Monday, October 31, 2011

Reducing My Carbon Footprint

I have been thinking about carbon footprinting a lot lately.  I am kind of floored, pretty shocked to discover how serious things are.  After calculating my own footprint, I was beside myself.  It's not that my footprint was that terrible - it wasn't that bad, at 6.39 metric tons per year, compared to the average US resident who has a footprint of 20.40 metric tons.  In fact, my footprint is so light that I think I surely must have fibbed somewhere during the test!  Anyway, the thing that is upsetting me so much is how far away I am from the worldwide target of 2 metric tons, and what that means on a global level.  How will we in the US ever fix things well enough?  How will we make lifestyle changes so sweeping and so thorough that it will ever get us anywhere near 2 metric tons?

And now I catch myself making different decisions.  Do I really need that light on?  Do I really need to go to the store?  I caught myself recently standing ashamed in my kitchen, holding a plastic jug of lemon-aid, thinking about the ripe lemons growing in the garden outside that could have been the source of that drink.  Sometimes at night, I walk around the apartment in the dark, trying to find everything sucking up unnecessary energy, and find myself unplugging things right and left, like the microwave, the router, etc.  After unplugging things, it seems so much quieter in my home.  It could be my imagination, but it definitely feels different, more peaceful.

What else can I do?
  • Potty train my kid to get him out of diapers.  He's in toddler school for 10 hours a day, where they use a green cloth diaper service, so it's not as bad as it could be.  I didn't include my family members in my footprint, but this is something I can do, regardless. 
  • Stop buying things that have packaging as much as I can.  There are ways to do this here.  For instance, there's a grocery store about 2.5 miles away which sells almost everything one needs in bulk, and I can bring in my own containers to fill.  I resolve to figure out ways to do this.
  • Just stop buying things.  Seriously, how much does a person really need?  I buy things I could easily do without all the time, and that needs to change.
  • Buy my clothes and whatever else I can secondhand.
  • Walk more.
  • Get a bike with a kid seat and use it.
  • I'd love to buy a Prius when the time comes to replace my car.  I just saw a billboard the other day advertising that the Prius "minivan" has finally come on the market.  It's not in the budget right now, but it's something to consider for down the road (ha ha).

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Face of Sustainable Society

In a world where we are used to seeing the face of consumerism, depression, isolation and the burning of fossil fuels at a rate rapidly destroying the natural world beyond repair, here is another face to ponder.  The people of Ladakh are happy and a lot less stressed than the people I see every day, and they live in harmony with the natural world around them.  We can't all follow their model, because if we were to all spread out enough to have an agrarian life for everyone, we'd quickly fill up all of the land available for farming, taking it away from wildlife and the forests needed for carbon sequestering.  However, the aspect of their life that I find inspiring and I especially wish to honor here is the way they work together for the common good.  There is nothing like the companionship of extended family and life long friends to create real happiness that lasts and upholds a truly sustainable life. 

Learning from Ladakh Part 1 -

Learning from Ladakh Part 2 -

Learning from Ladakh Part 3 -


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wake Up, Freak Out - Then Get a Grip

This is an short animated film by Leo Murray which describes the process of climate change, why it happens and how much time we have left to make better decisions.  You might want to sit down for this!  

Wake Up, Freak Out - then Get a Grip from Leo Murray on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Carbon Footprint Labels

I had never heard of carbon footprinting labels before reading the article "Following carbon footprints leads architects and consultants to their own doorsteps" in Architectural Record, and am glad to hear of them for two reasons:

1.  As the article said, "... the main benefits of carbon labelling are likely to be incurred not via communication of emissions values to consumers, but upstream via manufacturers looking for additional ways to reduce emissions."  I love the story of the potato chip factory discovering that the potato supplier was keeping the potato chips humidified, since they were sold by weight.  Once they started analyzing carbon emissions, they were able to save energy (read: money) by eliminating both the humidifying and the dehumidifying phase.  The article also said, "... the quiet spread of carbon labels is being driven by companies, which have come to see the value of determining the carbon footprints of their product."  That makes sense, because the whole process is a great way to figure out how to reduce overhead, with clear monetary advantages.  Whether or not consumers ever care about the labels, the companies definitely will remain concerned about the bottom line and therefore their carbon footprinting.

2.  Related to the first reason, but looking at it from another important angle, is that companies, by pursuing their footprinting analysis, will see the monetary advantage to assisting developing countries go green.  The article said, "Be getting firms to assess and reduce the emissions of products with imported inputs, however, carbon footprinting gives firms in the rich world a motive to cut emissions in the developing world, through efficiencies and investment in clean technologies."  I don't know much about it at this time, but I think I've read before that carbon emissions in developing countries are critical to global climate change.

I don't feel confident that it's a good idea to use color-coding labels, though.  It sounds like it would take more effort to learn and memorize than most people would care to do.  Also, lots of people have color-blindness or see colors differently than the norm.  Finally, some products, in their efforts to go green and/or save money, only use one color of ink in their packaging.  Oasis soap, for example, has a little blurb on their packaging that explains why they only use one ink.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How to Move a Household Sustainably

For those who are contemplating moving their household, this is an essay meant to help them reduce the strain on the planet associated with their endeavor.  Since my family is soon to relocate due to my husband's new job, I am detailing our plans as a case study. 

Stage One: Lightening the Load

The first stage of the moving experience is to lighten one’s load.  As we live in a place for any length of time, objects start accumulating.  The problem here is that when it comes time to move, all of that stuff has to be boxed up, moved and unpacked, which requires time, effort, money and carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.  Fewer items to haul could mean a smaller truck and all the corresponding monetary and environmental savings associated with the smaller scale of operations. 

This stage of the process has great potential for fun.  Many people, my husband and I included, tend to hold on to more possessions than we really need.  This leads to problems such as clutter, disorganization and dust.  It can be quite a liberating feeling to just strip one’s possessions down to the essentials.  It's so much easier to clean, maintain and live in a space with minimal “stuff.”  Here and here are two great articles about the joy of minimizing at

However, since we are talking about moving in a green and sustainable fashion, it’s important to think about where all of these things go.  Some things will need to go in the trash or the recycling, but the less this happens the better, since our waste services are already burdened enough.  There are benefits to giving away or selling one’s household items.  For one, acquiring products second hand reduces many wastes, such as packaging, and extends the useful life of a good.  Reuse is an essential aspect of sustainability.  Another benefit is economic, since the person receiving the goods gets them either for free or at a deep discount, and many donations are tax deductible. 

For my family, lightening the load has been a process that has taken a long time and is still not finished, though we have cleared much away.  For us, the easiest, most no-nonsense way to get rid of things is to put them out on the sidewalk.  Anything we put out there is usually gone within minutes, since we live near a recycling center and a few flea markets.  We also sell some things on Craigslist, clearing away large pieces of furniture just by stipulating in the ad that the buyer must pick up these items.  We donate to a place called Urban Ore, a salvage and sales operation in Berkeley.  We also make use of the local Goodwill for donating clothes.  I have heard good things about Freecycle, an online organizational tool for people to give and get items for free, but have not yet tried it. Unfortunately, a yard sale would not work in our location, but, for many, that would be the perfect solution.  We are planning a “give away” party, an opportunity to gift friends with some of the more beloved items in our collection, and whatever doesn’t make it out the door during the party will go to charity or out on the sidewalk.  Our goal is to have one truck load to move when the time comes. 

Stage Two: Planning a Pedestrian Life

If we want to fit all of the burgeoning population on this planet for future generations without invoking cataclysmic climate crisis, we need as many people as possible to lead a pedestrian lifestyle.  The burning of fossil fuels such as it is cannot continue.  Drastically reducing the use of a car may not be an option for everyone, but nevertheless, those who can, should.  The Environmental Protection Agency says here, “Use public transportation, carpool or walk or bike whenever possible to avoid using your car…  [r]educe the stress of commuting, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and save… money.”  The EPA says here that one third of the greenhouse gas emissions in the USA come from transportation.  A person living in a city without a car is very likely to have a much smaller carbon footprint than those in the country, where driving a car is usually a daily necessity.  While carpooling and using public transportation are both helpful behaviors compared to solo driving, I would like to focus on walking.

Walking has virtually no carbon footprint, and there are many other advantages to this method of transportation.  One of the most obvious advantages is that walking is free.  In my family, we currently spend about $400 a month on gas, thanks to both of us commuting and lack of viable alternatives for getting to work.  That adds up to a minimum of $4,800 a year, not including extra gas consumed for the occasional car trip.  Another clear benefit of walking is exercise.  Walking to work would help many in the United States, where 74.6% of citizens are overweight or obese and severe obesity has quadrupled in recent history, according to Wikipedia.  Another advantage of pedestrianism is more subtle, but perhaps the most important.  Walking lends itself towards overall happiness in innumerable small ways, opening up new opportunities to get to know the people around us and the world in which we live. 

Given that my family is likely moving to the Miracle Mile or Koreatown district, some of the densest areas of Los Angeles, I figured that it would be feasible to lead life on foot.  Here I will explain our planning process, which will be the key factor in making this decision successful for us.  To begin, we can key into one location, my husband’s place of work, which is the reason for our move.  For him to walk to work, we’d need to live no more than 2 miles walking distance from his employer.  Truly, 2 miles is a stretch, but not a bad distance by bicycle or a high energy day.  So, using Google maps, I’ve created a personal map called “ColcordPedestrian Life in LA.”  I drew a 2-mile radius circle around the employer to find the inhabitable area and have begun saving the locations of basic services in or near the circle.  As we look for a place to live, I’ll draw a similar circle around each prospective residence.  By comparing the service-richness of one circle versus another, it will give us a way to decide which home would offer a better life for walking.  The closer we can get to the employer, shown as a green marker in Figure 1, the easier every day will be for my family.

Figure 1: Colcord Pedestrian Life in LA - Map as of October 19, 2011, Courtesy of Google Maps
Services which will have the highest priority for us are the ones we’d use nearly every day, like a grocery and a playground.  Next on the list are ones we’d visit weekly or so, like a library, a farmers’ market, and a cafĂ©.  Finally, we’d like to live near a pharmacy, a bank, a few restaurants, a beauty salon, a museum, a second hand clothes store and a post office, but these would be acceptable via public transportation, as well. 

Another household would probably have another set of priorities, like they might feel more strongly about having a church nearby, so they’d have to refine their search accordingly.  Also, not everyone can situate themselves so closely to their work, so instead they'd locate their household within easy walking distance to viable public transportation options.  As long as basic services are nearby on foot to the home or work place, alternative transportation can bridge the gap, creating a kind of hybrid pedestrian lifestyle.  Those with physical movement challenges could enjoy a pedestrian lifestyle by making appropriate adjustments, perhaps simply replacing the word “walking” with “wheeling” or reducing the 2-mile circle to, say, a quarter mile circle. 

Stage Three: Cooperating with Climate

A critical step for locating a sustainable home with a minimal carbon footprint is to analyze available choices of residence in terms of climate appropriateness, looking at the already-built environment for places which lend themselves to passive heating and cooling, which go a long way towards reducing energy use.  To reduce sprawl, it is essential that we avoid new development whenever feasible.  There is a software program called Climate Consultant which gives detailed information regarding the climate in a given area, including just about anything one would want to know regarding sun, wind, temperature and humidity patterns throughout the year, and it also provides building design suggestions for passive heating and cooling for that given place.  This is a useful tool for anyone looking to move, learning how to recognize a low-energy home. 

Since Climate Consultant gives its suggestions in the form of numbered guidelines placed in order of importance, I will review here some of the recommendations the program gave me for the climate in which we will be moving (California Climate Zone 9).  The most important knowledge the software wants us to have is that “heat gain from equipment, lights, and occupants will greatly reduce heating needs so keep home tight, well insulated (use ventilation in summer).”  See Figure 2 below.  Next, it says, “A whole-house fan or natural ventilation can store nighttime ‘coolth’ in high mass interior surfaces, thus reducing or eliminating air conditioning.” See Figure 3 below.  It also says, “Window overhangs (designed for this latitude) or operable sunshades (extend in summer, retract in winter) can reduce or eliminate air conditioning.” See Figure 4 below.  Next in importance is to orient the building towards the south “to maximize winter sun exposure, but design overhangs to fully shade in summer.” See Figure 5 below.  Figure 6 below shows what a traditional home in this climate might look like, with “high mass construction with small well shaded openings operable for night ventilation to cool the mass.”  Much further down the list, Climate Consultant mentioned that “Traditional homes in hot windy dry climates used enclosed well shaded courtyards, with a small fountain to provide wind-protected microclimates,” which is shown below in Figure 7.  (See end of article for more information on Climate Consultant)  Even though this is one of the last bits of information to consider, I included it here because I’ve always wanted to live in a place with an interior courtyard and either a fountain or a pool (or both).
Figure 2 (Above) Climate Consultant Design Guideline 11
Figure 3 (Above) Climate Consultant Design Guideline 39

Figure 4 (Above) Climate Consultant Design Guideline 37

Figure 5 (Above) Climate Consultant Design Guideline 19

Figure 6 (Above) Climate Consultant Design Guideline 61

Figure 7 (Above) Climate consultant Design Guideline 66

In Figure 8, shown below, you can see an aerial view of my husband's work, which is the sawtooth building on the right, and a very nice apartment complex directly behind it.  The building offers many of the suggestions that Climate Consultant specifies, like highly reflective surfaces, an interior courtyard with a pool, high mass walls, and many of the windows have a bit of shading, though I can't tell if it's enough.  I'm fairly certain this building is out of our price range, unfortunately, but it's a great example of a place that would be a pedestrian solution.  They also have tuck-under parking, which is a helpful way to avoid a heat island effect. 

Once we find our new place, and as we get used to living there, we plan to experiment with various ways to use resources wisely.  This is another part of cooperating with climate, to not burden the grid more than needed.  I suppose this part of operations would vary quite a bit from location to location, and would require more personalized research for any given household.  For us, since we know we're likely to have lots of sunshine and dry weather, we want to try: line-drying clothes, using a solar oven, brewing sun tea and using a solar dehydrator if there are nearby fruit trees.  When we buy a home someday, we can look into solar panels and solar hot water heating.   We also intend to re-use our shower water, collected in buckets, for watering plants out on our balcony, and figuring out other ways to conserve water, learning as we go.  To cut down on carbon-spewing plane trips, we plan on buying the highest speed internet we can and making a lifestyle out of video chatting with friends and family, who are spread out all over the country.

Figure 8: My husband's workplace is the sawtooth building on the right, and I really like this multi-use building behind it.  Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Stage Four: Community Connection

Last but not least, there is no such thing as a “sustainable” life move without a plan to make new friends.  There is nothing like the company of other human beings to make life truly enjoyable, which is the cornerstone of desirable sustainability, at least in my book.  I've ordered personal cards made out of 100% recycled paper with my name and contact information, and I plan to carry these with me to the playground, the grocery store, and for walks around the block, keeping an eye out and a heart open for likely new neighbors.  For many, making a plan to join a church, synagogue or other religious community would be the key foundational step to integrating into the local culture.  Another good way to meet people is to go to classes or clubs in the area, where new friends with similar interests are likely to be.  For me, I am angling for other mothers with young children, since I've found this is usually the best recipe for a viable relationship at this stage in my life.  Not only can our kids play together, but we can also break each other, allowing for a more flexible life for all.  Having friends who are also neighbors is a real joy, and often practical, when it comes time to help each other out. 

These four stages of moving are surely not exhaustive, but they are a good place to start when planning a move that is both light on the planet and buoyant to the soul.  I wish anyone who reads this and uses this information the best of luck in their endeavors. 

Climate Consultant 5.1 (Build 2, Jun 8, 2011) Design Guidelines for Climate Zone 9, CA, USA.  Developed by the UCLA Energy Design Tools Group, Copyright 2011 by the Regents of the University of California.