Sunday, June 28, 2009

What it Really Means to be Green

I was wondering, and as such sought the wisdom of the Internets. Surprisingly, searching for this post's title yielded no help, though there was an independently published paperback book available for sale which promised to reveal the truth. This was a bit confounding, and it is difficult to imagine that the book opens by saying "you already screwed up, in order for this book to get to your doorstep unknowable energy and resources had to be consumed."

So, what does it mean to be genuinely "green," now that it has become a largely vacuous buzzword that has been so casually thrown around and a boon to marketing departments everywhere?

We all know that green is supposed to mean environmentally friendly, but this idea of a green product is perhaps the modern paragon of irony, as the greenest purchase possible is the one not made. Thus we have the first principle of environmental conscientiousness:

1: Green is the antithesis of consumption.

Of course, a product can (and should) be made in a low impact way, but by the very laws of physics no new product will ever be more green in terms of production energy expenditure than one that has already been made. I hope not to offend, but yes, this means switching from essentially any car to a fancy new hybrid for the sake of the environment is a move made in delusion. In fact, the incredible amount of energy required to gather and transform raw materials into a marginally fuel efficient hybrid vehicle will most likely not be recouped in energy saving over the entire life of the vehicle. Likewise, the amount of time required for savings at the pump to make up for the cost of a new car will in all likelihood also extend beyond the lifetime of said new vehicle. As far as vehicles go, the greenest thing you can do is simply drive less, instead walking or riding a bicycle--not only do you decrease your environmental impact, the air will be cleaner, you will be healthier, and as research on exercise has shown, happier. There is much to be said about vehicles and environmental impact, but that is for another post. For now, I must emphasize that this principle applies not just to vehicles but to everything; even the most inconsequential commercial products have an absolutely tremendous energy cost from raw material to point of sale. This concept is one recognized from the specific manifestation of it as the Food Mile, from which we are taught that any food item, from field to table, might well have traveled thousands of miles. I reiterate, this is a concept that applies to everything else as well, yet the numbers are far more stupendous when they concern, say, a plastic duck manufactured in China to be sold in the US market; such a duck may have traveled (as raw material and beyond) well over ten thousand miles from petroleum to bathtub. This idea, you might guess, is one of the principle few behind the growing movement of buying local (another most obviously being local economic support).

This leads right into the next fundamental aspect of being environmentally friendly. In most respects I'm a fairly typical middle class American, and just like every other member of that very broad stratification (you too?), I like to get fancy new things. How can I buy with minimal impact? The approach is one just like that of responsible home finance, indeed the two are closely related--by following the first principle, you will already see your wallet swell from savings. When the necessity arises or the urge overwhelms, the best purchase is one of something used. This again saves substantially (and has been presented as the most common and effective way of growing personal wealth, see the book "The Millionaire Next Door"), but also saves substantial energy; purchasing an item that has already been produced will obviously not increase the energy expenditure of production. Were the stigma of "used" to vanish, demand for new goods would drop and energy consumption with it. Similarly, we should approach each and every purchase as if it were a major purchase, with all the associated research and contemplation. As a rule, the more you think about a purchase the less likely you are to purchase at all, but notwithstanding, the less likely you are to purchase foolishly. So we have principle two.

2: So you must buy? Then buy smart, buy used, buy local.

As the rather inspired video of Amory Lovins in my previous post shows, environmentally sound business practice is (surprisingly) financially sound. I hope to have demonstrated that the same applies to personal finance too. Presuming personal financial security is not one of your priorities (nor environmental stability, national security, etc), the question then naturally arises, "Why should I care about the environment?"

And you might expect me to say "Global Warming, of course." But no. As I again alluded to previously, global warming is as an issue, albeit serious, a thin veil, a red herring for another issue of cataclysmic potential on the scale of years versus the decades or centuries for global warming, and so near if not here that I shudder to consider it--I will, but not now. It will go with my promised elucidation on vehicles.

The push for environmental conscientiousness is one that can only succeed if everybody helps. Though there are really only two succinct principles outline here, they are nonetheless of profound implication, and will require the reconstruction of each of our foundational perspectives and behaviors. Earth, we now know, is a fragile and miraculous phenomenon that we, with our special isolated gift of sentience, have both the responsibility and capability to maintain and preserve. The alternatives are unquestionably tragic: collapse of society, extinction of life on earth, and an increase of surface temperature to the point that even rocks slowly melt (as on Venus, from which we discovered the effect of greenhouse gases and global warming).

But we can do it, we can, we are capable now more than any time before to change the future of the entire planet--there have actually even been precedents for such a broad and powerful movement... or at least the start of some. Two in particular are the push for fuel efficiency in the seventies, which for the first time since the second industrial revolution led to a decrease in fuel consumption in the United States, and the push for everyone to simply turn off the lights when they left a room, which had a substantial impact on idle energy consumption.

Here are a few simple things I've worked to implement in my own life, besides those mentioned above, to reduce my environmental impact, and a few more complicated things I've dreamt of/stumbled across to do the same on a wider scale:

Use a drying rack instead of a clothes dryer.
Turn off the air-conditioner and open some windows, turn on a fan.
Shop at the local farmer's market.
Eat less.
Eschew print in favor of digital versions.
Wash dishes by hand right after using them.
Install a low flow shower head, wash self more thoroughly.
Wash clothes less often (especially jeans).
Transform something old into something new.
Use a toaster oven instead of the full sized oven.
Compost, prefer products packaged with compost-friendly materials.
Unplug "wall-warts" (these draw power whether in use or not).
Be happy with what I have, be happy with who I am--Never confuse the two.

Motion sensing street lights
LED light bulbs
Solar water heating
12 volt line power (goodbye wall-warts)
"Neighborhood nuclear reactor" for electricity generation
Compressed air powered last mile vehicles
Computer controlled vehicle networks
Waterless and grey water toilets
Neighborhood gardens
Massively deployed for-hire large item transportation
Distributed vehicle rental services
Car-less cities, verdant grass boulevards instead of asphalt