breakfast
April 17, 2008 2:28 PM   Subscribe

What are the top 3 things I can do this year to avoid consuming non-renewable resources?

I have given myself a practically impossible goal of not purchasing or consuming any products or services that have used oil, coal, or natural-gas resources during production, distribution, or development. I really don't expect to meet this goal any time soon. However, over the next year I'd like to make three big changes to my lifestyle to support this goal.

So, what are the top three things that an average upper-middle-class family in the US can do to avoid using non-renewable resources, particularly oil, coal, and natural gas? Financial cost is somewhat of a concern, so I'd like to the total cost to less than say $50,000k US. However, the bigger bang for the buck, the better.
posted by brandnew to Shopping (31 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and if it's not asking too much, please let me know how you came to the conclusion that you suggest.
posted by brandnew at 2:34 PM on April 17, 2008

You don't say here or in your profile where you're located. That makes a big difference. If you're in a temperate area with mild weather, the biggest thing you could probably do would be to switch away from nonrenewable heating/cooling fuels, and stop driving (in favor of bicycling, probably).

If you live near where there's a farmers market, you might want to think about getting your food there also, at least as much as you can, since by buying locally and organic you're avoiding some of the petroleum use associated with the industrial agriculture. Growing as much as you can in a garden (a lawn is just wasted space where you could be gardening!) will also help, although I don't know exactly how much.

I think that your biggest fossil fuel consumption in an average household is transportation, and the second one is heating and A/C. Everything below that is small beans, so I wouldn't obsess too much over little stuff until you've figured some way to minimize or eliminate driving and heat and cool your house without nonrenewables.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:38 PM on April 17, 2008

Response by poster: I'm located in SW Pennsylvania
posted by brandnew at 2:40 PM on April 17, 2008

Oh, and here's a report from the EIA that suggests HVAC is the biggest consumer of electricity in the home (particularly A/C), although it doesn't break it out against total energy consumption.

And I suppose on second thought, it's probably possible to switch your electricity service to a "renewable" company ... although I don't know if that's ideologically pure enough for you. (It's not like it's a parallel infrastructure or anything; they're just dumping x kwh onto the grid at one point and then you're pulling x out elsewhere; the rest is just fancy accounting.) That might be worth looking into if it's available in your market.

This chart is based on data from Australia, but it confirms my suspicion that transportation is probably your #1 energy sink. I think in a colder area, heating would be way more energy-intensive than hot water.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:46 PM on April 17, 2008

I would suggest that you stop buying batteries. We have infinite oil compared to lithium supplies. Buy some decent rechargeables but resolve never to buy a disposable battery again.
posted by GuyZero at 2:50 PM on April 17, 2008

Walk or bike to get to *all* destinations within 2 miles of your house. Buy local produce- Here is a link to some farmers markets in Western PA. Spend time outside in the shade this summer rather than inside with an air conditioner.

These won't save the world on their own, but they should significantly reduce your environmental impact and be easy enough for your family to adjust to.
posted by cheerwine at 2:58 PM on April 17, 2008

I'd suggest it's actually impossible to do so, even the most ardent of organic farms are unlikely to till their land by hand, and recursively you'd have to ensure the farmers themselves avoided anything involving coal, oil or gas in their daily lives.

Simply the act of paying your taxes, both in the method of payment delivery and the causes those taxes are then used to fund would also break your goal.

But on a lighter note, getting rid of your car, turn off your heating systems and growing your own food is likely the biggest step to achieving anything close to your goal.
All those cost next to nothing to achieve, so perhaps put your goal fund into a large solar array on your property-- which admittedly would use a large amount of non-renewable energy to create, but would eventually break-even, and would allow you to use heating as needed.
posted by Static Vagabond at 3:01 PM on April 17, 2008

If you live in a rural area, move to a more dense urban area. You'll consume far less resources.
posted by Oktober at 3:03 PM on April 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Don't travel. Don't fly anywhere, and keep car trips as short as possible. If you have a job with a long commute, either move closer to it or get a new job that is closer to where you live. A city is best, because then you can walk or take public transportation everywhere. People in cities use far fewer non-renewable resources than those who live in suburbs or the country because of economies of scale (people are centralized, so fewer resources are wasted in bringing them the goods and services they need).

One airline flight cross-country uses 100 gallons of fuel per passenger and emits about 2 tons of carbon. And you know how much fuel your car uses. So don't use it, and change your lifestyle to use it less. Declining to travel by air is free. So is driving less. Moving may be expensive, as might a job search. But seriously, it's the things you don't buy or consume that matter a lot more than the things you do buy.
posted by decathecting at 3:09 PM on April 17, 2008

Stop flying.

No really. I did a carbon footprint for an international consulting company, and their air-miles came out to about 70% of their total energy consumption. When I lived in a city with good transit and had no car, this was also true for me on an individual scale.

I found you a nice article at the BBC on this topic, but there's a lot of information out there. You can also run your own carbon footprint and try changing various things to see what makes the biggest impact for your particular lifestyle. YMMV with each footprint calculator - they all use slightly different assumptions.
posted by whatzit at 3:10 PM on April 17, 2008

Stop flying.

One person's not flying will not cause any fewer planes to be flown and will have absolutely zero environmental impact.
posted by 1 at 3:24 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

One person's not flying will not cause any fewer planes to be flown and will have absolutely zero environmental impact.

Wow. So let's just change nothing of my lifestyle, because really, my choices make no difference.
posted by ddaavviidd at 3:31 PM on April 17, 2008

One person's not flying will not cause any fewer planes to be flown and will have absolutely zero environmental impact.

But getting a vasectomy or committing suicide will; as well as cause farmers to grow a proportionally smaller amount of food, keep planners and developers from building roads, etc. etc. etc. Your consistent application of logic in this matter is astounding. Because really, to follow your (apparent) logic, the most benefit could be obtained by becoming a serial killer. Knock out all the people in your neighborhood, burn down their houses, and presto! Instant greenbelt.
posted by LionIndex at 3:41 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

No, ddaavviidd, 1 makes a strong point. Not driving will have a provable environmental impact; you are burning less fuel. But the plane will fly regardless of whether you get on it.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 3:44 PM on April 17, 2008

I have given myself a practically impossible goal of not purchasing or consuming any products or services that have used oil, coal, or natural-gas resources during production, distribution, or development.

I'm glad you acknowledge the near- impossibility of your goal here. Really, I think you'd have to completely withdraw from society to achieve it, insofar as plastics, synthetic fibers and many kinds of ink are petrochemical products. No CDs or DVDs. No polyester, nylon, vinyl, olefin carpet, PVC, shrink-wrap, etc. And of course anything that moved by gas-powered car, truck, train, plane, etc. would be out too, eh?

The one shining light I can think of here is that you live in relatively close proximity to a couple of large Amish populations. If you could move to Lancaster County, or Holmes County, Ohio, you'd have a much greater chance of finding up-stream producers of your consumables who were not themselves using or wearing gasoline, plastics, man-made fibers, oil/coal/gas-powered electricity, etc.

Moving to Amish country, and then taking advantage of its farmers, tradesmen and craftspeople, along with riding a bike everywhere and getting serious about your home heating efficiency (I won't say to omit it, because winter in PA... well, I wouldn't want to do completely without) FTW, I think.
posted by mumkin at 3:55 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

For the record, Amish people don't eschew fossil fuels exactly. They avoid tractors. But they will often times put a large motor on a horse cart to power a hay bailer or other implement. They also fertilize with chemical fertilizers like any other non-organic farmer would.

Certainly they use less fossil fuels than a conventional farmer would.

If you really wanted to cut your fossil fuel footprint food wise, you should try to find an organic farmer that farms with horses. In my opinion, your best bang for your carbon buck would be to find a diversfied organic farm that includes free range meets, as the fertilizer (manure) from the animals will help to close the circle of fertilization and really reduce a lot of outside inputs.
posted by sully75 at 4:06 PM on April 17, 2008

Go vegetarian or eat more vegetarian-like.

You also might be interested in reading
the oil we eat. Maybe you did already based on your subject line.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 4:11 PM on April 17, 2008

No impact man is trying something similar. I would nth the priorities of Car (particularly the commute), Electricity (particularly hot water and heating) and Food. Note that many of the changes you make will, in the long run, pay for themselves.
posted by kjs4 at 5:06 PM on April 17, 2008

The top three things you can do are:

1) Move to a densely population urban environment.

2) Stop driving; bicycle or walk where you need to go.

3) Don't fly. If enough people stop flying, the number of flight will go down.

Those three things would so utterly dwarf any other changes you can make that not doing them would indicate this is about feeling good rather than making a difference. So, honestly, those are the only three that matter.
posted by Justinian at 5:20 PM on April 17, 2008

I'd just like to point out the error in "the plane will fly anyway" argument.

Airlines plan future supply on previous demand. One less unit of demand will feed into their projections of future demand and planning for supply of future services.
posted by Sitegeist at 5:33 PM on April 17, 2008

Don't use a clothes dryer. Dryers use a ton of energy since they have to heat the air up, and spin everything around. I just read (in the NYT, I think) that clothes dryers use something like 6% of household energy, comparable to the amount used by your fridge, even though the dryer is not on most of the time.

Buy some good drying racks and use those. Set them up outside in the summer and your clothes will be dry in a few hours. It's not as fast in the winter, since you have to put them inside, but your clothes will dry within a day or so. Jeans might take 2 days.
posted by number9dream at 5:35 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

not riding on a plane that flies anyway has a basically negligible effect on its fuel consumption.

however, the argument against boycotting air travel is identical to the "my vote doesn't count" argument. what you want to do is begin to reduce the demand for services that are harmful to the environment, and to have as many people as possible do the same. your individual effect may be nil but the cumulative effect will eventually make a big difference. if airlines find their flights gradually getting emptier, they will consolidate their schedules to increase the passenger density on their planes. that reduces their costs and the overall consumption of fossil fuels.

as with everything, the important thing is to do it, not just search for reasons why you shouldn't.
posted by klanawa at 5:36 PM on April 17, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the responses so far - some of them are very interesting and useful, and others are arousing as many questions as they answer, but are still very useful.

However, I'm naively surprised by the slightly snarky comments. I don't think of myself as pursuing an ideology. More, I look at this question as an early-adopter. It has recently dawned on me that practically everything is permeated in this stuff (yeah, I'm slow). And, the worst part is that I'll likely be alive when the 100+ year gravy train derails itself. I just want to ensure that my family's lifestyle is adapted to the change well before it hits the mainstream.
posted by brandnew at 5:37 PM on April 17, 2008

Resolve not to reproduce. I'm serious. There is no other personal decision about the conduct of your life that's anywhere near as good for the Earth.
posted by gum at 5:46 PM on April 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Here are my picks. I'd actually phase these in one at a time. I've listed four, so you could adopt one new resolution every six months over the next two years. They're not easy, but "make no little plans," right? If these seem "impossible," that just means a more exciting and interesting change in lifestyle. :) Most will actually save you money, which will give you some money to spend on the tougher ones.

* Never drive (here's a picture for inspiration)
* Don't buy anything new (ie, buy everything used, on Craigslist, at consignment clothing stores)
* Permanently turn off the heat and A/C (then figure out how to get comfortable, by either moving to a house with better passive heating and cooling, or by making changes to your house like installing operable windows, double-paned glass, insulation, skylights, shade trees)
* Don't buy any food (barter is quite alright) (you might want to start with a modified version, like "don't buy anything at the grocery store" or "don't buy anything from more than 100 miles away" or "don't buy food grown anywhere you haven't seen / by anyone you don't know")

The funny thing is that not very long ago, basically everyone lived this way (maybe except for the last one). As inspiration, can I recommend this book? It's a pleasant read, and it will make you feel like what you're doing is totally normal.
posted by salvia at 6:51 PM on April 17, 2008

Salvia - I'm not sure I understand your last point about never buying food. To do that you'd have to live somewhere you could grow enough food for your family, which implies living in the country somewhere. That's much worse for the environment than living in a city even though you can't grow your own food.
posted by Justinian at 6:56 PM on April 17, 2008

I'll skip a bunch of totally obvious stuff that you've no-doubt thought of, and offer some almost-but-not-quite-totally obvious stuff about biking :-)

China is mass-producing and exporting street-legal electric scooters - they are low cost and I presume effective, so consider getting one for trips beyond bicycle range.

Get everyone in the family a bicycle, and do family outings until everyone can cycle safely in traffic, kids included. Same with puncture repair and basic maintenance.

Regardless of whether you get a scooter, build or buy a bicycle trailer (GIS), or at the very least, pannier bags, so you can get in the habit of doing more serious goods transportation with your bike.

To further this goal, consider an electric-assist kit for your bike (or build one if you're up to it), especially if you live in a hilly area, where the braking energy from going down hills can be stored by this device to assist you when going up them while hauling the trailer. I don't have one, so I don't know how good they are, but it seems to me that cargo makes for a practical use for electric assist.

Buy wet-weather clothes for the bicycle(s), snow tires, etc, so they can be used year-round in all conditions.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:09 PM on April 17, 2008

my top three most impactful conservation actions:

walk to work.
don't fly on business or for pleasure for the year.
don't eat meat.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:44 PM on April 17, 2008

Justinian, I was basically thinking that since not everyone is trying to do this, it would work even if they lived in a city. I was imagining they'd end up somewhere like Oakland or Berkeley, where you can bike or walk to your destination, but there is still a lot of land available for food growing, both in small, shared yards or in community gardens. (This might not remain true if everyone started trying to do this, but currently, they could probably get ahold of some land to use.)

I figured they could get themselves about halfway there on not too much land. Then they could produce something or learn skills that they could trade for the rest. Fruit trees in the sidewalk strip? Honey bees on the balcony? Cutting hair? Building or electricity? The skills, talents, and community connections you'd need to develop to successfully barter for the rest of the food would be pretty good in their own right and could have other environmental payoffs.

Plus, adopting this goal would create an interesting mindset shift. "Okay, I eat meat, so ...should I just hunt it? Are these pigeons edible? Can I just catch the fish? (Oh shoot, the entire San Francisco Bay is totally polluted.)" Once you start caring whether your environment is safe to eat from, you end up with a lot more concern about pollution.

I agree you have a point, particularly because if everyone starts trying to do this, it doesn't become feasible for cities to feed themselves. I just looked up Cuban urban agriculture (where they've tried really hard), and it sounds like though Havana may be growing 90% of its fresh produce, another source said it may be only 30% of its total food.
posted by salvia at 7:56 PM on April 17, 2008

Read the archives at Living Plastic Free.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:34 PM on April 17, 2008

1. As a lot of people have said, minimize driving. This will be difficult as you live in SW PA (I'm originally from suburban eastern PA, so I feel your pain), so maybe it would be more realistic to maximize carpooling. As driving is often necessary, consider a hybrid (although these have the best fuel savings with city driving), or a car that has a diesel engine that could be retrofitted to take biodiesel (be careful about this as some biodiesels - like some veggie oils - may have more emissions than gasoline). Basically the best thing you can do is to get the smallest car you feel safe driving to maximize fuel economy.

2. Stop using your clothes dryer. I'm amazed at how much energy these things use.

3. Various home retrofits. First, make sure your home is VERY well insulated. PV cells may make sense for your home and the payback period may not be very long. Solar heating is great, and you may want to consider underfloor heating. This is common in Korea and Japan and it's super efficient (although it may be costly to install). Automatic thermostats with shut-offs are great, too.

A lot of people have been mentioning buying local foods. While I, too, love farmers' markets, this is not always the most environmentally friendly option. Big ag operations have the capital to employ large-scale systems to reduce energy costs and water consumption that just don't make sense for the small-time organic farmer. This is definitely not always the case, though. As for planes, a guy who works in Life Cycle Assessment recently told me that when he lived in Boston, it actually made more environmental sense to buy a bottle of wine from Italy than from California because transportation via diesel trucks across the US was actually more energy intensive than transportation via plane from Europe.

Bottom line: stay informed and know that the sustainable choice is not always obvious. Kudos on the worthy goal!
posted by kookaburra at 10:35 PM on April 17, 2008

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