Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Driving to save money and gas

This morning I was driving back from my morning swim and I hit a red light. When it turned green, I did what I usually do - I gradually pulled away from the light until I finally hit the speed limit (45) when I was about 1/2 mile from the light. The person behind me responded typically - he sped up, pulled around me, and then pulled in front of me, prevented from further movement by the person in front of him. I'm always amazed at this. Perhaps they don't trust that I will eventually hit the 45 mph if I don't make a jack-rabbit start. I sometimes watch to see just where these people end up, and it is usually not much further than me. So what gives? What's the big hurry?

I can understand if this behavior comes predominately from teenagers, but that doesn't appear to be the case. I have a theory about this: I don't think people have any idea that what they are doing is costing them money, and that if they drove a bit differently they would save both money and fuel. I have a car (Prius) with a display screen that shows me in real time what my mileage is. It is shown below. Because my car was parked when I took this picture (always recommended), you can't see that the bar graph on the right varies between 0 and 100, depending on what my current mpg ratio is is. When I started driving this car, I learned that if I took my foot off the pedal and glided a bit my mileage would improve. I also found that paying attention to how I started and stopped at lights helped. Yesterday my mileage read at about 53 mpg.

So here's the idea for the day: How about just taking your time at lights? If you are approaching a red light, take your foot off the pedal and glide in. Accelerate slowly when leaving a light. You don't need to own a hybrid car to see mileage improvement. Remember, this is saving money and it's saving gas. I keep thinking about the millions of barrels of oil that are spilling into the Gulf right now, in part because our lifestyles require it. None of us know what to do about it. I say let's focus on what we can do. If something as simple as slower starts and stops from traffic lights can improve mileage, require less gasoline/oil, AND save money...well, seems like a slam dunk to me.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Last Saturday night a group of us gathered to hear about a week-long seminar that our friend M.C. had taken on the topic of permaculture. I had certainly heard about it before, but the sum total of my recollections had to do with something about not digging in the soil and disturbing the life down there. Apparently there's more to it than that. M.C. spent about an hour summarizing the important points she had learned and recommended a few books on the subject. We learned that permaculture refers not just to a method of gardening, but to a whole life approach. I had been correct that it focused on a foraging-type system of agriculture (aka - not disturbing the soil), but learned that the system is quite detailed and all-encompassing. I took no notes, and you certainly don't want to rely on my memory, so I Googled 'permaculture' and learned quite a lot more.

'Permanent agriculture' as a term has actually been around since 1911, but the modern system of 'permaculture' started in the 1970's by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Mollison felt that the industrial revolution had destroyed the earth's ecosystems, and developed a core set of design principles that individuals could use to design their own environments and develop self-sufficiency. It has developed as a concept beyond agriculture, moving into the arena of human culture.

As a system design tool, permaculture suggests that you:
* look at a whole system or problem
* observe how the parts relate
* design a remedy from well-known patterns of working systems
* find connections between parts.

An example of a permaculture system might start with the sun providing energy for a plant to grow. The plant provides nectar for bees or can feed wildlife. The bees or wildlife help disperse seeds that grow into tall trees that provide shelter for other living things. The bees can provide food for the birds. The leaves will fall and rot, providing food for small insects and fungus. So it is all one system, each part integral for the health of the other.

Permaculture is far more complex than this, but this gives you a little introduction to the philosophy. We unwittingly began something like this a number of years ago when we dug a dry creek in the middle of our back yard to carry water down to a rain garden, and turned the northernmost section of the yard into what we are calling a woodlands. We planted trees and native shrubs, along with a few dozen native perennials. We figured this was less grass to mow and fertilize, and it would provide a deeper root system for our yard, ultimately aiding in its health. When I read about permaculture, it looks like this is the road we have been heading down. If so, I'm interested in reading more about this.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Transparency and environmentalism

When our little group started in the fall of 2005, we decided that our purpose would be to gradually change our lives in a more sustainable way and discuss the work we were doing each Tuesday morning. It's been 5 years now, and the reporting has been overwhelmingly positive. Most of us have lowered our energy bills, reduced the amount of garbage we are taking out, switched to organic fertilization for our lawns, become more local and organic in our eating habits, and on and on.

Two recent discussions, however, made us realize that all is not perfect in the world of a greener lifestyle. The first discussion happened a few weeks ago, when I pointed to the fact that our dual-flush toilets, while saving us a considerable amount of water each month, were not particularly easy to care for. Because they carry less water in the bowl, dual-flush toilets tend not to look as clean as a traditional low-flush toilet. So instead of cleaning my toilets once a week, I clean them more like 3 times a week. Each time I clean I flush, so this reduces water savings a bit. And it's a nuisance.

That's story #1. Today Martha introduced us to story #2, another disappointment. She bought a front-loading washer-dryer set - more expensive, but using less water than the traditional top-loading model. She has had the set for about 3 years, and reported to us today that she cannot seem to get rid of the mildewy smell that emanates from her washer. This problem has been reported in journals, but the when she broached the topic with the sales clerk at the time of purchase, they told her that this problem had been solved. Apparently not. She has run loads through with bleach (hasn't helped, and not good for the environment), and has now switched from liquid to powder detergent (something about the fat in the liquid contributing to the problem). But the kicker is that she always has to do a second rinse to try to get rid of the smell. So much for water savings!

I just wanted to write this up because many people who advocate for a greener lifestyle often develop an opaqueness about their views. They may find problems with some of the changes in their lifestyles, but don't want to address or report them for fear that the "cause" will be hurt. We simply don't agree. I believe that we are at the very beginning of product development when it comes to a green lifestyle, and some things may work while others need adjustment. This happened with the early CFL light bulbs, and manufacturers have made significant improvements to later models. So as a group, we support transparency in our reporting. If something is working, we want to hear about it. The same goes when it doesn't. I've never known a movement or government that has survived when all of the knowledge was held by a privileged few, and the rest were left in the dark. Same goes for environmentalism. Let's keep our findings out there, positive or negative. Now that's sustainable.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Reusing vegetable scraps

A few experienced cooks in our group - thank you Mitzi and Ayliffe - have introduced us to a new way to reuse our vegetable scraps by turning them into a delicious soup stock. This is especially great for us Michigan people in the winter, when every time we add scraps to our compost buckets we know that eventually we have to put on the high boots and track it back to our compost piles. Right now, the end of February here in Michigan, the boots will have to be pretty high to get us there without getting our legs snow covered. So any time I can keep the scraps inside for reuse is a bonus for me.

The recipe is so simple it boggles the mind that I have never come across it before. Basically, you take any clean vegetable scraps, like a broccoli trunk or carrot shavings, and put them in a gallon freezer bag. Once the bag is full, you take the frozen lump and put it in a stock pot and add 12 cups of water, 2 bay leaves and 12 peppercorns. Put it on your smallest burner and simmer about 2 hours, taking care not to let it boil. Then you pour this stock through a colander and into a large bowl, and then through a strainer. In a blender, mix a 28-oz can of stewed Roma tomatoes with a can of navy beans and some of the broth (I do this is 3 segments). Add this and the rest of the stock back to the pot, and you now have the best stock you've ever tasted. You can make this into vegetable soup - the recipe is on our Recipes page. This is a wonderful recipe to make on a cold winter day - the entire house smells fragrant. What's also interesting about this stock is that, because each bag is comprised of a unique set of scraps, it will never taste the same. This freezes well.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

A salute to the public library

When you think of a sustainable lifestyle, many people don't fully recognize the contribution of the public library. I use mine all the time as a substitute for buying books and magazines. Most libraries now have a system where you can search for a book and put it on hold if it is unavailable. Once the book comes in, they will put it aside for you, send you an e-mail that it has arrived, and you just have to pick it up. I have a list of about 7 books that I am waiting for right now, and just picked up one a few days ago. The same applies to CDs and DVDs. So instead of spending hard earned money on a book or DVD that you will read/view once, you can borrow it and return it for someone else to use. I can't think of a more sustainable way to use all forms of media.

Libraries are also becoming in-demand computer centers. Our library, Troy Public Library, has devoted quite a bit of space to their computer center, and from my unscientific observations, it appears to be consistently full. I sometimes wonder why, until I think about the monthly expense of running high-speed internet in our home and realize that not everyone can afford this luxury. There is a economic justice component to sustainability, and the public library levels the playing field for us. No matter what type of income you have, if you live in a community you have equal rights and access to information, in the form of books, periodicals, electronic media and computer access.

I remember reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands quite a while ago. I recall that although his personal life was sometimes less than perfect, he was responsible for developing a public library system in the U.S. in 1731, along with his other achievements. At a time when books were scarce and expensive, he recognized the fact that if people pooled resources, they could afford to purchase books from England. Since then the public library system has been an integral part of all of our lives.

Libraries couldn't be more important than in times of scarcity, like now. Many people stop buying books, end magazine subscriptions and stop internet in their homes in an economic downturn, so the need for a good community library system becomes more important than ever. Unfortunately, when people stop working and businesses pull out of communities, tax revenues go down and libraries feel the effects. Right now my community, Troy, is threatening to shut down the library if a millage is not passed on Tuesday. People understandably don't want to pay more money when they don't have it themselves. But I do think back to Benjamin Franklin's time, when most people in the colonies were without many of life's necessities, and admire their desire to pull together resources for the common good. I hope our ancestors' example helps us understand our own priorities now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Life without the TV

About a month ago, right in the middle of what I'm sure was a superb program, the picture tube on our TV died. It was actually quite an entertaining demise - the picture began to squiggle around a bit, then all of a sudden it shrank down to a small colorful circle before disappearing completely, kind of like a Big Bang in reverse. And since this was our only TV, that was that.

Now, here's what I find interesting. At first, as in 'the day it died', I was pretty anxious to replace it. I mean, what are we going to do for that last hour of the day if we have no TV? But we decided to wait a while because we have points on our credit card that we can use to buy a new one. So we applied for the points, and within the week they arrived. In the meantime, though, we went to the Sony store at the mall to check out what was available. We decided that since we watch a fair amount of programming on our computers, it made sense to get a TV with internet capability, so we could stream things like Netflix movies onto our new TV.

Now, as I said, the points arrived, but we have not had the time to return to the store to cash them in, in part due to a recent vacation up north, and in part to general busyness. But in the meantime - in the meantime - we have experienced life without a TV for about a month and we either don't know what to make of it or kind of like it, I'm not sure which. But we don't feel the withdrawl that I felt that first day. In fact, it feels somewhat like a liberation. I think I need to explain.

We had gotten into the habit of turning on the TV after dinner, and first up was a program that Tom always recorded called 'Pardon the Interruption.' I never took to the program (a sports gabfest), so I usually went somewhere else until it was over. But I never realized just how much I HATED this program coming into the house every day until I finished dinner one night and realized I was freed from these 2 guys chatting up sports micro-topics in very loud voices. And I'm sure Tom felt the same way about programs I watched, like American Idol.

I had another moment of enlightenment a couple of weeks ago when I was picking up some soup at a local restaurant and I saw, on their TV, video footage of Tiger Woods and his wife, with 3 bars of text scrolling across the bottom of the screen and one scrolling above. I thought: I just don't want this as a part of my life! Really! No Tiger Woods. No scrolling breaking news reports. I think I'm losing my tolerance for it.

Then today it occurred to me that TV, in recent years, has been more of a source of frustration for me that entertainment. If you think of it, there are about 100 channels, and for the most part, they are worthless. I do understand why - revenues to stations have dipped dramatically because no one can attain the share numbers of yesteryear due to the proliferation of channels people have to choose from. So less money turns into cheap programming (meaning they can't pay talented writers), and things spiral downhill from there. That is why you can flip through 100 channels and not find one thing to watch, which continues to surprise me, and finally leads to frustration.

One last point on this. This past month I have experienced a little of what my life was like in Japan. We had pretty much one channel there - CNN International - and that was it. In addition, we lived in a city where English was not the primary language spoken. So I spent a lot of time with my thoughts. I learned to like this, and found that I could do a lot more reading and writing when my mind was cleared of excess stimuli. In many ways, it was a better quality of life. This hiatus from TV has been a little like that.

With all of this, you probably think we'll never get a TV again. And you would be wrong. We've got our points, we'll get our TV, but it does have us thinking about using it differently. Tom has characteristically decided not to watch any TV any more even when we get the new set. And I do appreciate this, as I don't think I can take PTI even for one minute more. But I do like to watch some things, particularly movies. So our compromise says that I'll wear headphones when watching, so Tom can work nearby without being disturbed. And since this is a flat screen instead of a traditional TV, I'll be able to close the doors of the cabinet when it's not in use. We'll see how this goes. I have to concede now that I'm glad the tube decided to die....we've been given a chance to shake things up a bit, and that's not all that bad.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Buyer Beware

This past month 2 of our children have purchased homes, one in Ann Arbor and one in Northville. We counseled both to ask to see utility bills for a year, just to get a sense of the costs they will be facing. This past Sunday, as we were going through the Northville home, Tom asked the realtor about these bills, and she replied that she can ask the family, but under Michigan law they are not obligated to produce them. In fact, our future son-in-law, Brad, asked for the bills for the Ann Arbor home repeatedly but never did receive them.

Tom and I were pretty surprised by this law. Tom likens it to buying a car without knowing the mileage. The Northville realtor tried to explain the situation by stating that since everyone sets their thermostats at different levels, it would be hard to know what the true cost for another family would be. Keeping with the car analogy, that would mean that since we all drive differently, there is no point in giving out mileage ratings. So right now we have a situation where new homeowners are buying a home without any understanding of the amount of energy they will use and the associated costs. I think that information would be helpful.

Perhaps this was a moot issue a number of years ago when energy costs were not as exorbitant as they are today. I never remember thinking about the affordability of heating and cooling my homes as I bought them. But energy costs are rising rapidly, and it's foolish to think they will ever go down. We know people with large homes and multiple furnaces who have racked up heating bills of $900 per month in the winter. That's a bucket-load of money, folks.

At our GLGI meeting yesterday, we all decided that this is an issue we'd like to take on. Every once in a while you discover something that makes absolutely no sense, seems like a slam dunk, and so you have to go for it. Our first conclusion was that this is a matter for the Michigan legislature. So first, we're going to do a bit of research and see if other states allow prospective buyers to review utility bills. Then Tom Bradley has volunteered to contact his representative in Royal Oak to discuss the matter.

The implications of an overturn of this legislation are quite significant. If people were required to show their utility bills, they would be more inclined to weatherize their homes, and this would eventually make quite a dent in overall energy usage. After all, would you be willing to pay $900 a month for utilities if this were known to you up front?