Green Living

November 1st, 2005 9:44 PM

Discussing consumer electronics with Tim earlier today, and then consumerism and Wal-mart, finally leading to peak oil and consumption, I was startled by his reaction to the problem. Startled because despite the fact that I think about these things a lot (likely a significant portion of my life, recently), it’s all become rather muted with repetition. Tim’s reaction brought the impact of the situation flooding back to me:

this is literally the scariest fucking thing ever. i’m going to go lay somewhere in the fetal position for awhile

Specifically, at that point he was referring to a speech by James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and Geography of Nowhere. And I think Tim’s reaction is appropriate, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of effort being put into averting what looks like a worldwide crisis heading directly for us at an accelerating pace. I’ve included quotes from this article below.

Long before the oil actually depletes we will endure world-shaking political disturbances and economic disruptions. We will see globalism-in-reverse. Globalism was never an ‘ism,’ by the way. It was not a belief system. It was a manifestation of the 20-year-final-blowout of cheap oil. Like all economic distortions, it produced economic perversions. It allowed gigantic, predatory organisms like WalMart to spawn and reproduce at the expense of more cellular fine-grained economic communities.

Given how much time I spend thinking about this stuff, I thought I’d write down some of the things that I’ve been reading, considering, and doing that touch on this subject.


Kim Stanley Robinson’s new trilogy — of which two books have been released so far: Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below — is an amazing look at abrupt climate change, the science behind it, and a possible future in dealing with it. Imagining Abrupt Climate Change: Terraforming Earth is a 20 page short by Robinson that discusses the new trilogy, and how he came to be interested in abrupt climate change. It’s only 49¢, and worth much more as an interesting read and teaser for the subject matter of the trilogy.

Energy Conservation and Generation

Costco had a huge deal on compact fluorescent bulbs the other day, so I got a couple of 8-packs (for $4 each!) and have been replacing lights left and right. With lifetimes of up to 10,000 hours and a quarter the energy usage of regular bulbs, these are an obvious and easy way to cut down on the electricity.

I’ve been thinking a lot of enrolling with a renewable electric provider, but haven’t yet because living with other people makes difficult decisions like this that increase utility bills.

I’ve also been seriously considering doing something like the D350 Solar Energy Project in which a student at UVM installed a solar panel on his balcony, and plans to attempt dropping off the school’s grid and powering all his electronics with his solar setup. Living in New England makes relying heavily on solar less practical than if I was still in Southern California, but even on a small scale projects like this can probably go a long way. With initial costs as low as $300, it’s easy to imagine experimenting with this technology to run low-power devices. Even running a laptop and external monitor full time is doable. Running my dual-processor G5 is almost certainly out of the scope of a solar project, but I’ve been find that I don’t need all the computing power for a lot of my projects, and powering my daily work entirely with renewable energy would give me a warm fuzzy feeling. Definitely something to check out.

Cars and Transportation

Having moved a few months ago, I now live within 3 blocks of a Whole Foods and 5 blocks of another supermarket. I work from home, and am within walking distance of most of Providence’s east side including all the businesses on Thayer Street, adjacent to the Brown campus. Since I work from home, all of this means that I drive very little on a regular basis. (Also, my car being parked 3 blocks away helps to discourage driving when walking will do.)

We are going to have to live a lot more locally and a lot more intensively on that local level. Industrial agriculture, as represented by the Archer Daniels Midland / soda pop and cheez doodle model of doing things, will not survive the end of the cheap oil economy. The implication of this is enormous. Successful human ecologies in the near future will have to be supported by intensively farmed agricultural hinterlands. Places that can’t do this will fail. Say goodbye to Phoenix and Las Vegas.

I’ve been shopping almost entirely at Whole Foods, and am very pleased with their tendency to label all produce with a location of origin. The Hundred-Mile Diet has been very influential to me, and while I can’t imagine going to the same extreme, I’m no longer buying any produce that comes from outside of New England, New York or New Jersey. That would make mine more of a 300-mile diet.

I’m finding it possible to do likewise with other, non-produce, items as well. I’m finding organic dairy (milk, cheeses, yogurt) from Vermont. Juices, pita chips, hommus, and Smart ground all from Massachusetts. It’s heartening to find so many of the things I consume available locally, even if they are still coming from large production companies.

Finally, I’m very interested in TerraPass. The premise is that you buy a TerraPass to offset the carbon dioxide emissions of your car. TerraPass invests the money in projects that “reduce industrial carbon dioxide emissions.” Clearly not a long-term solution, but it’s an interesting stopgap solution to deal with an existing transportation-dependence problem. Seems like a good Christmas gift idea.


My biggest contribution to the problem of consumption is almost certainly all the traveling I do: I fly to LA on a fairly regular basis; I’ve driven two major road trips in the past two years, totalling over 15,000 miles; I’ve been to Europe for conferences and vacationing three years running, and that trend may very well continue. I really enjoy traveling, and think it’s important as a means of expanding experiences and understanding of the world. However, the sheer amount of resources used, and pollutants caused by driving 15,000 miles or flying 6,000 miles is tremendous. I’m not sure how to reconcile these competing viewpoints, or even if they can be reconciled. Replacing my car with a hybrid might be one option, but that only mitigates an underlying issue that making 7,000 mile road trips every year is an absurd luxury.

Another concern is that while I don’t drive a lot in Providence, I still head to Wheaton somewhat regularly. This has gotten more frequent recently while I’ve been employed to work on a book with the Genomics Group. If the winter weren’t coming and the weather was decent, I might consider biking to Wheaton. However that doesn’t seem practical in the cold, wet New England autumn and winter.


When considering peak oil and our current state of consumption, things can look pretty bleak. The Kunstler speech is especially poignant in this respect. However, I find it hard not to be optimistic about at least our potential to change things. (The alternative being rather deterministic and so not worth worrying about.) In an interview with the Guardian, Kim Stanley Robinson responds to the idea that our chances of surviving the next hundred years is 50/50 thusly:

“My sense of it,” Robinson replies after a meditative pause, “is that the odds are better than that. It’s likely that we’ll cause a small mass extinction, but I believe that ultimately reason will prevail. If the amount of money going into the war economy were invested in landscape restoration, we would be in a far more positive position. It may get a little dire before we pull together, but I think when the prosperous nations, and in particular the US, realise they’re wrecking their own kids’ lives, there will be a mass change in value. It will be a difficult century, and ugly, but I don’t think that in the end people are so stupid as to kill themselves off.”

He’s referring specifically to a potential crisis of abrupt climate change, but I think it’s equally appropriate for peak oil and our decadent lifestyles in general. Things may get bad, but we must believe that it’s within our power to get through this, otherwise we might as well give up now. And that doesn’t seem nearly as exciting.


I have some more that I want to say on this topic, but in the meantime, I think you’d find this interesting: “Green Manhattan: Why New York is the Greenest City in the U.S.”.

Posted by: gary on November 14th, 2005 3:37 AM