Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Weekly Word/Phrase: "Dependence on Foreign Oil"

We've been hearing about our "dependence on foreign oil" since gas prices began rising, but I think the phrase is misleading. It combines two crucial problems of the American economy and treats them as one:
  1. America's heavy dependence on oil and gasoline for our outmoded, single-passenger based transportation system.
  2. The loss of jobs and production from the United States.
First thing first. Since the auto industry destroyed rail lines in the 1940s and 50s, most Americans travel by car. Many see the "freedom" of car ownership as a signal American value. Once you've got a car, you're an adult; you own your destiny.

In fact, owning a car means constantly giving to a larger system run by automakers, oil producers and refiners, the insurance industry, and the government. It's a heavy financial burden that, in turn, takes an enormous toll on the environment as well as communities.

And since the middle part of the twentieth century, American oil finds have decreased and forced us to import the vast majority of our oil supplies. Not only that, but as labor unions have declined, especially since the 1980s, jobs and production have moved overseas. Oil is simply one of many products we import. Communities built around production have largely disappeared in the U.S.; travel grows, imports grow, localities fade.

So our so-called dependence on foreign oil is two dependencies, misunderstood to be one.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The danger of Sarah Palin

I really didn't want this blog to be too political because I don't think sustainability is, at its heart, a political issue, but I have to mention this: John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as running mate signals a swerve toward dangerous environmental policy. Consider this:
And this has less to do with global warming, but she's a creationist. Egads.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

McCain's lobbyist friends

I made this:

Thanks to Progressive Accountability for its main source work in tracking down all of John McCain's lobbyists.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Are Gingrich and Hannity stupid, lying, or insane?

This clip is a few days old, but behold:

Think Progress has detailed how demonstrably wrong Gingrich is, but I'd like to address a larger question: are they stupid, lying, or completely insane? Consider this:
  • Obama mentioned tire inflation not because it's his energy plan (it's not--warning, pdf), but because a little personal responsibility with our cars would effect the same change as drilling offshore for oil.
  • After a few days of poking fun at Obama for mentioning tire inflation, McCain acknowledged that he "doesn't disagree," an odd construction that means, essentially, he agrees.
  • For Hannity and Gingrich, high oil prices weren't an issue until they became a political issue, one that, unfortunately, most people aren't well informed about. Harping on the tire inflation "gaffe," which wasn't a gaffe, is simply noise that continues misinformation.
How could these wealthy people with immediate access to information possibly not know any of the above? And what's worse: knowing all of the above, as well as facing growing acceptance that global warming is real, they continue to advocate the worst kind of politics and energy ideas.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hypermiling in a Prius

In the above video, I get the chance to hypermile in a Prius (my first time behind the wheel of a Prius). Thanks to my brother John for filming and editing the video, and to Becca for letting me drive her car. Enjoy.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Weekly Word: Convenience

I'm going to borrow and warp a Stephen Colbert bit. Once a week (I hope), I'm going to write about a word that seems relevant to me about sustainability issues. I won't be as funny or sharp as Colbert; a lot of what I think about the language around sustainability is unclear to me. So I'm starting with this:


One of the most common words that comes up in resistance to sustainability measures is convenience. Usually, it's something like this: "why should I have to be inconvenienced to make some change?" Most technological changes in the past half-century--frozen and pre-packaged food, power steering and brakes, increased horsepower, inexpensive incandescent lights, air conditioning--have been changes toward convenience that expend a great deal of energy on the front end. To make these things cheap and convenient for us, industry had to create waste on both the front and back end; when you consume frozen food, you have to throw away a box (only recently recyclable in most places), an unrecyclable wrapper, and the unrecyclable container. But how convenient it is to have food ready and relatively tasty in just five minutes.

But is it really convenient? The implication, at least in the example of cooking, is that food preparation is an inconvenience. If you have kids running around and have been at work all day, it's probably easy to microwave a couple of things and pour a pre-mixed salad into a bowl. But meals used to be one of the essential family experiences, not an inconvenience.

Take cooking. When you make a flavorful meal with fresh ingredients, the effort takes time but rewards with pleasure--the food tastes better and is likely healthier, and you get to savor it with the family. Plus, if you can share the kitchen duties with a partner and with children, you're sharing that work. My neighbor has his children help with some aspects of preparing the meal. They clearly enjoy it, particularly knowing that they helped make the good meals they eat.

It's a strange balance of rewards, convenience versus shared pleasures. When people complain of inconvenience, I wonder what they would miss out on by inconvenience. What are the essential experiences of life these conveniences allow them to have?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Off the subject

This isn't exactly about sustainability, but it's worth sharing:

Welcome, Enquirer readers

If you've come here from Margaret McGurk's article on hypermiling in today's Cincinnati Enquirer, welcome. I'm Charlie Green. Cruise around the site for ways to save money on your electric bill, eat better, and do your small part in helping make Cincinnati sustainable. All questions and criticisms are welcome; feel free to leave them in the comments.

Update, 10:35--When I posted this morning, I'd only seen the online article, not the paper itself. So to those of you who hoped to have a nice breakfast with your morning paper but instead saw my bearded grin, sorry about that.

Also, some links about hypermiling:
  • My video of hypermiling basics
  • CleanMPG, a forum for discussing hypermiling techniques, dos and don'ts, etc.
  • Ecomodder's 100+ tips on how to save gas

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Energy vampires--what's at stake

I couldn't help the pun in the title. I'll whip myself mercilessly with a recycled hemp penance rope later.

But for now, a few words about energy. If you live in Cincinnati, you're getting your gas and electric bills from Duke Energy. You may have noticed that your bills have gone up since Duke took over, and you may have heard that Duke wants to raise rates. The good news: using less energy and saving lots of money is super easy. Plus, since Duke creates energy using coal, gas, hydroelectric, and nuclear, lowering your energy use helps the environment out in major ways. Plus, you can pay a little extra to Duke, and they fund alternative energy sources. (You still end up saving money.)

So here are the easy steps:

Slay the Energy Vampires

Even when most electronic devices are off, they're still using passive or active energy. Good Magazine's illustration points this out very clearly. When you're asleep, these things cost you money even if you aren't using them. Even if they're off.

So what to do? Surge protectors. We've got our TV, DVD player, and sound system plugged into the same surge protector, and it's off around 20 hours a day. (We don't watch much TV.) Same with our cable internet and network server and all our computers. We make sure everything's switched off before we go to bed, right after making sure the doors are locked. Becomes an easy habit.

Switch to CFLs or LEDs

Pick the three lights you use most and replace them with compact fluorescent bulbs or LED bulbs. (The former has some mercury, and the latter tend to be more expensive. In the long run, though, they both use an incredibly small amount of power.) The savings are instant. Plus, if you have a series of lights set up to a single switch, replace all those bulbs.

Example: in our kitchen, there are two recessed track lighting features. When bulbs started going out, we had two CFLs and two incandescent bulbs on one track, two CFLs and two incandescents on the other. But we use one track much, much more often than the other, so I switched the CFLs in the little-used row for the incandescents in the other. So four CFLs on a single switch. We saw our electric bill go down.

Don't Dry with Machines

Hang all your clothes out to dry, and set your washing machine to let your dishes drip dry. Drying takes a little longer, but again, the money and emissions savings have been incredible in our house.

Wash Your Clothes in Cold Water

Whether your water is heated by gas or electricity, it's costing you. Thanks to detergents that work well with cold water, we really don't need to wash anything in warm or hot water.

Get Energy Star Appliances

Our furnace and A/C were dying, so we got new ones. Energy Star. (Cue image of Molly Shannon.) You'll see the results below.

Here's a screenshot of our gas and electric use for the past twelve months.

You can see in April and May where our gas usage went way down: that's around when we stopped washing clothes in warm and hot water. The electric spike in June had to do with heat, but we actually used our new Energy Star A/C more in July and used less electricity (and we didn't change any of our other electric use).

We can do more, and I'll update in later posts what we're doing. Maybe with video. (Which, of course, means I'll need to clean the house.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Green in Arkansas--the Natural State isn't big on recycling

For both of you who've been checking for updates: sorry. I was away in Arkansas for a week, visiting my family and annoying them about hypermiling. A number of interesting sustainability issues stuck out to me, not the least of which being that Little Rock is like a smaller version of Cincinnati--hugely sprawled with few mass transit options, downtown redevelopment with mixed success (though, generally speaking, LR has been more successful than Cincy with the latter).

A note about recycling: my parents live in Maumelle, a suburb of Little Rock and North Little Rock, and the only things they can leave for curbside recycling are newspapers and aluminum cans. There's a drop-off location, which isn't always a great option. Little Rock has much better curbside recycling, much like Cincinnati. They are, in fact, exactly the same (unless my bleary eyes overlooked one or two things):
  • "Clear/green soda, water and juice bottles; Translucent milk jugs; any plastic item with neck having diameter smaller than base
  • Newspaper with inserts; Corrugated cardboard boxes, flattened; Brown paper grocery bags, junk mail, magazines
  • Aluminum cans; Steel beverage & food containers
  • Clear green or brown food and beverage containers"
The above is quoted from Little Rock's Public Works website. I'm curious how many Little Rockers recycle; Cincy Mayor Mark Mallory's been pushing for greater recycling here. We'll see if it gets traction.