11 Steps For Starving Students That Will Make A Difference For The Environment

Image Credit Lloyd Alter
by Lloyd Alter, Toronto
"When asked a few years ago what the single most important thing one could do to reduce their carbon footprint, a so-called expert (not on this site) responded "get rid of vampire power." Since then we have, I think, all become a little more sophisticated. I recently started answering the question about what the most important things to do for one of my starving students at RSID with For Saving Energy, Like Real Estate, The Three Most Important Things Are Location, Location and Location. I ended with eleven suggestions that anyone can do, eleven choices that make a big difference without costing a lot of money. Here's what I told Margaret to do:

1. Live in walkable, transit oriented neighborhoods, whether in large cities or small towns.

Highland Garden Village Master Plan, Image Credit Peter Calthorpe
This was covered in my previous post, where I noted that the key factor is not, in my opinion, density, but it is urbanity, which I defined as "a mix of transit-oriented development, walkability, and historicity." Commenter vboring wrote:
...adding historicity to your definition of urbanity is unnecessary and distracts from your point....A neighborhood being historic adds nothing directly...valuing historicity relatively devalues modernity and all of the energy efficiencies that come with modern dense neighborhoods.
Cohousing at Highland Garden Village, Image Credit Peter Calthorpe
But I disagree with him and with David Owen; I think that one can have too much density and rely on supply chains for food and water that are too long and too complex. There is a Goldilocks density that is "just right"- dense enough for transit, but not too dense that if the power goes out you are stuck 30 stories in the air without water. Our historic patterns of development achieved tremendous densities with buildings that existed without backup diesel generators for their fire pumps; we saw how well that worked out in Fukushima.

2. Get a Bike.

Bikes in Paris. Image credit Lloyd Alter
As Rutgers University urban planning professor John Pucher noted in the ugly but effective slideshow,:
Image Credit John Pucher

3. Do the free, cheap and easy stuff first.

I never tire of showing the Rocky Mountain Institute table from their cool citizens guide, that ranks the things you can do in order of bang for the buck. Yet people continue to change their windows before they get a programmable thermostat, paying a thousand times as much for the same energy and carbon savings. This table is ten years old now and some things have changed (CFLs are a lot cheaper now) but it still is a good guide that points out that the simplest things save the most carbon, that anyone can do. See more at 12 Ways to Green Your Home for Winter: What Gives You the Most Bang for the Buck

4. Live within the Comfort Kidney

olgyay comfort kidney
The comfort zone chart from "Design with Climate" by Victor Olgyay
This guy happily smoking his pipe in his midcentury modern chair, in this 1963 drawing by Olgyay, is in that kidney shaped zone I call the "comfort kidney", that mix of temperature, humidity and breeze where we are comfortable. Yet all of our thermostats and humidistats and furnaces and air conditioners are designed to move the temperature and humidity to a single point, that red intersection I have added, and require machinery running all the time to add heat or take it away.
But we can be comfortable at higher temperatures if the air is dryer, or if it is moving. we don't have to pay for energy to keep that temperature the same, if we can keep in the kidney by opening windows for a bit of breeze. That is why designing for cross-ventilation is so important, and another reason I "devalue modernity"- nobody does this anymore.

5. Put on a sweater (or a Hawaian shirt)

Jimmy Carter and Elvis
The energy savings potential of clothing is so large that it cannot be ignored - though in fact this is exactly what is happening now. This does not mean that home insulation and efficient heating systems should not be encouraged. All three paths should be pursued, but improving clothing insulation is obviously the cheapest, easiest and fastest way.
It works in reverse, too; loose, light clothing permit greater evaporation and keep you cool.

6. Cut back on Red meat.

Image credit Lantmannen foods
Some say that we should go completely vegetarian to eliminate one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases and energy consumption. TreeHugger Founder Graham Hill thinks we should become Weekday Vegetarians. He said in a TED talk:
I've been doing it for the last year, and it's great. It's called weekday veg. The name says it all. Nothing with a face Monday through Friday. On the weekend, your choice. Simple. If you want to take it to the next level, remember, the major culprits, in terms of environmental damage and health, are red and processed meats. So you want to swap those out with some good, sustainably harvested fish. It's structured, so it ends up being simple to remember. And it's okay to break it here and there. After all, cutting five days a week is cutting 70 percent of your meat intake. The program has been great, weekday veg. My footprint's smaller I'm lessening pollution. I feel better about the animals. I'm even saving money. Best of all, I'm healthier, I know that I'm going to live longer, and I've even lost a little weight.

But if even that is too tough, just going off beef could make all the difference. Surprisingly, the next thing to go should be cheese.

7. Eat local and seasonal food.

Veggies from the CSA at Linux Caffe in Toronto. Image credit Lloyd Alter
With the emphasis on seasonal. Skeptics of the local food movement are fond of pointing out the carbon footprint of local hothouse tomatoes, and they are right; as the graph in point 5 shows, a greenhouse tomato has a higher carbon footprint than chicken.
It is a difficult time to do this; the food distribution system isn't set up for it yet and it can be expensive. As I noted in Stop Eating Fossil Fuels, Start Eating Food,
It isn't just about growing our food locally and buying it at the farmers market. To really change our food system so that we are not eating fossil fuels we have to look at the way our cities are designed, how our waste system works, how the distribution system is set up, and what we do in the developing world that has become our out-of-season supplier. But making the decision to buy local and seasonal is a start.
One good option is to join a CSA, where you pay up front for a season's worth of produce from a particular farm or cooperative. For much of the year my son picks up his box from Kawartha Ecological Growers every Friday at the Linux Cafe in Toronto, but you don't have to be a leftie hipster; even Danielle Crittenden does it.

8. Can all you can.

Our inventory last September. Image credit: Kelly Rossiter
A good way to beat the seasonal issue, and to save money, is to can fruits and vegetables when they are in season, local and often cheap. A lot of people are now growing their own and paying almost nothing for it. TreeHugger food writer Kelly Rossiter writes in Planet Green:
What started as a subject for writing turned into a bit of an obsession for me. Since the summer of 2008, I have made hundreds of jars of preserves and with over 30 jars so far this season, I'm on track for a record number for 2010. There is something truly gratifying about cracking open a jar of jam or pickles that you made yourself, especially in the depths of winter.

9. Go minimalist.

Farnsworth House interior; architect: Mies Van Der Rohe; Image credit: Anne Hornyak Creative Commons licence
It is all about living with less stuff, getting rid of what you don't need and not replacing it. Three years ago when the movement was getting started, I wrote in Planet Green:
Mies van der Rohe said "less is more" (although Robert Browning said it first) to define the simplicity of his designs; we have adopted it as well to reflect a way of living where one consumes less stuff and needs less space to house it. In the '60s the term "minimalism" came into vogue, describing first a style of art, and then design. In architect-speak, minimalism is "based on a process of reduction of architecture down to its essential concepts of space, light and form". In Planet Green-speak, minimalism is "having just what you need but ensuring that what you have is healthy, sustainable and beautiful."
It's tough. I have been preaching it for three years and have barely made a dent in the amount of excess stuff that I have; just the other night my mom brought me another box of wine glasses that she doesn't need any more, I seem to be attracting stuff rather than losing it.
But if you start out with a minimalist approach, you will save money, need less space, and have an easier time moving. Jaymi recently linked to an overwhelming list of 120 of the best blogs on the net for minimalist living and concluded "the irony of collecting minimalist blogs for my feed reader doesn't escape me." More:

10. Live in less space.

life edited winner
Image credit LifeEdited
Once you have gone minimalist, you don't need as much room. All else being equal, the amount of energy consumed, and carbon produced, is proportional to the size of the space. Usually, so is the rent, purchase price, taxes or operating cost. Graham Hill shows us how it's done again in LifeEdited, when he asked "What if we could save money, radically reduce our environmental impact, and have a freer, less complicated life?" The results of the competition showed that you can do A LOT in 420 square feet. We set up a whole website full of ideas about living with less space, from crazy transformer furniture ideas to space saving bike storage. Like minimalism, living in small spaces has become a meme and a movement, the Tiny House Movement.

11. Relax.

Jasper relaxing. Image credit Lloyd Alter
My final recommendation to my student Margaret is to relax, and lead a considered life where you think about your decisions and their consequences.
Four years ago when I started teaching at Ryerson I would not allow a paper coffee cup or plastic water bottle into the classroom; I demanded that they use refillable bottles or travel mugs.
But when I bicycle to school, I carry a USB stick with my lecture, nothing more. So I buy a coffee from the dreaded Tim Hortons (who three years ago I thought we should boycott) and justify it by saying that I just biked 10K, I can have a coffee. That isn't TreeHugger Correct, I know.
But I have become convinced that if we are going to make people into environmentalists, we can't be so doctrinaire, and we can't be so delusional about tiny things; that unplugging a wall-wart on the big screen TV is as important as the decision process that let to one buying it in the first place. Or expensive things; That putting a solar panel on the roof makes living in a distant suburb OK. When I signed on to TreeHugger six years ago I wrote the plug for myself:
Lloyd became convinced that we just use too much of everything- too much space, too much land, too much food, too much fuel, too much money, and that the key to sustainability is to simply use less. And, the key to happily using less is to design things better.
I have not got much closer to achieving this, but six years later, I wouldn't change a word."

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