Maia Spenser gets ready to ride her bike to high school
in downtown Santa Cruz from the commuter lot in Soquel.
Photo by Kay Spencer
by Kay Spencer
After watching Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, my family became committed to reducing our carbon footprint. The reality is that we are whittling away, not drastically changing. However, without moving to town or investing thousands of dollars in a photovoltaic array, we have made a substantial difference in our cumulative impact upon our planet.
Like most Sierra Club members, we were already atypical Americans in some things: we had a subcompact car, washed out and re-used our plastic bags, and bought organic groceries most of the time. But looking specifically at carbon made it clear that we could change simple things to make a difference right this minute.
We divided the challenge into five parts and looked at each part separately: Transportation, Home heating (outside Santa Cruz, this would also include home cooling), Stuff you plug into the wall, Hot water, Shopping.
This was the most challenging category for us. We live in the mountains, where there is no public transportation at all, off a high-speed commuter road which is awful for bicycling. My husband commutes five days a week to UCSC (30 mile round trip), takes regular international business trips, and my daughter goes to a private high school in downtown Santa Cruz (20 mile round trip). I work from home, but have a hobby (herding sheep), which requires driving very long distances to lessons and to other people’s farms for practice. This situation seemed insurmountable at first.
What we do now is complex, but it works: My husband and daughter put their bikes on a car rack and drive down to a commuter carpool lot in Soquel, from which they bicycle to work and school every day. I pick up my daughter and her bike in Soquel in the afternoon, my husband bikes back to his own car in the evening and drives home. We cut 30 miles a day from our collective family car commute. Additional benefits: completely skip all Santa Cruz traffic congestion, healthy exercise, and a feeling of virtuousness. We are not a particularly athletic family, by the way—just determined.
I made some severe changes to my discretionary driving, and cut out about 1,500 miles a month. When I drive my Honda Civic, I never go over 55 mph. I coast to stops and concentrate on slow easy accelerations. These techniques, faithfully applied, boosted my mpg to almost 40 on the freeway, comparable to the hybrid we can’t afford. I also began using a bike for all my local errands (still driving into Soquel Village and parking my car).
The biggest carbon impact we haven’t figured out how to address are the trips my husband must make to Europe. But he is committed to reducing the number if he can’t eliminate them entirely right now.
This was much easier. Living in the mountains, we have always heated with firewood, usually scavenged from fallen trees. Burning wood does not have much carbon impact, because wood will decay and release its carbon within a few years anyway. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make sure you have an EPA-certified modern stove, much more efficient and less polluting than the old ones. If you are burning fossil fuels, it is even more important to seal windows, insulate attics, lower your thermostat, and close off rooms you aren’t using.
Stuff you plug in
For Americans, we have very few appliances. We don’t even have a toaster, we use a little metal box that sits on a stove burner. However, we changed all our lights to compact fluorescents, and I became fanatical about keeping them turned off when not needed. We also turn off the computers at their power strips. Computers and most other electronics suck power all the time, not just when they are “on.” I gave away my aquarium (a big electricity drain), and we cut our electricity consumption to about six kilowatt hours a day.
We started washing our clothes in cold water, and hanging them out to dry. Do the clothes look dirtier? Not particularly. If you don’t like the stiffness some fabrics acquire when air dried, you can always stick them in the dryer on fluff for a few minutes. This works better before you hang them out rather than after. Our next move is to build a simple solar shower outdoors, for summer at least, because baths and showers are now the biggest users of our propane.
Almost everything we buy comes to us via motorized transport, typically from thousands of miles away. Even organic food has been grown using fossil-fuel-driven machinery. How could we affect this at the home level? Well, there are a few obvious ways:
1. Don’t buy it. Borrow from your neighbor, do without, or repair the old one.
2. Buy used (craigslist.com is great for this). Or find it used for free on our local freecycle.com.
3. Buy locally—patronize your farmer’s markets.
4. Grow or make your own.
Remember this isn’t about thrift, although it is also thrifty. We try to keep in mind that every time we buy something new, it has a significant carbon impact. My grandmother, who lived much of her life on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, once approvingly quoted another farmer who had survived the Great Depression: “We didn’t live on income, but on lack of expense.” This mode of thought is so alien to present-day Americans that it requires looking at virtually everything you do with new eyes.
In this process, I find I often have to give up instant gratification, and I can no longer disregard natural cycles. I have to remember to hang clothes out in the morning so they’ll be dry in the evening, cut firewood in the summer so it will be cured for the winter, plant cabbage in winter for next spring. Old skills such as repairing hand tools, laying a fire, making bread, darning a sweater, have started to become basic life habits. I believe this is the path of the future, if we are to have one.