Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Prius Envy

I want a Toyota Prius. I drove a Prius. I liked the Prius. The Prius would cut our car-related carbon emissions by more than half. Our most efficient car gets 24 miles to the gallon and the Prius gets between 50 and 60 miles per gallon.

More importantly, the Prius would cut my guilt over having such a large carbon footprint.

How much is it worth to reduce my carbon guilt? The Prius is not nearly as expensive as I thought it would be, with the lowest priced variant starting at about $23,500. Still, we calculated that after a down payment we'd pay about $400 per month for 5 years for the Prius. Hmmm... $400 per month compared to $0 (our cars are paid off.) I feel guilty over my energy use---but not that guilty.

I have been musing about the money aspects of the green technology movement. I will be starting graduate school in the fall and my income will drop in half. So even though I have a husband with a decent income, we're not exactly in a place where we can afford to make large capital outlays to replace energy-hogging cars and appliances. As with most things in America, we are free to make green choices--if we have the money to do it.

Sometimes I wonder what I'm feeling so guilty about. I was raised in the sprawl of suburban Detroit, born into a middle-class culture that unthinkingly relies on the car for all transportation. Sure, I would love to buy a home close to an urban center, but those tend to be too expensive for a social worker and freelance journalist to afford. I have been trying to ride my bike as much as possible, but there are limits imposed by dangerous roads. There are huge barriers to what an individual alone can accomplish with voluntary efforts to reduce carbon emissions. I am implicated in global warming, in a small way, but this problem is not my fault. Buying a Prius I can't afford is not a reasonable solution to an environmental problem with economic, social, and cultural roots.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Trash Economy

The New York Times’ recent article on freegans is a fascinating look at people who are opting out of the capitalist system, living instead as scavengers off the food and consumer items that restaurants, stores, and the rich throw away. I admire the freegans’ courage in living in a manner consistent with their convictions about the greed that characterizes modern consumer society--and the needless environmental destruction that results. I wouldn’t dare—yet. I am still seeking a middle ground, a way to live more sustainably and still participate in the benefits of capitalism.

Some of my motives for wanting to find a happy medium are personal, while others are intellectual. I’m afraid of the social consequences of being too radical in my criticisms of our consumer culture. I want to be liked and not be seen as weird or far out. And I admit: I enjoy buying new things now and then. I’m willing to buy less, but am nowhere close to being willing to live off of others’ trash.

My bigger concern is that the freegans’ lifestyle is by definition unsustainable. If all of us tried to live that way there would be no consumer surplus to sustain us. The only way for masses of people to avoid consumer products is to return to an agrarian lifestyle, raising our own food and living off the land. That is highly unlikely for a host of reasons, not least of which is that the vast majority of people do not own farmable land. So I’m looking for reasonable alternatives to reforming our consumer culture. As part of that search, I’m looking forward to reading Bill McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Yesterday, I Drove

Ok, I cheated. After 14 days of no driving locally, I drove to a salon for a haircut. The combination of 97-degree heat and a desire to be socially acceptable (i.e., not arrive drenched in sweat) won out over my resolution to go 30 days without using the car to run errands. The good news is that I now have a hair stylist I like 3 miles from my home in Chapel Hill, rather than 12 miles away in Durham.

Although I ended my car-free experiment early, I am more committed than ever to working to reduce my use of the car. And I learned a few things that I’d like to share.

Biking for transportation is a great workout. When I ride to work, I arrive more awake and less in need of coffee. My energy level improves, too, every time I get on the bike. Although it’s been hot, I find I am more acclimated to the heat the more time I spend outdoors. One extra incentive: My husband said yesterday, “Do you realize how great you look since you started biking?”

Going without a car in suburban Chapel Hill is feasible, but not easy. I live between 2 and 3 miles from shopping centers and 3.5 miles from downtown Chapel Hill. These are fairly short distances via bike, but riding in this area is made more difficult by hills and more dangerous by fast traffic and lack of consistent bike lanes on major roads. I consider Estes Dr. to be too dangerous to ride on, and while I will ride on MLK Blvd. and Franklin St., I don’t particularly enjoy it because of the traffic. I appreciate the free bus system and often take the bus to work at UNC Hospitals. However, because I would need to change buses unless I’m going to campus or downtown, I don’t see the bus system as a great alternative for running errands.

Before starting this experiment, I had no idea how much I drove. Basically, I gave no thought to my use of the car. (I suspect that is true for most of us who can still afford gas despite recent price increases.) I took it for granted that when I wanted to drive somewhere, I could hop in the car and go. Usually I did not even bother to combine errands-- planning and organizing activities is not my strong point. I have taken quizzes online to calculate my carbon footprint and would inevitably be stumped by the question on how many miles I drive annually. 5,000? 10,000? 12,000? I had no clue. Finally, I looked up my mileage at the last time I recorded an oil change and was able to deduce that I drive approximately 8,000 miles per year.

Driving less requires making the decision to support local businesses. I already supported this view philosophically, because I believe that local businesses give a community its identity and help keep town centers strong. Going without a car for awhile narrowed the range to which I ventured from my home to about four miles. During that time, I realized that pretty much everything I need is available in Chapel Hill or Carrboro--coffee shops, a variety of restaurants, libraries, book stores, several grocery stores, farmer’s market, hardware store, garden centers. I am much less likely now to drive to a chain store outside of town to save a few bucks, because I am so much more conscious of the hidden costs in carbon emissions and to the viability of local stores.

Although I failed to meet my goal of 30 days car-free, I think I gained what I was looking for—a step back that forced me to think hard about my use of the car. I will definitely continue to bike for transportation as much as possible to help me meet a new goal: 30 percent annual reduction in miles driven.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Shallow New Environmentalism?

The June issue of Harper’s has two pieces that make some excellent points about the shallowness of much of the new green movement. One, by Edward Hoagland, laments our destruction of wild places as well as the loss of our ability to appreciate their wildness. Instead of seeing ourselves as part of a creation that is still largely a mystery, the modern American sees everything in terms of what serves our own imagined needs.

Hoagland writes with distaste of the trend of city people buying remote acres in Vermont to use as weekend hideouts or even full-time escapes, indulging fantasies of having land to farm in case of the collapse of civilization. He also pricks the self-indulgent concerns of the new environmentalism. Hoagland describes the new green movement as more concerned about managing the environment, so that it is safe for people to go on living and using resources in the ways we already do, than in conserving wild spaces for their inherent value, which may have little to do with humans. He writes,

“Conservation, which used to embrace national parks and forests, wild rivers, and the like, has blurred into a new term, Environmentalism, concerned with petroleum efficiency, groundwater quality, ozone statistics, sea-level maintenance, tradewinds pollution, recycling yardsticks, climate stabilization. People want mobility, yet a hideaway ‘off the grid,’ and to have the heart muscles of a hunter-gatherer, attained in a gym, though practically living in cyberspace, but still touch the earthly verities through yoga. Meanwhile, the pace and enormity of destruction is paralyzing, as is our general indifference.”

Ooofff. It’s criticism that is a bit hard to take, but in its way is a refreshing blast of reality. I partly fit the image of the type of person Hoagland is criticizing, the type who wants it all—my modern comforts and conveniences yet the weekend retreat in the wilderness. My husband and I have even talked about our fantasy of buying a few acres in the country and living off the land. But I am too much of a realist to indulge this fantasy for long. I support the idea of living in harmony with the land, of being self-sufficient with food, of not being dependent on the modern grid of systems that seem increasingly fragile and out of control. Yet, aside from knowing that I would not prosper as a full-time farmer, the idea is not realistic for broader social reasons. A movement of a few people indulging their wishes to withdraw from a corrupt society and have an Armageddon back-up plan isn’t going to solve a planetary crisis involving overpopulation, widespread destruction of land, and unpredictable changes in climate.

The only approach that could work to head off a global environmental crisis is collective sacrifice of “staggering” proportions, writes Garrett Keizer. A call for collective sacrifice is highly unlikely in the current American political climate, in which the political agenda is dominated by affluent elites who believe green technology will be our savior. We need to acknowledge that it is precisely our misguided worship of technology that has brought on the climate change crisis. Keizer writes,

“It is not enough to acknowledge that global warming exists; we also need to ask what global warming means. Surely one thing it means is that a culture that has as its highest aim the avoidance of anything remotely resembling physical work must change its life. If you want an inconvenient truth, there it is: that the very notion of convenience upon which our civilization rests is a lie that is killing us. And if you want to see how quickly green can turn yellow, make mention of that abundant, renewable fuel source whose chief emission is human sweat.”

I have been thinking a lot about convenience this week, living without driving. Convenience is growing to seem more like a euphemism for laziness or self-indulgence. The excuses I make to myself in times I don’t feel like riding my bike two miles to buy food or run errands are just childish. I don’t want to get hot. Get sweaty. Exert myself. My attitude at these moments boils down to a child whining, “But I don’t waaant toooo.!!”

When did convenience become a politically untouchable American right? Why was it ok for Roosevelt to call on Americans to make large, inconvenient collective sacrifices during World War II but not for our leaders today to invoke the notion of collective sacrifice to combat climate change?

The criticism offered by Hoagland and Keizer is sweeping, and it is not easy to respond or come up with pat solutions to the systemic and cultural problems they highlight. It is a relief to me, however, to read serious and provocative pieces that get at the roots of global warming—us and our attitudes—rather than the more typical article pointing the finger at particular polluting industries, or promoting the latest green technology.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Car-Free: Day 4

It’s my fourth day of living car-free. I will begin by stating the obvious: there is a reason they call it Chapel Hill. But I am finding that biking the hills in reality is not as difficult as I make it out to be in my mind when feeling lazy. I am rather enjoying life by bike. It’s slower-paced, but I’m more active. I am forced to think about where I go rather than making impulsive expeditions. I am feeling fitter already and acclimated to the heat.

It helps to look at this month as an athletic challenge as well as a lifestyle change. (My goal is by the end of the month to make it up the big hill on Airport Drive without having to get out of the saddle). I also am finding that my fear of traffic is lessening somewhat, as I get more comfortable being out on the roads. Still, I think Chapel Hill has a long way to go to be the bike-friendly community that local politicians like to talk about.

I think that more people would be tempted to commute by bike in Chapel Hill if safe bike lanes existed on commuter routes. The empty bike racks behind UNC Hospitals are a sad commentary on the lack of safe local bike routes. At a hospital that employees thousands, I usually see two other bikes in the racks during the day.

I commute four miles to UNC Hospitals from North Forest Hills, riding south on MLK Jr. Blvd (aka Airport Drive) and then cutting across campus. MLK Jr. Blvd. has rather dangerous inconsistencies in its bike lanes, transitioning abruptly from a marked bike lane before Estes Drive to a “Share the Road” sign that is hidden behind tree branches until you’re right up on it. Stormwater grates on that section of the road make it particularly dicey, especially when trucks pass at high speeds with little room to spare. Yet there is room along most of the road for sidewalks to be widened to accommodate bike lanes. Town council, do you hear me?

Full disclosure: my husband and I drove to Sewanee, Tennessee this weekend for his high school reunion. It was about 1,000 miles of driving round trip. I began to wonder during the hours sitting in the car about the contradictions inherent in trying to live with a reduced carbon footprint. On one hand, I challenge myself to live without driving for 30 days, but then I take a trip that burns more fuel in a weekend than I would in 30 days of typical driving. So am I a hypocrite? I don’t think so. The many of us trying to live more sustainably are not trying to return to a time in which people lacked material goods, technology, and transportation. We are trying to live thoughtfully, usefully, and with appreciation of what we have, rather than mindlessly, impulsively, and wastefully.

To me, one of the most important parts of living more sustainably is thoughtfulness about how I use resources and for what I use them. This involves daily choices about values—do I need this new shirt or I am experiencing fashion lust? Do I really need five more minutes under the hot water in the shower during a drought? Do we need to travel to my husband’s reunion? The answer in the latter case was yes. It was important to him to reconnect with his classmates and the place where he spent some of his most formative years. Still, it’s disconcerting to do the calculations—660 pounds of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere in just one trip. Living a modern American lifestyle is hard on the environment--and my conscience.