The Carbon Cutters

Leslie Carlson

Our appetite for just about everything in America seems to be getting bigger as the years pass. Whether it’s sodas, electricity, houses, or cars—we want it super-sized, thank you very much.

In the midst of this trend towards more, and bigger, and better, there seems to be a small movement of people going the exact opposite way. They are testing the limits of using less in what you might call "extreme green" lifestyle experiments. And to me at least, what they are learning about the effects of using less is very interesting indeed.

Take No Impact Man. Colin Beavan, his wife Michelle Conlin and their 2-year-old daughter have embarked upon a year of urban living as light as possible on the environment. This experiment has included learning how to wash clothes by stomping them in the bathtub, buying food from local farmers and this month, attempting to live without electricity. They use no fossil fuels in their transportation; Conlin commutes to her work on her scooter (as in the kind used by kids, not the kind you drive).

Or, look at Judith Levine, who embarked up on a year of buying only “necessities,” (unlike No Impact Man, Levine included toilet paper in her list of necessities). Levine recently wrote a book about her experiences—how she had to wean herself from her buying addiction, how she never ran out of shampoo because she had so many hotel samples stashed in her house, and about the kinds of free neighborhood entertainment she and her partner were able to discover after they gave up going to the movies.

There’s also the Compactors, a group of people in San Francisco who’ve agreed not to buy anything new for one year. Instead, they make what they need, or buy it used. (I am pleased to report that the Compactors have allowed themselves to buy one thing new, and that is underwear.)

My husband and I have also experimented over the past year with “giving up” some of our modern conveniences, although we’ve done nothing as extreme as the examples above. But the strange thing about our experiences in giving up our car, or in buying non-necessary items, is that it wasn’t very hard. In some ways, we actually gained from it. In the case of our car, I lost weight (from biking) and our family is saving much more money each month—money we’ve been able to apply to our retirement savings account.

I’m not advocating for anything as extreme as No Impact Man or the Compactors. Seriously, I’m not about to give up buying a new outfit now and then. I do wonder, however, if there is a "middle way" between our extreme buying habits and having to give up one's toilet paper. Could it be that there are small sacrifices Americans could make, right now, that might improve our quality of life while making a dent in climate change?

Maybe, just maybe, being thrifty is just as patriotic as shopping.

Comments

  • Chris McMullen (unverified)
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    Good luck with all that conservation. More power to ya.

    Just don't try and mandate government controls on my consumption.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)
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    From my experience, inertia seems to be the biggest obstacle--jusat making one's mind up to do something or not do something. I have to confess to being a fair weather biker. For several years, I didn't own a car and rode my bike almost everywhere. Not on a day when it MIGHT rian, I face the temptation of getting in the car, rationalizing that I can't show up somewhere sopping wet. The thing is, once you get on the bike and start going, a little rain is not a bother at all. And every bike ride leaves me far more refreshed than any car trip--particularly with all the annoying road construction around Portland nowadays.

    I imagine it's a similar process with many lifestyle changes. The thing is, most of the time, a change to a greener way of doing things also is better for us, physically, mentally or emotionally. And as a result, we feel better.

    Some government prodding may be in order to push people out of their inertia. Carrots and sticks kinds of things, not necessarily mandates. People will initially resist change, but if it works, they will also quickly embrace it. Take congestion pricing for driving, wherein cities charge a toll to drive in certain areas or on certain roads during peak traffic times. Congestion pricing has been used in London and Stockholm for a while now. Citizens opposed it before it wnet into effect in those cities, but now congestion pricing is very popular--supported by more than tw-=thirds of all Londerners.

  • spicey (unverified)
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    thanks for this reminder. i've just been doing with less and less each month for the past 10 years. i just don't understand why people need so much. a new pair of shoes every now and then, but if your body stabilizes its shape after a while, the need for new clothes goes way down. if you maintain things, they last. and, I could eat out less, that's probably where I could make a dent, but then there's Thai food....

    not sure how to wake up those who are caught in shopaholism, but change is coming, whether government mandated or not. I think the time of cheap energy is behind us, and now things will be come more expensive, so those $1 flip-flops, once $5, may be less likely in your shopping cart.

    have a good, shopping-free weekend!

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    Take congestion pricing for driving, wherein cities charge a toll to drive in certain areas or on certain roads during peak traffic times.

    Interesting you should bring this issue up--Mayor Bloomberg has just introduced his own congestion pricing proposal for New York City.

  • Orygunner (unverified)
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    Apparently Seattle is also dipping a toe into the congestion pricing scheme. The latest entry at Cascadia Report mentions it and has some links: http://www.cascadiareport.com/cascadia_report/

    Just don't try and mandate government controls on my consumption.

    Funny, I find CONservatives rarely say a word when Big Government subsidizes consumption, yet when it comes to conservation incentives/disincentives, Big Government suddenly becomes evil. How convenient.

  • dmg (unverified)
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    There is a lot of literature and commentary coming out these days showing that one very healthy and effective way to reduce one's carbon footprint is to give up meat and dairy foods - go vegan.

  • Karl Smiley (unverified)
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    dmg,

    Not sure what you've been reading, but I'm pretty sure that eating grass fed cows and lambs leaves a smaller carbon footprint than eating fertilizer fed and tractor cultivated and harvested veggies, grains and soy beans. I believe that finding out how things are raised or grown is the most important thing.

    On another note, the only way to stop global warming is to leave the carbon in the ground. Mine the air for it instead. Right now I think algae is the best hope. It doesn't compete with food. Witness the huge jump in corn prices because of ethanol.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)
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    Spicey made a comment about not eating out so much, but local restaurants, serving locally-grown food, might be better environmentally than doing all your cooking yourself. Those restaurant stoves and ovens are like buses: they use a lot of energy but they take a lot of people with them. Besides, the communal act of dining with other people in a restaurant seems like something we should do.

    After all, you can stop buying toilet paper or Pink Martini CDs or even gasoline, but you gotta eat.

  • TiredOfNWElitism (unverified)
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    if there is a "middle way" between our extreme buying habits and having to give up one's toilet paper.

    Yea, give up your hi-tech toys, including your computer, which consume an inordinate amount of resources to produce, and behave like that segment of average working people I know who watch their budgets and don't spend profligately on anything. In addition, the deceleration of our economy, driven as it is by non-subsistence consumer spending, should nicely limit the incomes (and employment prospects it seems), and therefore the consumption, of a lot of the folks here who seem to have the truly mistaken belief they are progressive.

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    In addition, the deceleration of our economy, driven as it is by non-subsistence consumer spending, should nicely limit the incomes (and employment prospects it seems), and therefore the consumption, of a lot of the folks here who seem to have the truly mistaken belief they are progressive.

    While the tone of the comment leaves something to be desired (you must really be tired, Tired), I do think this is a good point. I've often wondered the same. However, I'm not so sure all the effects of changed consumption habits will be negative.

    Won't people keeping things longer mean we'll need qualified people to repair those things? (Ever tried to get a DVD or a camera fixed? Good luck). Won't buying local actually create local jobs? I'm not sure I believe the doom and gloom scenarios that our economy will completely crash once we use less oil.

  • TiredofNWElitism (unverified)
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    While the tone of the comment leaves something to be desired (you must really be tired, Tired),

    I find the that condescending and defensive tone, quite typical of many posts one reads here and seemingly reflecting a lack of life experience, to be a big part of the problem in the NW and on those who just claim to be progressive without knowing what it even means to be progressive. And whether you believe the doom and gloom is quite irrelevant. What do you have to add that is factual or well-reasoned?

    If you notice, I didn't argue that a change in consumption habits would be a good or bad thing, or for continued high consumption. What I argued is that hard working folks with tight budgets and mature, frugal consumption habits that reflect that don't need to be lectured by folks like those up the thread who apparently have a surplus of time and resources to spend lecturing.

  • TiredofNWElitism (unverified)
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    And by the way, NYC NoImpactMoron in best "15 minutes of fame" fashion is doing this to write a book and maybe make a movie about a completely irrelevant approach to actually living in a low impact way. That whole navel-gazing chic is getting very, very boring.

  • SEBC (unverified)
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    Take congestion pricing for driving, wherein cities charge a toll to drive in certain areas or on certain roads during peak traffic times. Congestion pricing has been used in London and Stockholm for a while now. Citizens opposed it before it wnet into effect in those cities, but now congestion pricing is very popular--supported by more than tw-=thirds of all Londerners.

    JK:How does it affect low income people?

    Thanks JK

  • MT (unverified)
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    TiredofNWElitism is missing the entire point of Ms. Carlson's argument.

    "I do wonder, however, if there is a "middle way" between our extreme buying habits and having to give up one's toilet paper."

    As as society we are bombarded by choices and pressure to purchase the "perfect item" (see The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz) when what we have is good enough. Low to middle income families are not exempt from this pressure. In fact, they are those who are being targeted by the multinational corporations to consume in the guise of "status."

  • Scott in Damascus (unverified)
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    JK:How does it affect low income people?

    Why are we always doing YOUR homework, Jim?

    I know, why don't you tell us your opinion on how this affects low income people.

  • Mike Schryver (unverified)
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    I moved to Portland a few years ago for the specific reason that it's a great place to not own a car. I haven't gone as far as the Compactors, but I've made a lot of progress in the last few years in reducing my carbon/oil footprint. I think we're getting closer to a point where it's socially undesirable to overconsume. We're not there yet, but the starting point seems to have taken hold in the social consciousness. I'll also second the recommendation for "The Paradox of Choice".

  • TiredofNWElitism (unverified)
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    TiredofNWElitism is missing the entire point of Ms. Carlson's argument.

    How could you possibly be that presumptuous, MT, to make such a claim? Particularly since you don't cite one single line in my comments to sustain the baseless assertion you obviously made just for effect? What argument can you give that backs up your explicit assertion that someone would have to miss her point, rather than fully understand it, to find fault with it?

    It's clear from this type of really condescending statement:

    As as society we are bombarded by choices and pressure to purchase the "perfect item" (see The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz) when what we have is good enough. Low to middle income families are not exempt from this pressure.

    that you are the one who is missing the point. Do you think it is possible that some one could understand the nature of marketing in our society, the nature of what Schwartz is saying (and by some is misunderstood to be saying) in this popularize --- as opposed to scholarly --- exposition of his academic work on the psychology of "choice", and why many working people have more than enough strength of character to legitimately find this particular statement laughably off the mark? And therefore, why it is so rude and insulting? One would think intelligent person, and particularly someone claiming to be progressive, would spend a little more time thinking about if and why that might be, instead of arguing that he or she has a more informed viewpoint.

  • MT (unverified)
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    TiredofNWElitism - I didn't say I was progressive and I also didn't note that Ms Carlson stated that she was progressive in her article; you decided we weren't.

    But, back to your comments:

    1. What I argued is that hard working folks with tight budgets and mature, frugal consumption habits that reflect that don't need to be lectured by folks like those up the thread who apparently have a surplus of time and resources to spend lecturing.

    She's not lecturing "hardworking folks." If you followed the links to the social experiments listed above you would see that it is directed at all people of various economic levels. Just because you have the financial means to consume doesn't mean you need to be satisfied. In fact, being frugal, developing tight budgets, and having as minimal impact as possible on the environment can co-exist with living in an urban environment.

    1. Yea, give up your hi-tech toys, including your computer, which consume an inordinate amount of resources to produce, and behave like that segment of average working people I know who watch their budgets and don't spend profligately on anything.

    It's difficult to take your point seriously when you are blogging with a computer, appear to have plenty of extra time to attack individuals based on your own assumptions of their habits or economic status.

    Here's a specific low impact example; instead of buying a new computer (even if you can afford it), just upgrade the memory and harddrive and keep it another five years. This much cheaper and better than it ending up in a landfill and using additional resources to produce another computer. I did it.

  • TiredofElitism (dropped NW) (unverified)
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    MT, you continue to demonstrate why folks like you have little to offer.

    First,

    I didn't say I was progressive and I also didn't note that Ms Carlson stated that she was progressive in her article; you decided we weren't.

    Carlson is a marquee contributor to Blue Oregon, "a place for progressive Oregonians to gather 'round the water cooler". Beyond that, I didn't say that anyone, including you, specifically were progressive. I am demonstrating, based on the facts of their own words, that many of the people, starting with Carlson and you, aren't progressive in the enlightened and favorable meaning of that word that we want to preserve.

    Second, just quoting someone is not addressing their point when you just continue lecturing on your point.

    She's not lecturing "hardworking folks." If you followed the links to the social experiments listed above you would see that it is directed at all people of various economic levels.

    My point continues to be that large percentage of the population I am talking about, who spend carefully based on their self-determined needs and available limited resources, live in a quite responsible way. It is a simple fact that folks like you are doing nothing but lecturing when your point is about how they should be living. The bolded section of the quote on it's face is an example of an immature and arrogant presumption, which runs through much of the commentary here, that the authors have values around consumption which others whose socio-economic conditions they do not share should adopt.

    As my point continues to be here, there is something very seriously lacking in the the moral fiber of the values expressed by Carlson, you, and the self-promoting popular literature (which mostly is not about "social experiments" in any accurate meaning of the term "experiment", but about trivial observations and popular culture stunts undertaken for all the status and economic reasons authors of popular literature do that), as each has chosen to express them.

    Third, this is a textbook example of the true ad hominem fallacy of not rebutting someone's argument on the substance, but instead casting aspersions on the circumstances of the argument:

    It's difficult to take your point seriously when you are blogging with a computer, appear to have plenty of extra time to attack individuals based on your own assumptions of their habits or economic status.

    Be very clear here: I'm not disparaging other peoples' values, and particularly others whose socio-economic circumstances apparently are different from those doing the disparaging, as many of the commentators (including NYC NOImpactMoron) are doing. I'm criticizing the character failings in those doing that, frequently to their own personal advantage, because they simply believe their values are superior. And because they have the leisure time and resources to do that almost solely due to the over-consumption of the segment of society to which they belong, and to which they sell their advise about how to lecture others.

    I have no problem saying that such views and behavior are neither enlightened nor progressive.

  • MT (unverified)
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    TiredofElitism (dropped the NW - now extends distain to the entire population and not just one region)

    It is a simple fact that folks like you are doing nothing but lecturing when your point is about how they should be living.

    Again you attack someone you don't know and use this topic as a pulpit to rant about what you describe as the lecturing elitist class.

    First, the whole point to this article is to highlight how people who commonly waste resources and time could be saving both by going back to basics, being conscious of their decisions and adopting sensible spending and lifestyle habits. The three example above are ment to highlight opportunties for change.

    Secondly, since you are so enlightened and progressive to be able to critisize the character failings of other, how do you plan to motivate the masses to behave more reasonably?

    Lastly, I'll cite some personal examples I have taken to simplify my family's life.

    • We use public transportation, bicycle or walk 90% of the time; our total annual mileage is 5,000 (2 adults and 3 small children).
    • We are part of a community organic farm co-op and get weekly vegatables for 10 months out the year
    • We recycle cans, bottle, paper and plastic. We compost all out organic kitchen waste.
    • We use our public and school libraries regularly.
    • We buy items that come in recyclable packaging (and bring our own cloth bags to the store)

    My family does these things not to get on a reality show, but because it saves us money, gives us more time together, and helps educate our children about how to live simpler.

    <h2>The sites listed above have given us additional ideas to incorporate into our lifestyle (that's their point). If they make money or gain celebrity from this - I don't care.</h2>

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