Sunday, April 23, 2006

Happy Earth Day, Part Deux

Howard's Strategies for Surviving,
If Not Thriving,
During The Lean Years:

Basic philosophy: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Some future events may be equally predictable and awful, yet we can take prudent measures to be prepared for them, such as earthquakes and rapid escalations in the cost of energy, transportation, and food. Other exceedingly unlikely events, such as instinction-grade comets and asteroids striking the planet, we cannot. While my previous post came across to some as apocalyptic and hopeless, I believe we'll experience few of these world changes in suddenness and horror, but rather as the frog in the pot of water that is being gradually heated over time. The trick for us--as for the frog--is to recognize what is happening and jump before it's too late.

1. Nutritional self-sufficiency: Plant a garden. Environmental researcher and author John Jeavons has determined that it only takes 4,000 s.f. of biointensive garden beds to produce enough food to feed one person for a year. Commercial farms take well over 80,000 s.f. -- two acres -- per person! Most city residential lots have at least 4,000 s.f. left over after subtracting out the footprint for the house. This method of gardening, though highly organized, would require little to no industrially-produced fertilizers, one eighth to one third the water, and 1% of the energy consumed by commercial agriculture per pound of vegetable grown. If this proposal sounds provocative, if not outright impossible, check out Jeavons' book, How to Grow More Vegetables at this link. I bought a copy for myself AND one for my dad a few months ago, and we're both giving it a try this summer.

2. Transportational self-sufficiency: Get rid of your gas hog while you still can and buy a high-mileage compact or hybrid if you must have a car. If you are a North American, society has been designed and built so we all need a car. But also buy a bicycle and get into the habit of using it regularly. You'll be surprised how quickly, easily, cheaply (and virtuously) you can get around town on the most energy-efficient means ever invented by mankind. Becoming a cyclist is easy. Doing the following is easier said than done, but do it anyway: ride a bus or light rail or your bike or carpool or telecommute to work. Organize your occasional car errands in geographical order to get the most benefit when you absolutely positively must use the car. Change your car's air filter regularly and keep the tires filled at or above the recommended pressure levels to improve gas mileage. Every little bit helps. If possible, live closer to your work (or talk your boss into letting you occasionally telecommute) to reduce travel distances. If you live outside of town or on the edge of town, consider moving into town.

3. Energy self-sufficiency: Consider installing a wood-burning high-efficiency stove or fireplace insert in lieu of that soon-to-be-piece-of-sculpture that used to burn natural gas. Although the selection is growing every year, you might start here with Regency Wood Stoves. Other products worth considering include Swedish Ceramic Stoves, which are one of the more efficient means to heat a house throughout a winter day. Also install a programmable thermostat, which will automatically turn your house's thermostat down at night, up during weekday mornings and evenings when you are home, and down again during the middle of the day if you and the family are off to work and school. Programmable thermostats cost only $30 or so, but can easily save that much in a month's time. Wrapping your hot water heater in an insulation blanket can save hundreds of dollars a year. Adding caulking around your windows and doors can save money by cutting down air leaks and heat loss. And of course there are standard well-known ideas for the abundantly well-cashed among us such as adding extra insulation for your house and attic, and installing high-efficiency low-E argon-filled windows. Finally, if you live in a region of the country that receives direct sunlight more than 250 days a year, building a $20,000 solarium or green house on a southern exposure of your house can provide most if not all of your home's warmth via passive solar insolation through most days of the fall, winter, and spring months. A nice layer of dark bricks on the floor and/or back wall located in direct sunlight of a 200-square-foot solarium can absorb enough warmth to heat a 1,500 square foot home throughout the day and night in all but the coldest days of the year. Plus, it's a nice place to hang out and grow your herbs, you hippie you.

4. Live green: Install bamboo floors in your new house like I'm doing with the million dollar mansion. Bamboo is a fast-growing grass that reaches maturity in four years, so it's a sustainable product. Also, it's grown without pesticides or chemicals, though the laminating glues sometimes contain formaldehyde, so be watchful of that. Eat organic. Patronize green merchants. For example: Drink green beer. Not the kind made up for St. Patrick's Day, but the kind made by New Belgium Brewery that is 100 percent wind-powered. New Belgium also recaptures and reuses its water, the brewery is partially lighted by daylight, reuses heat produced by the brew house, and they recycle just about everything else. New Belgium Brewery's most famous beer is Fat Tire Ale, but they produce many others as well. In many states and provinces, one has the option of signing up for wind-powered electricity as opposed to electricity produced by coal or natural gas. Typically it only adds a few dollars to a monthly electric bill, but the bragging rights it gives are worth much more. One more idea to consider is to frequent farmers' markets and locally-owned grocers that sell local produce, breads, meat, and even coffee and desserts. If the cost of oil increases substantially, the days of the national grocery chains will be finished due to the high cost of distribution systems. This means that increasing dependence on locally-grown foods will be a necessity. Best start the habit of buying local now and avoid the Christmas rush.

5. Financial self-sufficiency: Like most of the strategies mentioned here, this one is also easier said than done. Start by setting something, anything, aside into a savings account each and every month. And you know that being absolutely mercenary about it is the only way it'll ever get done. Unless you have large credit card or charge card debts. If you do, it makes more sense (and cents) to pay much more towards that debt than the monthly minimums. Don't be a grasshopper flitting away his or her summer. Be an industrious ant and take the long view. If you own, or worse yet, are making monthly payments on an SUV or pickup, and you aren't a contractor with need of that gas hog, sell it before exponentially expanding fuel costs render it unsellable. Better yet, if you live far from everything and can sell your house to take advantage of the wonderful renter's market in town, do it before the real estate bubble bursts, rendering your exurban castle unsellable. Pocket the equity into a higher interest savings account providing some degree of liquidity, or put it into gold or silver, or even better still, be a fat cat and put your home equity into oil stocks and sit back, secure in the knowledge that you have the flexibility, options, and liquidity that a disruptive economy favors.

6. Disaster preparedness: Store at least a few weeks of food supplies, medical supplies, batteries, a bottle of bleach, pet food if necessary, and have candles and a good radio on hand. All will be necessities in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. Plus, if somewhere in the world, gas supplies are drastically disrupted, grocery distribution networks in North America could be temporarily disabled leaving some regions of the country without their daily resupplies and food stocks. This is because most grocery stores substantially restock their shelves every night. Cut those supplies for a day or two or for a week, and life in the 21st century could suddenly get mean -- only temporarily, one would hope. But our new motto is "hope for the best, be prepared for the worst", right?

7. Physical Fitness: Finally, if humans, even in the industrialized world, are, by forceful necessity, going to become more self-sufficient in their own food production, transportation, and even keeping the stoves stoked to avoid paying painfully high food, oil, natural gas, and electric bills, then too many of us are going to have to get into better shape than we're currently in. Lose that weight now and exercise now. Once again, easier said than done! I know. Believe me, I know. But if you can make exercise part of a daily routine -- for example, 15 minutes of pushups, tummy crunches, and squats before jumping into the shower -- then it can quickly become part of your typical day and you don't have to "remember to make time for it." This is exactly what I did, along with riding my bicycle at least five times a week for an hour each session, until I lost 45 pounds in six months and developed muscle definition and cardiac fitness that few 46-year-old men (let alone architects) can boast of having.

Hope this helps, and I hope your Earth Day was a pleasant one. No, really!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for that. Myself, living in a small condo (on the subway line) it is difficult to plant a garden, or even -- with limited storage -- store a couple weeks worth of food stuff. It's hard to bike to work since I usually come home after midnight -- and it does snow up here too in the winter... Still, financial self-sufficency + physical health + being friends with the neighbours is high on my list of priorities... And I will be throwing in some batteries and dehydrated food packages into my shopping cart the next time I'm at the grocery store...

Incidentally, there was a simple (but long - over a day) power outage in the city a couple of years ago -- and it threw my life into a disorder that took me aback... almost enough to consider buying a minature transformer or something so I could make my tea in the morning...

Finally, *most* disasters and hardships -- I'm talking war, famines caused by war, etc. are man made. If people worked togeather for the collective good we would not need to horde food, water, etc.; we would have enough.


12:00 PM, April 23, 2006  
Blogger HRlaughed said...


I'm quite sure you're going to be just fine. You live in a well-designed city in Canada [both big plusses in so many ways], on the subway line [an even bigger plus in every way possible], plus you're smart enough to have made a good point that I missed -- make friends with the neighbors -- so you'll both thrive and survive. Making friends with the neighbors should be a priority whether or not the electricity is spotty and the pantry is sparce.

Finally, if people were different in lots of ways, we'd not be having this conversation.

Thanks for being my #1 Most Devoted Reader, by the way.

10:21 PM, April 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot something else big man: live in a part of the country where you don't have to consume vast amounts of energy just to live. If the power went out where I live (any time of the year) I'd be perfectly fine. It never gets below 45 deg. in the winter and the summers are rarely over 85. I'm not sure you mentioned water useage, but that's pretty important too, and where I live, it's green all the time and rains quite often. The idea of a drought here is a 1x1 ft. patch of brown probably caused by canine urination anyway. Xeroscoping (if that's the word) should take priority over having the greenest lawn in the neighborhood if you live in the desert. But that's no fun for the kiddies, so you shouldn't live in the damn desert to begin with. This also backs up your veggie garden point.

You have good intentions sir, but we're still doomed. Even if we turn it around as a nation, China and India are not going to, nor is every other aspiring nation. It's easy to say we should live this way or that when we're already kings of the hill.

11:01 AM, April 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

additionally, I like the bamboo floor idea, but mostly because I like the coloring and properties that bamboo affords. Turns out actually that all woods are technically sustainable as long as they are managed thusly. The evergreen forests owned by the BLM and Weyerhauser are generally treated as a resource to be used repeatedly, not just a forest to be plundered. They own the land and its not in their best interest to make it unusable in the future. As for the hardwoods, I agree with your point.

11:14 AM, April 24, 2006  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

I'm beginning to sense the need of an update to The List of Survival Strategies. But as you say, despite our intentions, we're still doomed. True enough. But perhaps some of us might be a little less doomed than others. And perhaps your particular region of the country should prepare itself for mass migrations of refugees... er... relocatees. Got an extra bedroom or three?

11:15 AM, April 24, 2006  
Blogger Saurabh Barve said...

"Make friends with neighbours"

Ha! Coming from a place that suffered electric outages every day and water shortages for at least three months in a year (without anybody having a lawn to water), I can tell you that making friends with the neighbours might be easy, keeping their friendship during such times is anything but. It's a competition for resources, and all the love in the world can't conquer that.

You have to experience it to believe it.

11:22 AM, April 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks HR -- my computer crashed and burned recently and I have only had a brief chance to catch up on my reading at work...

Toronto is a fantastic city! -- I was born in London (UK) -- which is also a great city.... But I guess every city has its good points once you get to know it...


9:57 PM, April 26, 2006  

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