Monday, December 7, 2009

Still Rioting - Crisis into Opportunity

In March we embarked on the "Riot for Austerity" challenge. At that point I used the Riot for Austerity calculator to determine how we stood, relative to other Canadians.

We were using:

3% of the average amount of fuel for transport.
19% of average electricity usage
10% of average heating and cooking fuel
15% of average Water
44% of average Garbage - (ouch!)
26% of average Consumer goods
Food - We used about the target amount for dry bulk foods, but far too many imported fruits and veggies in the winter. Our big luxury was canned milk for our coffee.

Recalculating Today:

4% of average fuel for Transport (I had several specialist's appts which made extra trips necessary, which put up our total.)

8% of average electricity. Based on how many kWhs we actually used.

11% Heating and cooking - up, but I'm cooking at home more.

11% garbage - This is down significantly due to composting yard and kitchen wastes and the cat's sawdust litter, as well as recycling religiously.

10% Water - new dishwasher uses less water (and soap) than hand washing.

25% Consumer Goods: about the same, but we built the new deck, which allowed us to put up a windbreak for the winter. Fuel-saving measure.

30% Food: locally grown, 30% dry and bulk 30%, 40% wet/canned

Ah... this is an improvement. I grew a garden, bought locally grown produce by the box and dried it for winter use, buy as much food as possible in bulk, ate vegetarian meals until Nov, when we added modest amounts of meat back into our diet. (In summer we will switch back again.) Buying local eggs from cage-free birds and local milk from pastured goats. What we can't avoid is low-carb canned cat food, for the diabetic diet of our fluffball.

Crisis or Opportunity?

About 100 years ago the so-called "Developed Nations" made a fundamental shift from using energy generated locally to using energy located at a distance and somehow piped or conveyed to us. "Energy" defined here as products derived from oil, coal, hydro, or nuclear sources and food, which is the form of energy human bodies use as a power source.

In a very short span of time we shifted from the grass-fed horse and buggy to the automobile. We went from the tallow candle to the electric light. From heating and cooking with wood to heating with electricity, natural gas, coal or fuel oil, and from growing and eating local food to eating food trucked an average of 1,500 miles from its source to our plates.

And what happened? The buggy makers started making cars, the lamp-makers moved to making electric toasters and out of bicycle shops came the first aeronautical engineers.

What would the world have looked like if 100 years ago (or even 30 years ago!) if we had decided to use resources wisely, rather than swilling through them like thirsty sailors through a keg?

Homes would have been built to conserve heat in winter and stay cool in summer. They'd be compact, organized and include amenities like greenhouses, grey water recycling, composting toilets. Lighting and appliances would have been designed from the beginning with the goal of using the least amount of energy possible.

Neighbourhoods would have been built to be inclusive, shops, schools, workplaces, all within easy walking distance. Green grocers, butchers and milkmen would make scheduled deliveries as they still do in Britain. We'd have local small farmers supplying the bulk of our food, and small local manufacturers making clothing and durable goods like furniture.

These are the steps we should have taken in the mid 1970s when the first oil crisis occurred, and these are the kind of changes we need to make now to keep our environment from going into the crapper.

So how do we retroactively implement these changes?

1) The government needs to subsidize the insulation and weather-proofing of all housing, not just give tax credits for money spent. Like many programs supposedly aimed at low-income people, those people who need the help to insulate and weatherproof worst are those who are most likely to be below the tax ceiling, and thus unable to qualify for tax rebates. Those people on fixed incomes, the working poor, the single parent, the elderly, the disabled, the medically challenged.

2) Building codes must change. Every new building must be designed and built to require 75% less energy than the average home of its size does today. Rather than enforce minimum sq footage requirements, which discourage the efficient use of energy, resource and land, enact maximum square foot limitations. No homes large than 2500 sq feet, for example. One couple I know built a 12,000 sq ft house, for the two of them, about an acre of glass in a climate where the temperature is reliably -40 for weeks at a time. An entire village could live in that house, if they could afford the heating bill.

3) Every community needs to rezone to allow infill and back-garden housing. All available housing lots inside a town or city site need to be used before annexation happens. Increasing density reduces the need for long commutes.

4) Urban gardens and even small-scale urban farming needs to be encouraged by every community. It's time we had chickens, and even small goats, in our backyards.

5) We need to learn to do more with less. No one needs a new wardrobe every season, a new "look" for the living room every year, a new car every two years, or even every five years. It's time to spend quality time engaging and supporting community, rather than watching yet another season of "reality" television.

But first and foremost we need to reframe our references and see opportunity beckoning. How does a laid-off forestry worker here in BC find a way to remain at home and support themselves, in a new sustainable economy?

What ideas and methods are you using to reduce your environmental footprint and improve your quality of life? I know there must be dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to reframe this crisis as opportunity.

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