Tuesday, July 27, 2010

One Thing You Can Do For Free

Picture of Honeywell's iconic model T87 thermo...Image via Wikipedia
Re-Posted From iPinion Syndicate

Whether trying to cut costs or carbon emissions, more people are attempting to reduce their energy consumption every day.  Most energy saving measures require some up front cost to initiate, and some can be extremely expensive.  Although any good measure will pay for itself in energy savings over time, it can be difficult to come up with the capital to get the ball rolling.  I love finding and sharing the things that are relatively cheap to implement, and my favorite energy saving measure are the ones that, like all the best things in life, are free.

With that in mind, here is one thing that anyone can do to reduce their energy consumption, which should save money without costing a dime: dress for the season.  You have probably heard this one before, but it is worth repeating.

For most of us, the single biggest consumer of energy in our lives is the space we live in.  This includes the electricity used to keep our food cold, the energy used to heat it up again, used to heat our water, run our computers and entertainment systems, light our dark rooms and dry our wet clothes.  All of the above combined, however, is less (for most homes) than the energy used to heat our spaces in the winter and cool them in the summer.

Of course, to reduce your heating and cooling load, most people will tell you to replace your old windows, which is phenomenally expensive.  But there is something much simpler, immediately effective, and free that you can do, which is heat and cool your spaces just a little less.  You may think that a few degrees on the thermostat won't make much of a difference, but consider this: heat flows from a warmer space to a cooler space, which is obvious, but it flows faster the greater the difference in temperature between the two spaces.  Each extra degree of difference requires more energy than the last, so the bigger the difference the more energy it takes to maintain a conditioned space.

In other words, the colder it is outside the more energy you are saving by turning your thermostat down just a little.  I don't want to ask you to sacrifice comfort, however, so that is where dressing for the season comes in.  Bundle up, grab a blanket, and turn the thermostat down as low as you can safely and comfortably manage.  Wear layers, use slippers or woolly socks, and find comfortable sweats and long underwear.  You will probably still need heat if you live north of about 35 degrees latitude or in higher elevations, but every degree helps.

Similarly, the hotter it is outside, the more energy it takes to cool your house down.  So in the summer, instead of bundling up take it off.  Light linen clothes, fewer layers, or a swim suit with a light shirt or wrap may make it comfortable to open the windows instead of cranking the AC.  When your kids complain that they don’t want to see you in your bathing suit all the time, calmly explain to them that you are saving the planet by embarrassing them in front of their friends.  Also, leaving windows open at night (if it does not sacrifice security) and closed during the hottest part of the day can reduce your cooling load.  Finally, during the hottest part of the day try getting out of the house completely.  Find a shady place, preferably near a body of water, and try to enjoy the summer sun.

It may sound like sacrifice on the face of it, but you might be surprised to find that when the ambient air is a little colder, standing next to the stove makes you feel even warmer than if the thermostat were set at 70.  Similarly, a breeze blowing the curtains can be more refreshing than a sealed room conditioned to ideal temperatures.  This is because the contrast is very pleasing to our senses.  When the room is stable at the ideal temperature, that simply becomes the new baseline.

There are of course a number of things you can do to improve your home’s ability to retain heat, but pretty much every single one will cost you something.  Many utility companies offer home owners free energy audits which recommend specific measures, so you can evaluate what you can afford, what is worth it, and what you can possibly save up for.  And while you are saving up for those measures, you can pocket a buck or two by dressing inside more like you would outside.
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Friday, July 23, 2010

Bigger Than Us: Sustainability Beyond Politics

Re-posted from iPinion Syndicate

Despite the disagreement in the media about whether there is consensus in the scientific community, there is consensus in the scientific community that global warming is real, and it's a big problem.
A segment of a social networkImage via Wikipedia
The issue of sustainability affects everyone on the planet.  It is universal.  It has nothing to do with politics, class, religion, caste, gender, or nationality.  So why is it, then, that the green movement is associated with wealthy, agnostic liberal elitists?  How did an issue so important get so marginalized?

How is it that sustainability is thought of as a 'liberal' issue?  Unless you believe that global warming is some kind of giant conspiracy (which some people still do), halting climate change cannot possibly be thought of as a partisan political point of debate.  In fact, I would argue that in order for an economic plan to be considered 'conservative,' it would have to incorporate long term strategies for resource management, and allow for the population to still be alive and healthy in another 50 years.  There is nothing conservative about burning through finite resources and poisoning our people.

Why is it that sustainable products almost always cost significantly more? It is a sad fact that the vast majority of Americans cannot afford to let any factor other than price come into their decision making when shopping. The distance between the classes has rarely been greater than in America today, and as a result most working class individuals live paycheck to paycheck, can't save any money, and can only afford the least expensive option of any product.  The wealthy, on the other hand, are able to pay more for the 'green' version, making sustainability into a luxury product and a class distinction.  The current system allows the more educated and better off members of society to pay more for an intangible feeling of superiority, while blaming the working class and conservatives for the problems that we (all of us) still aren't solving.

In this way, sustainability has become one more societal wedge between the middle class and the working class, between republicans and democrats. Instead of being a universal issue, which by its nature it must be, sustainability has become a class issue and a political debate.  Well, bad news folks, if only the wealthy liberals adopt completely carbon neutral lifestyles and sustainable best practices (which they haven't) we would still end up destroying the planet, because the vast majority of people are not wealthy liberals.

I grew up in a very liberal middle class family in Laguna Beach, CA.  It was easy for me to jump on the green bandwagon, but that is not something to be proud of, I was just born into it.  I have a great deal of respect for the conservatives I meet on that wagon, because they had to see past the arguments surrounding them and risk the derision of their peers.  Similarly, I draw more faith and hope from my working class friends who are trying to reduce their footprint while pinching pennies than I do from someone like Al Gore, who has devoted his life to the movement but had the money and resources to make the move with relative ease.

In the end, the sustainability movement must transcend class and politics. Sustainability cannot be a luxury, it cannot be something you have to pay a premium to buy into. Sustainability cannot be a liberal issue: socialism is not inherently green and capitalism is not the enemy. It is about the air we all breathe, the water we all drink, the food that we all eat, and the planet that we all live on.  In other words, it does not belong to any one group, sustainability is for everyone who is for sustainability.
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Should I Stay the Course or Reinvent the Wheel?

It has been just about a year now, and I still cannot seem to get into a rhythm with writing this blog.  Some weeks I post four times, others not once.  I imagine it has been a little frustrating for the few friends and family (and I hope the odd stranger or two) who have decided to follow me here, and I apologize for that.

Now that I am writing a weekly column for iPinion, I have been faced with a new dilemma.  I have committed to producing for that site on a weekly basis, and so most of my better ideas and more polished prose have gone there.  In the last few weeks, this has left me with little to write about here.  I think that I have finally figured out something important about myself through all of this: I might be working too hard on this blog.

I don't mean to say that it is taking up too much of my time, or that it is too stressful, nothing like that.  I just mean that I have not allowed myself to be mediocre.  I have been too fussy, I think, about producing polished, researched material.  I have always sought to present a complete answer, and not allowed myself to post questions.  I shelve half-baked ideas indefinitely, and only bring them forth if they are ready for the bakery display case.  In short, I have not allowed this to be a blog.  I have been thinking of it as an eternal testament to my abilities as a writer and not an online diary of thoughts and experiences (which is, after all, what a blog is supposed to be).

The result is that my rate of output has been very mediocre, even if the quality of work has been marginally better for it.  Which brings me to that dilemma: now that I am writing a weekly column somewhere else, should I allow this blog to find its own more bloggy voice?  So now I put the question to you, my presumed reader: should I...

A) Reinvent the wheel - change the tone of this blog completely, post more often, just whatever comes to mind.  Throw up links I find interesting from other relevant websites, throw out questions and half baked ideas, shoot for posting something, anything, as often as possible and perhaps even every day?


B) Stay the course - continue with my sporadic but fairly well edited prose, more considered arguments and complete ideas.  Keep my brow above the bar, so to speak.

Mind you, going for a more type A blog would not preclude the occasional type B post, I fully intend to post all of my older iPinion pieces on this blog eventually, and also to continue the 'Dream of Less' series e.g. And staying the course doesn't mean that I will only write once a month (though that has occasionally been the case in the past), it just means that I wouldn't loose the gates of my unconscious to the blogosphere.

Anyway, feedback is much appreciated in the comments, I hope to hear from all my regulars and would love it if a newcomer weighed in.  Thanks for reading everyone.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A few more green BBQ ideas for the 4th of July

Earlier in the season I posted about alternatives to meat for the BBQ, but if you are not a vegetarian already I hardly expect that you will become one this week, and I wouldn't dream of asking anyone to give up meat on the 4th of July.  That would be unpatriotic.  But what I would dream of asking is that you provide more variety and reduce the amount of beef and pork on the grill, that at least I think is reasonable.

First off, burgers need not all be beef.  Turkey burgers are also delicious, and they taste pretty similar.  Salmon burgers are absolutely wonderful, though they taste completely different (obviously, they taste like fish).  If you get salmon, make sure that it is wild (more sustainable), preferably Alaskan (less mercury).  Chicken breasts make an excellent sandwich as well.  Finally, if there are any vegetarians in attendance, garden burgers are pretty tasty.  Many people grill whole portobello mushrooms like burger patties, and while this is not to my taste, they seem to love it.

A Delicious Looking Salmon Burger
Image taken from robtrent's Flickr photostream under CC license.

A portobello mushroom burger
Image taken from karitsu's Flickr photostream under CC licence

Frankfurters are a must for most grillers, but consider replacing a few dogs with a flavored chicken sausage or two.  There are tons of varieties, meeting the needs of every palette: sweet, smokey, spicy, etc.  Maybe chicken bratwurst with sauerkraut and stone ground mustard catches your taste buds, or chicken apple sausage with diced onion and Dijon.  Even if neither of those sounds like your style, I guarantee there is a chicken sausage that will suite your palette.

If you are feeling really adventurous, check out my whole brined chicken recipe.  Less, but still a little adventurous?  I did the exact same recipe with a pack of chicken thighs to great effect recently.  It is much easier to manage on the grill than a whole bird.

And remember, it doesn't have to be all about the meat.  If you only grill burgers and dogs, people will eat more of them, but if you also provide some crowd pleasing vegetables like corn on the cob, you don't have to provide as much meat.  That should save you a few bucks too.  See link at the beginning of this post for a few more ideas.

Finally a note on fuel.  Propane is vastly more efficient than burning coal, both in production and end use.  Of course I am a huge hypocrite because I love the smokey flavor of real charcoal, and don't plan on replacing my little Webber for some time.  I am told you can get a similar smokey effect with liquid smoke, but I cannot vouch for it myself (I haven't tested it because I don't have a propane grill), and don't really know how to use it (does it go in the marinade? added at the end?  comment if you know).

If you just happen to be in the market for a new BBQ, and also just happen to have a lot of disposable income, check out the Big Green Egg.  Although they are very expensive, they are very, very well reviewed.  The design allows for extremely fuel efficient cooking; many people report using one tenth the coal as they would in a conventional metal 'Q.  If you figure out how to find one used, let me know.

A 'Big Green Egg' BBQ and smoker
Image taken from DerekL1963's photostream under CC license

That is it for now, enjoy the food friends and family on your fourth.