Evironmentalism Evironmentalism: The Next Step Broad Social Change Through Personal Commitment Introduction In the last thirty years, America has witnessed an environmental revolution. New laws like the 1963 Clean Air Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act forged new ground in political environmentalism. Social phenomena like Earth Day, organized by Dennis Hayes in 1970, and the beginning of large-scale recycling, marked by Oregon’s 1972 Bottle Bill, have help change the way Americans think about the environment. As we approach the third millennium, however, we must reconsider our place on the planet and reflect on our efforts and progress towards a sustainable society. As global warming becomes a scientific reality, natural disasters make monthly appearances in the headlines, and communities continue to find their ground-water contaminated by industrial and nuclear waste, we must ask ourselves: are we doing enough? The environmental movement in the past has largely been a social and political phenomenon.
While many of us recycle (yet still only 35 percent of us) and take dead batteries to our town’s Hazardous Waste Day, most Americans have not made the environment a personal issue. Very few of us have taken the kind of personal life-changing steps that are necessary to create an environmentally sustainable society. It is simply naive to believe that America’s present rates of consumption, waste production, and environmental contamination are sustainable. The kind of social change required can only happen when we as individuals embrace the effort in our everyday lives. Only then will corporate America and the government realize that they too must change to maintain their customer base and public support.
This kind of personal commitment to change would also create a new social ethic based on the environment under which people and companies who do not care for the earth would be held socially and financially responsible. In six parts, this article will re-examine our place in the environmental movement and investigate exactly what changes we can make in our personal lives to bring about positive change. These areas are transportation, energy, recycling and waste management, toxins and pollution, food, and water. Some of the changes discussed will require sacrifice. But, more important, these changes will often simplify our lives, bring our families and communities closer together, and help us to better understand, revere, and coexist with the world upon which each of us is directly dependent. Transportation The invention of the automobile is one of history’s greatest environmental disasters. The automobile decentralized our society. People with cars moved out of the city and drove to work from their suburban homes.
Before the automobile, agriculture was local. Food was grown by farmers living in what was soon to be the suburbs, and delivered fresh to markets in the cities. Because of the short distance food had to travel, farmers didn’t need to add preservatives or other additives to maintain freshness. Clearly, the automobile, like other harmful inventions, makes our lives easier in many ways, but how often do we consider the environment when weighing these benefits? Fossil fuels account for the automobile’s most significant effect on the environment. Not only are the emissions from cars and trucks toxic to every air-breathing organism, but every step of the fossil fuel process, from extraction to disposal, is bad for the environment.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), millions of gallons of untreated water contaminated by the drilling processes are dumped into waterways and oceans annually. Once extracted, fossil fuels are frequently refined on site, burying 179 million tons of toxic waste annually. During transport, an average of 1 million gallons of oil is spilled into the ocean each month. Upon arrival, fossil fuels are usually burned in automobiles or power plants.
The average coal-burning power plant burns about 10,000 tons of coal in a single day. With even a low estimate of five per cent waste, that leaves 500 tons of toxic waste produced each day by a single power plant. If used in cars, oil must be refined further, wasting more energy and creating more toxic waste before drivers purchase it. The combustion engines used in cars and trucks emit toxic gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect and acid rain, deplete the ozone layer, and create more than 50% of the smog producing toxins that city-dwellers breathe every day. Even if we disregard the environmental damage caused by fossil fuels, we should recognize that, as a non-renewable energy source, the earth’s reserves will eventually run out.
Hundreds of millions of years of organic decomposition will be wiped out in a single century. Conservative estimates say we have 30 to 50 years left of oil use. With more and more developing nations rapidly increasing their use of fossil fuels, and the continuing growth rate of fossil fuel use at four times the population growth, our time with fossil fuels could be significantly less. Just imagine the economic and political upheaval a major oil shortage would cause. Simply put, the country that depends on fossil fuels the least will be the most likely to survive the economic strife and wars resulting from global depletion.
Fossil fuel consumption is deeply entrenched in the American mode of life. We rely on automobiles for almost all of our transportation needs, enjoy motor boats and jet skis on our vacations, and use gas-burning engines in most of the tools we use in the yard. (Although electricity is another major consumer source of fossil fuel consumption, that will be discussed in the Energy section.) Yet we can make numerous changes in our lifestyle that will significantly decrease our personal consumption of fossil fuels. Let’s return to America’s biggest weakness: the automobile. Simply not driving is the best and most obvious solution to the problem of automobiles. Americans have gotten used to their cars and seldom walk or bicycle even short distances.
Gym class became a federal requirement in the 1930s because students were being driven or riding busses to school instead of walking. Americans have also become significantly more overweight since we started driving. Consider your Saturday errands around town. Most errands we make are to destinations less than a few miles away and frequently involve dropping off or picking up something small. These kinds of errands can just as easily be accomplished by walking or bicycling. Your body will thank you, and so will the environment. Public transport, if available, is also a great way to stay out of the car.
Consider an area’s public transportation system in choosing a place to live, as some cities have significantly better systems than others. When your destination is too far to walk or bicycle, there are still numerous ways to minimize the use of automobiles. If you drive to work, find other people at your company or other companies near you that live in your town and start a carpool. Even carpooling once in a while makes a difference, so don’t get discouraged by occasional scheduling conflicts or other obstacles. When running errands, plan ahead to consolidate them into one trip and consider the most efficient route. If possible, park in a central location and walk to multiple destinations.
Ask a neighbor or friend if they need to go out (everybody has to go to the grocery store, for example), and share a ride. For every ride you share, the fuel consumption and emissions for that trip are cut in half. There are also many ways that your driving habits effect the fuel efficiency of your car. Try to avoid fast accelerations, for instance. They use significantly more fuel than gradual accelerations.
Likewise, avoid driving at excessive speeds. Every car engine has an RPM (revolutions per minute) at which optimal fuel economy is achieved; you’ll find it in your car’s manual. Check your tachometer and try to maintain that RPM while driving. Minimizing the work-load on your car is another way to increase fuel economy. Remove any unnecessary heavy objects from the car, and avoid using the air conditioner when possible.
Finally, turn off your engine if you expect to be idle for even a short while. Starting a modern fuel-injected car uses less gas than idling for 30 seconds. Did you know that warming up your car by letting it idle in the driveway in cold weather actually causes engine damage? This is also when your car’s emissions are at their worst. The best and fastest way to heat up a car is by driving it. When it’s time to buy a new car, there are many ecological alternatives to the gas guzzling beasts typically driven by Americans. Many compact cars on the market today achieve stunning fuel economy.
The four-wheel-drive trucks so popular in today’s market get comparatively bad gas mileage and usually carry one person over a paved road. Buy the smallest car you can, and don’t buy a larger car for infrequent needsconsider buying a used trailer for infrequent cargo hauls. If you’ve been putting off the purchase of a motorcycle as whimsical, think again. Many motorcycles (and scooters in particular) achieve significantly better fuel economy compared to even the most fuel-efficient cars, resulting in less over-all consumption and emissions. Maintenance is the final step in minimizing the environmental impact of automobiles.
Modern cars have very sophisticated emissions systems and engines that must be finely tuned to achieve maximum efficiency. Regular check-ups for your car will protect your investment and ensure the car is in its best possible working order. The longer you keep your car, the more value from it you receive and the less waste is created and energy spent in the production of a new car. If you have to commute to work every day, consider an electric car. Electric cars have come a long way in price, distance and efficiency, and will soon be available from large manufacturers like Ford and Toyota.
Several small companies around the country convert small gas powered cars and trucks to electric, zero-emissions vehicles and sell them for slightly more than a gas-powered car. As electric cars become more common and are manufactured on a large scale, their prices will drop significantly. Many hobbyists, with no prior automotive or electrical expertise, have created their own electric cars from their used gas-powered vehicles. Check your local library for one of the many conversion guides available. Today’s electric cars take about four hours to charge, plugged into a standard outlet, and can go anywhere from 50 to 200 miles on a single charge.
While you wouldn’t want to take an electric car across the country (though this has been done), their distance per charge is plenty for a typical commuter to get to work and back. Most electric car owners keep a gas-powered car around for longer trips. Owners of electric cars generally find the increase in their electric bill minimal compared to the amount they save in gasoline. While electric cars create no emissions themselves, and create almost no waste (even the batteries are recyclable), the electric company is still burning fossil fuels to create the electricity needed to charge the car. Nevertheless, electric companies are capable of converting fossil fuels to energy much more efficiently and with fewer emissions than a gas-powered car. Electric cars also leave room for improvement in any method of large-scale energy production, such as biomass, hydro, and solar (see the Energy section).
This section has focused primarily on cars, but Americans also use many other gas-powered engines. The small engines in motor boats and lawn equipment do not have to meet the emissions standards of cars, and thus, emit far more toxins into the air. Consider using a quiet, powerless mulching mower on your lawn if you have one, and an electric weed whacker rather than one that is gas powered. If you enjoy the water, consider learning to sail rather than motoring. Motorized water vehicles not only emit air pollution, they also pollute the water, contribute to sound pollution, and injure fish and other animals in the water.
Energy in the Home Automobiles are not the only consumers of fossil fuels or sources of air pollution stemming from our personal lives. According to the EPA, furnaces, hot water heaters, and other fossil fuel burning appliances in American homes produce 20% of all U.S. carbon dioxide, 26% of sulfur dioxide, and 15% of nitrogen oxide emissions, the leading causes of acid rain and global warming. Note that these figures do not take into consideration the power our homes draw from fossil fuel-burning power plants. By making our homes as energy-efficient as possible and minimizing our personal use of electricity, we can significantly reduce our personal impact on the environment.
The main sources of power consumption in our homes are the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Maintaining, repairing, or upgrading these systems will not only save us money, but also reduce the amount of energy needed to run our homes on a day-to-day basis. The EPA’s Energy Star Homes program brings environmentally aware developers and manufacturers together to build homes that are better insulated and utilize 90% efficiency or better HVAC systems. If you are looking to build a new home, call their toll-free hotline, (888) STAR-YES, for literature, or save paper and visit their Internet site at www.epa.gov for more information. Unfortunately, building new homes is not an environmentally sound thing to do. New homes require previously undeveloped land or disposal of the property’s old construction. Further, new wood and materials must be used unless costly measures are taken to restore materials from an old construction.
Beyond environmentally unsound, new construction is many times more expensive and time-consuming than renovation and repair of most existing houses. Even if your house is too costly to upgrade, consider buying an already renovated house or one easily renovated before building new construction. A furnace using heating oil, natural gas, or electricity heats most American homes. Still others use a wood or pellet stove. Of these, electricity is by far the least efficient. One truth of energy conservation is that electricity should not be used to produce heat, whether in a stove, water heater, or central heating. The exception to this is the microwave, which is the most efficient way to heat small amounts of food. Edward Harland’s book, ECO~RENOVATION: the ecological home improvement guide, an excellent resource for anyone interested in environmental renovations, provides this revealing chart: Fuel Kg of CO2 Emitted per Useful Kilowatt Delivered (approx.) Gas 0.27 Oil 0.35 Coal 0.40 Electricity 0.83 As you can see, electricity is more than twice as polluting as a coal burning furnace. Electricity is even worse if you take into consideration the amount of energy created by nuclear power, which creates nuclear waste instead of carbon dioxide (CO2).
There is also a significant amount of energy wasted in cooling power plants and lost in the power grid, which further degrades electricity’s viability as an environmentally sound energy source. As the chart shows, natural gas, or methane, is the cleanest burning fuel. While most of the natural gas used in America is drawn from non-renewable reserves, it can be produced renewably through biomass production, a method currently used by China. Methane is produced in massive quantities by decaying waste and agricultural operations, so much that methane is one of the most serious greenhouse gasses. If methane could be captured from these sources, we would be slowing the greenhouse effect and using clean-burning renewable fuel at the same time. For these reasons, if you have an aging or inefficient oil burning furnace, consider converting to an efficient natural gas furnace.
Wood or pellet stoves still fuel many homes in America. Wood, if used wisely, is a renewable and relatively clean-burning fuel. While burning wood does produce CO and CO2, new technology allows wood stoves to reuse unspent output by re-burning it before emission. Pellet stoves, quickly replacing log-burning stoves, use pressed recycled paper and wood pulp that look like rabbit pellets. Pellets, while more expensive, are more efficient to burn and take up less space during storage.
Before investing in a wood stove, however, be sure to investigate which brands are most efficient and emit the least gases and particulate. Also, wood stoves must be used carefully and maintained properly to avoid inefficient operation, excessive emissions, and leakage of carbon monoxide into the home. The best way to minimize the amount of fuel-produced heat your home requires is to insulate it properly. Insulation is the most important factor in the amount of energy required to heat your home. Consider a hypothetical home with 100% perfect insulation.
This home would need to be heated only once, and never again. This puts into perspective the idea that we only need to heat our homes as much as heat escapes to the outside. Most houses in America are poorly insulated at best; only one in four houses have insulated walls. Consider the fuel savings if you increased your home’s insulation quality by even 20%, which in many cases is a realistic goal. Initially, insulation costs time and money, but it pays for itse …