The limits of personal action

I’ve realized recently that it is becoming difficult for us to continue marginally increasing the sustainability of our household.

Pasadena has a relatively enlightened “pay as you throw” garbage collection service.  You can choose one of three different sized garbage cans depending on how much trash you generate, and the smaller ones cost less.  Both the front house and the back house have the smallest size (32 gallons).  Last week when I wheeled the garbage out to the street for pickup one of the two containers was empty, and the other was only half full.  The previous week there had been no garbage whatsoever in the bins.  In two weeks, between two houses, we’d managed to half fill one container, and it was already the smallest size the City could imagine one house filling on a weekly basis, meaning we generated something like 1/8th as much garbage as we were “supposed to”.  Instead most of our refuse ends up either getting composted or recycled.  If only we could cancel the garbage service for one of the houses, or have them come only once a month.  Thankfully Pasadena does actually have a stated goal of zero waste-to-landfill and incinerators (by the year 2040), as does San Francisco (by 2020) and Vancouver (no firm date for zero yet… but a 40% reduction from their current, already low, levels by 2020).  Last year we “diverted” 66% of our solid waste as a city, and both the total amount of waste landfilled, and the per capita amount have decreased over the last several years (as reported in the 2009 Green City Indicators report), though as I’ve noted before “diversion” means some strange things in this context.  The city currently considers it likely that we will achieve this 2040 goal.  I wonder if the economic downturn has meant less purchasing and discarding of disposable crap.  It’s almost certainly responsible for much of the recent reduction in vehicle miles traveled.  I’m not sure what additional waste-reduction incentives have been put in place (but then, I’m clearly not the target audience… so maybe I just haven’t noticed).

Another similar strange experience recently was realizing that our natural gas usage, which goes exclusively to heat domestic hot water (we refuse to turn on the furnace in this fine Mediterranean climate…) hardly varies at all with our water usage.  The difference in our gas bill between both of us being here and neither of us being here is less than 10%.  About $1 out of $15 goes to heat in the water we actually use.  $14 out of $15 goes to heat that escapes from the water heater into the air in the crawlspace under the house.  Sadly, it was replaced two years ago (after the bottom of the old tank rusted out… that replacement dropped our monthly bill by 2/3, as leaking hot air is a lot better than leaking hot water!) and it could have been replaced with a European style tankless water heater like we had over winter break in the Earthships in Taos, where it’s just a backup for the solar hot water heater on the roof which would also work wonderfully here in SoCal.

I think there are about 6 big things you can do on your own, if you’re at all serious about sustainability:

  1. Have fewer than 2 offspring.
  2. Eat a vegan diet, or close to it.
  3. Don’t own a car, and dramatically reduce the number of miles you drive.
  4. Avoid flying.
  5. Live in a small, durable, energy efficient dwelling.
  6. Stop buying things that will eventually be sent to a landfill or incinerated.

If you’re not doing any of them, I don’t really see how you can say you care about sustainability with a straight face.  But what if you’re doing all of them?  And also volunteering for organizations that try to promote these behaviors in general?  And donating money to others, in a similar vein?  And writing your elected officials about the things you care about?

I’m not trying to go off on some holier-than-thou trip here: I haven’t really committed to stop flying (it’s just an idea at this point, one that Amtrak might well talk me out of), and I certainly enjoy eating an omnivorous diet (with the animal products coming as much as possible from discarded food).  I’m just saying that I’m starting to feel a little limited.  To go much further than the above list, infrastructure and society itself have to start changing, in North America anyway, and that’s an entirely different kind of problem.  An interpersonal problem, with which I’m much less comfortable.

8 thoughts on “The limits of personal action”

  1. I can think of at least two things I’d add to your list:

    1. Buy green power. I assume you still use electricity. Most people don’t realize that no matter where you live and what your utility mix is, buying green tags (aka RECs, aka Renewable Energy Certificates) lets you purchase clean electricity.

    2. Include your workplace footprint. Our footprints are not just about home and transportation. Obviously harder to change, but if not we don’t, who will?

    1. We do have a green power program through the publicly owned utility in Pasadena. Unfortunately, I know too much about how it works. The city buys as much renewable power as it can get its hands on in the name of trying to meet the CA state requirements, but unfortunately, being a tiny public utility it doesn’t have the market power to get supply contracts from the “big” renewable power projects, which are primarily owned (in SoCal) by the investor owned utilities (SoCal Edison, PG&E, etc). It ends up getting about 8% from biomass/waste (incinerators/landfill gas… kind of marginal in terms of sustainability I think), 2% geothermal, and 1% wind (see the power content label for 2009). This is already far more renewable power than all of the voluntary green power purchases by consumers combined. Additional customers signing up for more renewable power, and paying the surcharge (which is very reasonable… 2.5 cents per kWh I think) does not result in the city buying more renewable power. So there’s no economic feedback system. It ends up being just a voluntary personal tariff.

      Additionally, the electricity that I use directly at home (which is also my workplace at the moment… so that’s simple at least) is just a tiny fraction of the overall power which is consumed on my behalf, producing fertilizers and munitions, manufacturing and delivering products, pumping water, etc. Our house runs at something like 300W all in, averaged over a month. My rough total personal power consumption, based on the calculator at WattzOn, is ~2400W, and this excludes the roughly 3000W consumed on my behalf by the US Government. So even if the Pasadena Green Power setup were reasonable, and created the right incentives (i.e. to get more solar/wind installed), it wouldn’t make a large difference in the overall scheme of my footprint.

      Of course, RECs could be used to fix this… but I have yet to see any such system which is transparent and independently verifiable enough for me to really trust what’s going on behind the scenes. Do you have particular suggestions?

  2. That’s a bummer about the Pasadena program.

    I’m a little puzzled by your comment about the lack of transparency with RECs. Do you not trust orgs such as Green-e (

    As I see it, RECs are completely different from offsets, which are much more squirrely. As long as the power is really coming from a clean source (and there are degrees of clean) and isn’t being double-counted, it’s a win. It’s not complicated, and orgs like Green-e track and audit the certs.

    What’s your view?

    1. @Phil The Green-E website make’s their REC program seem like maybe the kind of setup that a City could be using to acquire whatever portion of their power they currently get from renewable sources (at the wholesale level). I didn’t find anywhere though that I could say “my current power mix is 62% coal, I use 2600 kWh/year, and I’d like to pay the difference in cost between coal and wind generated electricity to a wind power producer, for 0.62*2600 kWh worth of energy”, which I guess is what RECs would let you do, and which does seem to get at some part of the problem. Really though I need to be able to opt out of paying for the coal power in the first place, and in the REC scenario, I’m still supporting them, whether I want to or not. I kind of wonder what would happen if each year, you told the utility what mix you wanted to buy, from a menu that included the costs of each kind of power, and then they had to go out and procure that mix. Would it be more or less coal than we currently use? And how would we deal with the intermittency problems of current renewables? If I asked for 100% wind and solar, but then when it’s night and not windy if I’m still getting electricity, I’m obviously still benefitting from the fossil fueled grid. Eventually though we somehow have to say “Sorry, you can’t buy the coal fired power, no matter how much you want it”, or at least “Sure, you can have the coal power, with a 300% tax to cover the externalities” or something along those lines, as there are too many people who will just take the cheapest option in the short term, no matter what the long term consequences might be.

  3. Do you have any tips on how to be a vegan cheaply? Also, what about protein? I like weight lifting because I like having muscles, but I’m not really sure if I can achieve the same results with vegetable protein.

    This year has been a cold one for Florida, so my garden has been struggling and I’ve been forced to shop for a lot more produce than I’m accustomed to buying. I signed up for a home delivery service for organics because I only have a bicycle and the only bourgeoisie whole foods is too far away. Its convenient, but definitely not cheap.

    Sorry this is getting long-winded, in short: veganism how can you do that cheaply?

  4. Well, I don’t know what your area is like specifically, but in SoCal by far the cheapest way to buy produce is by going to small ethnic grocery stores, or even large ethnic grocery stores. It doesn’t really matter what ethnicity… we go to a little place run by a Syrian family that emigrated from Argentina that’s staffed by people from El Salvador, and to a small Armenian grocery, and sometimes to one of the pan-Asian megamarts (Ranch 99, Hawaii Supermarket, H&K, etc… there’s tons of them). These places are great. Their produce costs quite literally 2/3 to 3/4 less than normal big-chain white-people grocery stores (e.g. red bell peppers $0.79/lb instead of $3.99/lb…), and as an added bonus, you get access to a lot of interesting flavors you wouldn’t ever find otherwise. Mulberry molasses. Ten different kinds of great olives for $3/lb (vs. $10/lb at Whole Foods). Ten different kinds of dried peppers. Bulk herbs and spices. Fresh curry pastes. Tofu and soymilk that’s so fresh it’s still warm. Sichuan peppercorns that make your mouth feel cold and tingly and numb. At the small stores, you also actually get to know the people who run them. You see them on a regular basis. They eventually recognize you. You can have recurring conversations about how your lives are going. It’s a human instead of mechanistic interaction. All this, and 75% cheaper produce too! I don’t know what your local demographics are like, but I’d guess in your area there are probably Cuban and other Caribbean communities (you can practice your Spanish too!) and almost certainly hispanic populations.

    I think being a vegan economically and getting enough protein means learning how to cook beans and lentils so that you really want eat them. Take lessons from the Indians and the Chinese. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. If you’re the kind of person who can think ahead 8 hours, pre-soaking beans or letting them cook overnight in a crockpot works great. If you don’t want to have to do that much planning, get a pressure cooker. Your body disassembles this stuff into its component amino acids anyway… it doesn’t really matter whether you’re getting them from meat or legumes.

    I don’t know what your personal comfort range is at the moment on your bicycle, but 10 miles round trip isn’t a bad goal, especially since you like to have muscles! We only have bikes, and that’s about as far as we’ll go on a regular basis for errands or shopping.

    If you don’t mind being a little bit socially deviant (and I don’t think you do) and you have the freedom to stay up fairly late at night once or twice a week, then you should definitely give dumpster diving a try. It helps to have a friend who’s also interested. It’s free, it’s a lot less work and more reliable than gardening, it doesn’t contribute to the economic incentives to produce meat and other animal products, and it reduces the amount of perfectly edible organic material currently being sent to landfills. If you haven’t seen them already check out some of our diving pictures on Flickr: here and here and here and here and here, and see if you can’t get a hold of a copy of the excellent short documentary “Dive!”.

  5. Dang, I miss the cheap asian produce store near my cottage in Oakland. Up here there is no cheap produce, except the dandelion greens in the yard (6 months of the year) and dumpster diving if I could find a grocery without a compacter!! The big chains (carrs/safeway and Fred Meyers…and probably walmart except I don’t set foot in there) seem to be the cheapest…but then I’m pretty stuck on trying to buy things local, so I pay the big bucks for the root cellared local veggies in the winter – someday I’ll have my own root cellar and a killer garden…someday.
    I concur with the beans! My partner is mexican american, and we make a lot of refritos – pressure cook the pintos in water with onion and garlic for about .5 hour, then mash up in a frying pan with maybe a touch of oil and some salt. Then eat with whatever, very satisfying and never really gets old. I also eat the unsalted beans straight from the pressure cooker with a dollop of plain yogurt. Tons of good protein. I cook up huge batched and freeze the leftover beans in glass jars for later. Also cook big batches of garbanzos and squish up with raw garlic, lemon juice, and some tahini and salt and you have hummus to dip some veggies or bread product in. Again, massive quantities and freeze the extra garbanzos for later. Now I just need a good dahl recipe… By the way, I buy my beans and grains in 50lb sacks from the local natural food store or a food buying coop – requires a good bike hauling system (which I don’t yet have) or borrowing a friend with a car, but once a year purchasing is usually sufficient. Very cheap 🙂

  6. If you’re looking to set yourself up for hauling with the bike, I love my Bikes at Work trailer, but they aren’t cheap. There are lots of DIY plans on the web though, for similar trailers, made from a couple of discarded bike wheels, bamboo/metal tubing, etc. I have a friend who built their own trailer, but then attached it to their bike with the same ball-and-pin universal joint that the Bikes at Work trailers use, and just bought one of the B@W trailer hitches (which are stainless steel and work great)

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