Welcome

Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Squeezing Oil Out of Your Travel (Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017, Part 2)


Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017
     Part 1: Taking Stock
     Part 2: Squeezing Oil Out of Your Travel
     Part 3: Wringing Oil from Your Food, Stuff, Heat, and Everything Else

Part 2: Squeezing Oil Out of Your Travel
“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” ― Jane Goodall

"Actions speak louder than words, but not nearly as often." -- Mark Twain

In Part I: Taking Stock, we covered how every dollar we spend on oil products supports fracking, tar sands, multinational corporate profits, and the beheadings, stonings, and terrorism financed or perpetrated by Saudi Arabia. We also covered how American life is so saturated with oil, it’s nearly impossible to wring it entirely out of one’s daily existence. To make our oil-use more conscious, Part I had a nifty on-line calculator to estimate personal oil consumption. If you haven’t done it yet, or don’t recall your results, go back and do it now. I’ll wait.

What our money buys
You’re back? Good. Now that you have an understanding of your oil consumption, let’s say we don’t want to support the rather nasty activities that oil production necessitates or that oil profits make possible. What to do? Well, we can certainly send emails, sign petitions, and call our congress critters to request changes in US policy towards oil companies and Saudi Arabia. We can also donate to non-profits working on the issue. We could even organize/march in protests. Still, there’s no escaping that the personal is political. As long as you and I consume oil, we make oil nastiness possible in the most basic way. Our money, and how we spend it, is an extension of our values, our intent, our convictions. If we don’t consume the oil, then, yes, someone else might. But when we participate in the ugly world of oil by consuming its products, we not only make it profitable, we give the whole craziness our implicit consent. Our efforts to change this are not useless drops in the bucket. Paradigm shifts most often happen first within small subgroups that eventually form enough critical mass to cause large-scale cultural change.

Kicking the Oil Habit
But our lives are so oily! It’s nearly impossible to live in the United States at the moment without at least some of the black ooze seeping into our lives. Never fear. Even if we can’t go 100% oil-free, we can reduce our consumption substantially. And this matters. Remember, as a commenter on Part I said, the price of oil is set at the margin, and since the dirtiest forms of oil—oil produced by tar sands and fracking—are the most expensive to produce, they are the first to be dropped when demand drops. Not to mention that low oil prices hurt oil companies and oil-nations far more than any divestment campaign can ever hope to. (Not to say that divestment is a bad idea.) As we’ll see, a side benefit of dropping our oil use is that we’ll be healthier, probably happier, and our communities more prosperous. But we’ll get to that.

Your money counts
We can divide personal oil consumption into five basic categories: oil for private vehicle travel, oil for all other travel, oil for heat, oil in your food and beverages, and oil in your stuff. Check what the calculator told you. Your car may be your biggest oil slurper, but depending on your lifestyle, it could also be the stuff you buy each year, or your air travel. Our solutions in this part and the next will range from heat pumps to PEBLs to sating the hungry ghost. Let’s begin! Remember, we’re looking through the lens of reducing oil consumption, not greenhouse gases or resource depletion, although both are also important, and I may mention them from time to time. (Note: I receive no monetary or other reward for any products or websites that I point out. I just share what I like and have found useful.)

Oil in Your Private Vehicle Travel
Travel is responsible for two-thirds of US oil use. American vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are insane. In 2009, our 211 million vehicles belonging to 113 million households traveled 2.2 trillion miles, close to 20,000 miles per household. Do you know how many vehicle miles your household accrues in a year? If not, start tracking it.

This may surprise you, but the first order of business is not to electrify junk miles, but to shed them from your travel diet. After all, whether it causes you to consume oil or not, time spent in a car is not quality time. For most people it makes them stressed, unhappy, and fat. By shedding VMT, you will not only give less money to corporate CEOs and Saudi princes, you’ll make your family healthier, happier and likely wealthier in the process. So let's look at how to do this.

Walking the Hills --Edward Potthast
1.) Embrace walking as a feature, not a bug, of human existence. Getting thirty minutes of moderate exercise like walking each day is essential to your health. (See The Brilliance of Walking.) You can be a bit overweight and be healthy, but you cannot be sedentary and healthy. Walking prevents all sorts of disease, from heart disease to diabetes to Alzheimer’s to many forms of cancer, not to mention it boosts your immune system and alleviates depression better than any drug you can take. Walking is so amazing for your health, in fact, that if the benefits could be put into a drug, some pharmaceutical company would be making billions in profits from it. Instead, it’s free! It brings you health and joy! It helps you get to know your neighbors, it reduces crime by putting eyes on the street, and every trip made on foot instead of by car reduces the pollution, grime, noise, and vibrations that your neighborhood experiences, improving housing values as well as the sociability and happiness of your community. And it saves you $2500 a year in out-of-pocket health care costs! The easiest, most sure-fire way to get this exercise is to embed walking in your daily life. The most sure-fire way to embed walking in your daily life is to have lots of destinations that you routinely go to within walking distance. Which leads to . . .

People over cars (granolashotgun.com)
2.) Live in a ten-minute neighborhood. What the heck is a ten-minute neighborhood, you ask? A neighborhood where essential goods, services and transit can be reached within a ten-minute walk. This doesn’t have to be in a quaint village or hip coastal city that are expensive as all get out. There are many small towns and rust-belt cities with good urban bones that offer excellent value. Now moving may seem a radical option, but 25% of renters and 5% of homeowners in the US move each year. If you’re going to move anyway, don’t just consider housing costs in your calculations of what is affordable. Add up housing+transportation+energy+healthcare costs, and recognize that long commutes are one of the leading causes of unhappiness in the US. A large house in a far-flung suburb might appear to be the best bang for your buck, but once you’ve factored in extra costs for transportation, energy, and healthcare, a smaller house with a smaller yard in a walkable neighborhood might turn out not only to make you happier and healthier but also wealthier.

Why is living in a walkable neighborhood so important? Since only a quarter of all trips are commute trips (and only 28% of all VMT is for commutes), being close enough to walk to a grocery store, pharmacy, coffee shop, elementary school, restaurants, dentist, post office, bakery, library, and your family doctor is going to reduce your VMT significantly. If you can’t live within a ten-minute walk (half a mile), living within a ten-minute bike ride (1.8 miles) isn’t bad. As long as you’re not riding near crazed, reckless drivers, bicycling is a great way to add exhilaration and even joy to your life. (Yes, once you become moderately fit, cycling can feel that good.) Check out this site, and it will show you what you can reach in ten minutes by walking or by bicycle.

My SUV of bikes
The site doesn’t take into account hills, but that’s where electric bicycles come in. On an electric bike you can cover five miles of hilly terrain in half an hour while toting two kids and five bags of groceries without breaking a sweat. It’s true! I live in a ten-minute neighborhood, and over the last ten years--with a change in attitude, better bicycle infrastructure in my city, and the acquisition of an electric bike--my trip mode share has become 40% walking, 40% biking (half regular, half electric), 10% transit and 10% driving. What is your mode share? Make a guess and then keep a travel diary for the next two weeks and see how real life compares.

Note: don’t move to a ten-minute neighborhood and then continue to drive everywhere. You’ll just make your new neighbors miserable with the congestion and danger you create. Let someone who wants a car-lite lifestyle take that spot.

Excellent bones
What if you like where you live and don’t want to move? Well, first check and see if your neighborhood is more walkable and bikeable than you know. People tend to overestimate how far away things are, and more destinations may be in reach under your own power than you realize. Next, does your neighborhood have sidewalks, bike lanes? If it doesn’t, this is something that can be changed with some organizing and lobbying. (Here's an example of a town that used a roundabout and a road diet to create walkability.) Lastly, could your neighborhood become a ten-minute neighborhood by beefing up a traditional Main Street that could once again offer an array of goods and services if only there was enough density to support it? The easiest way to add density painlessly is to replace parking lots along this street with infill development, adding stories of mixed use residential over ground floor retail. Several blocks of two to four story buildings with no parking lots pushing destinations apart will make a world of difference. Though physically this is not hard to accomplish, your town probably has a ridiculous number of legal and cultural obstacles in the way of such development. However, these are not immutable laws of physics but rather human constructs that can be altered by any town interested in achieving prosperity through modest incremental investment. I suggest checking out Strong Towns for all sorts of ideas on how towns can stop going broke by focusing on their cores rather than the illusory get-rich-schemes of ponzi-sprawl.

If the answer is you live in the sticks and your location is never going to become walkable or bikeable, then continue on. There are still things you can do.
           
Feel the ice at -8 degrees F. No excuses!
3.) Live in a location where you and/or your spouse/partner can commute to work by non-car means. Even if you can’t live in a ten-minute neighborhood, you will still achieve big oil reductions if one of you can get to work without a car—by walking, biking, transit, electric scooter, or even electric skateboard. I have a good friend my age (55) in Minneapolis who walks forty minutes each way to work, even in winter. Even when it’s 8 degrees below zero. It’s all about attitude and the right clothes. (She does have the advantage of sidewalks the entire route.) If you’re younger than 55, no excuses! If your town has better weather than Minneapolis, no excuses! For longer distances, consider an electric bike, and/or for winter commutes, consider a velomobile, or a four-season pedal electric vehicle such as the ELF or the PEBL. They may seem expensive, but they’re way, way cheaper than owning a car. “But it will add half an hour a day to my commute!” you say. “I just don’t have the energy or the time.” First off, an active commute is going to make you feel great, so you’ll have more energy and vitality at work and home. Secondly, we’re going to free up more than thirty minutes a day for you when we get to sating the hungry ghost in part 3. So still no excuses!
           
Kid shuttling solved.
4.) Arrange carpools for kids’ activities; opt out of the kid activity rat race. If your child likes to dance or play soccer, find studios/leagues that don’t require lots of travel time, especially if your child is under twelve. You’re not a bad parent if you don’t spend every weekend traveling for soccer. You’re not a bad parent if you don’t drive hours for music or chess or tae kwon do lessons. Children don’t need seven activities apiece, even if it seems as if all their friends have that many. In fact, they’re likely better off if they just have one or two activities and are allowed to drop the ones they don’t like and pick up new ones that suit them. They’re children. Let them explore and experiment. What they should not be doing is spending an hour a day strapped immobile in a car.

5.) Choose the “pretty good” service/activity closer to home. If the best dentist or pediatrician in the region is twenty miles away, but a pretty good dentist or pediatrician is just down the block, choose the pretty good one nearby. (Go to a specialist the few times you have specialized problems.) Instead of the best church with the most brilliant minister/best music, attend a local church and visit the brilliant one only occasionally. You’ll build connections with your neighbors better that way anyway. And so on. You get the idea.

6.) Take the train for 30 to 300 mile trips. Trains have very good passenger miles per gallon (pmpg). The northeast corridor trains between Washington DC and Boston, being electric, use no oil at all. I realize trains aren’t options everywhere, but where they exist, make use of them!

Your bus could be electric
7.) Take electrified local transit. Only San Francisco and Seattle have an extensive system of electric trolley buses, but a number of cities are now offering oil-free electric buses or shuttles (including Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga. Stockton, and Reno). And most heavy rail rapid transit systems  (Such as MARTA, BART, MBTA, New York City Subway, LA Metro Rail, and Washington Metro) are electric, as are most light rail systems. All VMT you can convert to public electric miles are miles that don’t count towards oil use at all. For those of you that take corporate buses, all those buses can and should be electric. (Check out the range on the new Proterra buses.) Start bugging your employer to convert.

8.) Drop education VMT. Where you send your children to school has a major impact on your VMT.  The best is a school walkable from your home. Second best is a bikeable school. Third best is a school on public transit. This is true for lower grades as well as high school, but especially high school. The way your teen is most likely to die is in a car with friends. Let that sink in. If your child’s high school has a huge parking lot with lots of cars, the odds of your child getting in one are high.

Bike-friendly UC Davis
Also consider oil use in college choice. There are many factors that go into picking a college, so why not let oil use be one of them? After all, supplying your child with a car over his/her four years of college is roughly equal to four years of in-state public university tuition or one year of private university tuition. A car-free college career can equal $40K of college debt your child doesn’t have to take on. Could your child get to the college he/she is considering by non-oil or low-oil means? (Is the college accessible by train?) Could your child survive four years happily there without a car? Does the college campus offer shuttles to nearby cities or shopping? Does it offer Zipcars or some other carshare for students? Lots of bikes on campus is usually a good sign that student culture is oriented towards low oil use. A policy mandating that freshman (and sometimes even sophomores) can’t have cars on campus is another good one.

Early programming
9.) Eliminate car brainwashing. Mr. Money Mustache covers this really well, so I’ll let him do the heavy lifting on this one. (Click on the link. If you don’t know about Mr. Money Mustache, you can thank me later for introducing him to you.) Let me just point out that $20 billion in advertising dollars are spent every year to make you, the American consumer, believe that your car equals your value, your status, your virility (if male), your competence (if female), not to mention your parenting ability. No! Your car is a tool, no more, no less. Keep clear that a car’s value is its usefulness, not the other emotionally laden gobbledygook that nearly infinite advertising so desperately wants us to gulp down whole.  Your car is not a penis-extender, nor is it a metal womb to keep your family safe. The power it’s capable of can be useful, but it doesn’t increase your personal merit, status, or attractiveness except in the eyes of people who are deeply car brainwashed. In fact, too much time in a car will render you flabby, sick and wholly unattractive. Let me confirm that in-the-know-people (such as the ones who read this blog) will have more respect for your high mileage, beat up, old, dented, paid-off car than a shiny new one that’s just going to get dented/scratched/lose its value precipitously. Your car is not a reflection of your worth as a human being! More about the perniciousness of advertising will be covered in part 3.

10.) Drop down one car. US households on average have more vehicles than drivers. This is ridiculous. After you’ve reduced your VMT and car brainwashing, consider saving boatloads of money by having your household drop down one car. This is especially possible if one of the adults has a non-car commute. Owning fewer cars will further encourage you to replace VMT with other transportation options. As a corollary, the more transportation options you have, the easier it is to drop down one car.

Replace that car! (OliviaCleansGreen.com)
Look at it this way: the average car spends 160 hours per week not moving. The 8 hours per week it does move cost you $6000 - $15,000 a year, depending how old/new/fancy your car is. The average vehicle takes three one-way trips a day for a total of 29 miles. Can you make those trips by other means? When our family jettisoned our minivan to become a one-car household, we were already living in a ten-minute neighborhood, my husband was already biking to work, and I was already a queen of kids’ carpools. Still, the idea of just one car was daunting. To make our transition easier, I got a wire handcart and an electrified cargo bike, and we joined a carshare non-profit. Even though we rarely utilized the carshare, it gave us a sense of security at the time to have it as a back up. Don’t pooh-pooh secondary and/or back up measures; they may be the tipping point to give you the confidence you need to shed a vehicle.

Car replacements (consider in combinations):
A.)  Bike with panniers or trailer for carrying stuff
B.)  Handcart to walk groceries/stuff home
C.)  Sturdy stroller to push young children around
D.)  Walk/bike with your children to school instead of drive them
E.)  Electric bikes (Check out The Pluses and Minuses of Electric Bikes)
F.)   Electric adult trikes (many elderly who have trouble walking find electric trikes extremely liberating as well as safer than driving a car)
G.)  Electric cargo bikes (mine carries 5 bags of groceries)
H.)  Velomobile or pedal electric vehicle (ELF, PEBL)
I.)    Electric skateboard or foot scooter
J.)    Join a carshare company for when you need a car/second car, van, or truck for a day or even just an hour.
K.)  Electric scootershare
L.)   Rideshare/taxis on occasion (bad weather/last mile issues.)
M.) Let your teens use rideshare on occasion. (Way cheaper and safer than giving them a car.)
N.)  Make a deal with a friend/neighbor/family member to use their car in a pinch. Repay with food, favors, etc.
O.)  Have large items delivered, or rent a van/truck by the hour.
P.)  Create family calendar to keep track of car-necessary activities.
Q.)  Convert far away activities into local ones.
R.)  Teach your children how to ride public transit.
S.)   Persuade your boss to let you work from home one or two days a week.
T.)  Combine/plan errands. Meal plan. Grow vegetables/fruit at home if possible so you can eat from the garden in the summer.
U.)  Other ideas? Leave them in the comments below.

Scootershare--coming to a city near you?
When dropping down a car, my advice is to jettison the vehicle with the worst gas mileage and highest maintenance costs. But perhaps your other car has the most expensive payments and highest insurance, so that’s the one you’d like to get rid of. You know your situation best, but do consider the option seriously. Shedding a car can free up valuable funds to pay for groovy electric bikes, but the money can also be used towards higher rent/mortgage payments in a ten-minute neighborhood, with the attendant health and happiness benefits.

11. Make your own biodiesel. As a commenter in Part I said, this is a good choice for some people. Instructions here. Corn-based ethanol, however, is a scam politicians inflicted on us to buy votes from Midwest farmers. Don’t pretend adding it to your gasoline is any kind of solution.

Scythe revolution! (permaculture.co.uk)
12. Electrify or make manual your yard and garden care. This doesn’t amount to a lot of oil (and is not officially for travel) but let’s tackle gas-powered lawnmowers, leaf blowers and snow blowers anyway since they’re noisy and polluting. Sweeping and raking are moderate forms of exercise (like walking) that are extremely good for you and don’t take much longer than oil-powered leaf blowers. Instead of a gas-powered lawnmower, get an electric mower, a push mower, or, if you want to really freak out your neighbors, a European scythe. Now I have never scythed, but it looks so amazing that I’m on the verge of getting one, and I don’t even have a lawn. As for snow, don’t use salt or chemicals; they’re terrible for the environment. Sweep or shovel small areas; use electric snow blowers for larger ones. For really large areas, get an electric tractor with a snow shovel attachment or convert a gas garden tractor to electric. If you happen to be redoing your driveway or sidewalk anyway, put in a hydronic snow melt system and you’ll never worry about snow again.

13. Get an electric car. Yes, this is last. There is a lot of embedded oil in an electric car, as we’ll talk about under stuff. And merely electrifying your VMT won’t improve your health, it won’t increase your joy, it won’t improve your neighborhood, it won’t save you oodles of money. An electric car will still cause traffic and congestion, and it’ll still prevent others from enjoying a car-lite lifestyle because it hogs public space, it’s fundamentally a death machine to bicyclists and pedestrians, and its need for parking pushes destinations further apart. But it’s better than buying oil, and for all but the most coal-intensive states (West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming) it’ll produce fewer greenhouse gases than driving a vehicle with a grossly inefficient internal combustion engine. (All internal combustion engines are grossly wasteful and inefficient, every single one.)

Oil in Your Other Travel
Long distance travel is my downfall. My husband and I have squeezed our other categories down pretty well, but my kids now live across the country, and I love to travel. What to do? Here are some options.

     1.)  Learn to love long distance trains. Yes, they’re more expensive than flying. Yes, they take more time. Yes, Amtrak has its problems. The good news is long distance trains can give you lots of undistracted time to work (great for writing), the scenery is often spectacular, and you’ll gain an appreciation of America that is hard to describe and hard to get any other way. View long distance trains as an adventure, embrace their quirks, and if you’re going overnight, do yourself a favor and get a sleeper.
     2.)  Take medium distance trains instead of short hop flights, especially the Northeast Regional electric trains between Boston and Washington DC. Seriously, this is easy. Just do it. Other good regional lines, often with evocative names, mostly financed by the states they pass through: The Capitol Corridor (San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento), the Pacific Surfliner (San Diego, LA, San Luis Obispo), the Amtrak Cascades (Vancouver BC, Seattle, Portland, Eugene), the San Joaquin (Oakland, Sacramento, Bakersfield), the Missouri River Runner (Kansas City, St. Louis), the Heartland Flyer (Oklahoma City, Fort Worth), the Keystone (New York, Philadelphia, Harrisburg), the Empire Service (Buffalo, Albany, NYC), the Ethan Allen Express (Rutland, Albany, NYC), the Vermonter (Essex Junction/Burlington, Springfield, NYC), the Downeaster (Boston, Portland, Brunswick) and the lines connecting Chicago with Milwaukee, St. Louis, Carbondale, Quincy, Grand Rapids, Port Huron, Indianapolis, and Detroit. 
    3.) Fly on airlines that use biofuel. Granted, this is a short list at the moment, encompassing just United Airlines between SF and LA, and only 30% biofuel at that. There are rumors that Southwest Airlines will start using biofuel as well. These biofuels aren’t the scam ethanol is and will likely be more expensive than oil-based jet fuel. Let airlines know you will actively seek out flights powered by biofuel.
    
Walk it! (drawntheroadagain.com)
4.) Consider oil use in vacation destinations. Is there a way to go somewhere fun via train or a long-distance bike ride? Can you have as much fun closer to home? Have you seen all the great things in your own state or those states nearby? How about a staycation in a fancy hotel in your nearest city? I met a man this fall who was walking the 21 missions in California, roughly following the old Spanish El Camino Real. He’d started in San Diego and had three left to go when I met him with his backpack and walking stick as I sat on the bench in front of my house. All sorts of non-oily adventures are possible! 
     5.) Combine destinations. If you can link two trips to nearby destinations, that will reduce some air miles.
      6.) Drive instead of fly, but with a full car.  The more passengers in your car, the less oil attributed to you personally. If your car has empty seats, consider long distance rideshare such as Ridester or Rideboard.
     7.)  Long distance buses. Not my favorite, but they’re often good value. I don’t know if SleepBus is going to catch on, but maybe.
      8.)  Electric ferries. Not too many in the US, but Norway has them.
      9.)  Hybrid ferries. Take them to Alcatraz and maybe other places soon.

Now I know you’re not going to shed your junk miles, move to a ten-minute neighborhood or replace all your flights with trains tomorrow. It may, in fact, take you years to squeeze the oil out of your travel. I suggest for 2017 that you adopt the task as a kind of  hobby, (after all, we don’t mind spending time and money on our hobbies) and get creative, flexible and even adventurous about the options available. You may be surprised by the life benefits that cheap oil has been hiding from you.

Stay tuned for Part 3, Wringing Oil from Your Food, Stuff, Heat and Everything Else !

Note: if you’re under 70 and can’t comfortably walk at least a mile without getting tired, you have a health emergency that you should treat with the same urgency as you would an asthma attack or a foot with gangrene. Assuming your doctor hasn't forbidden you all physical activity, here’s your sixty-day program to walk with ease. Walk for five minutes today and five minutes tomorrow, no matter how slowly. Get outside if at all possible. Steps to and from your car or around the house don’t count! Increase to ten minutes for days three through seven. Walk fifteen minutes days eight through fourteen, and then twenty minutes every day for the following two weeks. Month two, move on to thirty minutes a day without fail. By the end of that month, your health will be so much better, you’ll be amazed. Start today. I’m serious.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017: Part I, Taking Stock


The United States is the oiliest country on the planet. We Americans consume more oil by far than any other country. Next is China, but even with 1.4 billion people they’re a distant second. Americans, in fact, consume 20% of the world’s oil each year, over 19 million barrels a day. Last year US oil consumption worked out to 923 gallons per man, woman and child. Oil is a worldwide commodity. Because its consumption is so enormous, US demand drives both the price of oil and the profits it produces. And for all the talk of the US being energy independent, the US also imports the most oil of any country in the world. (China, again, is a distant second.) Americans are literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat of world oil consumption. (Canadians actually use more oil per person, but because their population is so much smaller, they have much less of an impact.)

Now if funneling profits and power to multinational oil corporations and Saudi Arabia doesn’t bother you, read no further. If you’re fine with indirectly funding terrorism, or if having a future Secretary of State who is the head of ExxonMobil doesn’t freak you out a bit, this article is not for you.

But if you stand with Standing Rock, read on. If the stonings and beheadings in Saudi Arabia trouble you, if you’re not fond of crude oil spills every other day in the US, if you’re not a fan of tar sands and fracking, or if you understand that the only way to prevent climate catastrophe is to leave much of what’s left of fossil fuels in the ground for at least the next couple centuries, then you might find this two-part article useful.

Pinguid living
Let's face it, America, our lives are saturated in oil, and reducing that pinguidity (there’s a word for you!) is not an easy task. We’ve got oily transport, oily heating, oily beverages, oily food, we drive on oily roads, and our homes are full of oily stuff. How do we get some or all of that oil out of our lives?

Most of our consumption of oil is so deeply embedded in our way of life that we're unconscious of it or believe there's no alternative. The antidote is to first make that consumption conscious and then get creative with alternatives, tailoring them to our specific situations. Here’s the good news: most of the steps you can take to purge oil from your life will make you healthier, happier, and your household more resilient! If you have kids, many of the steps will make them healthier, happier and perform better in school! Many of the steps will also make your community healthier, more prosperous, and more resilient. And if your prosperity is linked to your community’s prosperity, it will make you more prosperous as well.
So let's bring the unconscious to the light of day. Just how oily is your life?




How we move ourselves around this planet matters. A lot. And our driving is the big kahuna. Two-thirds of American oil consumption is from transportation; close to two-thirds of that we do in cars. We can freak out about freight and air travel, but it's the daily moving about in private cars powered by internal combustion engines that is the single biggest oil slurper in our lives. To examine your oil consumption, including how oily your travel is, I've created this nifty calculator to help put a number to it. You fill in the orange boxes (replacing values if applicable), and the green boxes will calculate your oil gallons consumed. In some of the orange boxes I've put average American values. You can decide how appropriate they are for you. Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the frame to see your total. Remember, we're not looking at all energy consumed, nor are we looking at our carbon footprint. Our laser-like focus here is concentrated solely on oil and its products.



A few words about oily home heat. Only 8% of US households use heating oil. If yours is one of them, you probably have records of how much you use, but, for example, the average Massachusetts heating oil home uses 987 gallons per year. Only 5% of  homes use propane, and only 31% of all propane comes from oil refineries. (The rest is from natural gas.) Put in total propane you use and the calculator will take 31% of it. An average Massachusetts propane-heat house uses 886 gallons a year.

Why? Why? Why?
For oily beverages, how many PET plastic bottles of water or soda do you consume a week, on average? Your fellow citizens consume 4.5, using up 9.1 gallons of oil a year.

Plastic bags. The average American throws away 10 a week. That's another 2.2 gallons of oil per year. If you throw away more or less, adjust accordingly.

Non-oily 1 week of food in Bhutan (photo: Peter Menzel, Hungry Planet)
How about food oiliness? The average American consumes one ton of food a year. No, I'm not kidding. Each pound travels an average of 1500 miles to get to you. No, I'm not kidding. The oil it takes to truck this ton of food to a store near you comes out to 44 gallons a year. You eat local, you say? If you got 100% of your food from an average distance of 150 miles, that would come to 4.4 gallons of oil a year. Remember, this in no way includes all the fossil fuels embedded in your food since natural gas is the number one energy source used by fertilizer and grain drying, and food processing and refrigeration largely use electricity.

Stuff and more stuff
How about all the rest of the bejeebus amount of stuff we buy in a year? It weighs roughly another ton per person. No way, you say! Remember, this ton includes 125 lbs for your half of one car (3500 lbs divided by 14 years of car life), and your share of household appliances divided by their useful life. What's worse is that to make this 2000 lbs of stuff for you, industry in the US and other parts of the world moves, mines, extracts, shovels, burns, waste, pumps and disposes of one million pounds of material. All this material manipulation and far-flung worldwide supply chain of raw materials, feedstocks, and components uses a lot of oil. (Also a lot of natural gas and a fair amount of electricity. But let's just consider oil.) A low estimate is 1/2 gallon per ton. That makes 250 gallons of oil embedded in your yearly non-food stuff consumption. This number includes all the rest of the plastic and any polyester or nylon you consume in a year and the ridiculous amount of packaging that your stuff comes in, but it doesn't include shipping the final product to you. Let's figure half the stuff is made in the US and comes by truck; the other half is made in Asia and comes by ship, then rail, and then truck. (You can change these percentages.) If you think you consume more or less stuff than the average American, adjust accordingly.

I'm getting tired, and no doubt you are too, of slogging through all this oil, but we'll go just a bit further. Your on-line shopping deliveries. Now the United States Postal Service comes to your house and puts junkmail in your box whether you get anything else or not, so your share of USPS oil (average 500 stops a day, 18 miles, 9 mpg) is a flat 1.25 gallons per year if you live in suburbia regardless of how many packages you get. If you live ex-urban, double that. If you live urban, cut it in half.

Future Electric Delivery?
For Fed-Ex and UPS deliveries, enter the average number of times each one visits you a week, not packages per week. Count all package deliveries you order, including ones you send as gifts, but not ones you receive as gifts. If a large percentage of deliveries are for your household in general, only attribute to yourself your share.

Spa treatment
And now you have a final total. Admittedly, this calculator isn't perfect, but I think you'll find it's not bad. It doesn't include asphalt for roads or oil consumed on your behalf by various government entities (roughly another 30 gallons covers both, depending on how many wars we are actively involved in) and numerous other small items like asphalt roofs, detergents, antifreeze and antihistamines, but it does include most of what you're likely to personally impact. Your yearly oil consumption may not fill a swimming pool, but it would probably overflow ten to twelve bathtubs or even a good-sized jacuzzi. So would the oil consumption of everyone else in your household, every one of your neighbors, every one of your friends. For comparison, your average Brit consumes 372 gallons of oil per year, your average Chinese 134 gallons, and your average Bangladeshi 10 gallons.

As you can see, oil seeps through the fabric of our existence even if we never actually see it, its viscous liquor oozing through our daily lives whether we like it or not. So what do we do with all this oil? How do we squeeze the oiliness out of our lives?

First step: check out part 2, Squeezing Oil Out of Your Travel.

Note: Gallons. I know, I know, when discussing anything to do with energy, joules or even BTU's would be better, but most people have little intrinsic understanding of either, while nearly everyone knows what a gallon is. Plus the lion's share of transportation data uses gallons. So I went with it.


Monday, October 31, 2016

The Population Problem: Not as Bad as You Might Think

The Essentials
First the good news: great progress has already been made! It turns out women around the world are on board with zero population growth! It turns out zero population growth is not all that difficult or expensive to achieve! The bad news: the people with wealth and power in the world are largely uninterested in funding it.

Ok, let’s back up. The rapid expansion of human population past the finite limits of what our planet can support is a messy business if there ever was one, full of politics, religion, and basic human needs and desires. People worried about the fate of the planet like to despair about population growth to the point of paralysis. Why lift a finger to avert the climate and energy-depletion disaster ahead of us when overpopulation will do us in however much we insulate our homes, change out our light bulbs, ride our bikes, etc.

But the situation is not nearly so hopeless. Of the 224 countries in the world, the population growth rate is negative in 34 of them, including Cuba, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, and the Ukraine.  These countries are not small potatoes. Russia and Japan are the ninth and tenth biggest countries in the world. (Note: population figures and most other data in this blogpost are from the CIA World Factbook, much of it recently updated for 2016.)

Let’s examine the essential drivers of world population growth: births per woman, mother’s mean age at first birth, and mean life expectancy.

Births per woman. Here’s the good news. This number has been dropping worldwide, falling from 5 in 1960 to 2.42 in 2016. In developed countries, the replacement fertility rate is generally considered to be 2.1 births per woman. (This accounts for those children who, through disease or accidents, do not reach reproductive age.) In very poor countries, the replacement fertility rate can be much higher. More good news: in a study of 40 countries, fertility rates between 1.5 and 2.0 are shown to generally bring economic benefits that lead to a higher standard of living.

Births per woman by country (green good; blue better!)
Births per woman in the US is now at 1.87, well below the replacement rate. But this number is actually high for a developed country. Out of the 224 countries in the world, 82 have lower fertility rates than the US, including developing countries such as Vietnam, Iran, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, China, Thailand, and Cuba. Across the entire world, 136 countries are below 2.1 replacement rate fertility. That leaves just 88 countries to worry about.

I find the 80/20 rule useful in dividing big problems into smaller ones. In this case, 80% of the world’s population resides in the 34 most populous countries. Of these 34, eighteen countries already have fertility rates below the replacement rate of 2.1 (Brazil, China, Columbia, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Russia, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam.) No need to worry about these countries.

Bangladeshi feat (photo: Mark Edwards)
Of the sixteen that remain, six countries have made great strides and are very close to the replacement fertility rate (and may already be below their own replacement fertility rate): Argentina (2.28), Bangladesh (2.19) Indonesia (2.13), Mexico (2.25), Myanmar (2.15), and South Africa (2.31).  Birth control use is widespread in these countries, from 46% (Myanmar) to 72% (Mexico). These countries are likely to trend below 2.1 by 2020 or sooner. A special shout out to Bangladesh where a large percentage of the country lives on less than $2 a day. Their achievement in reducing their fertility rate has been so remarkable that they should probably be the ones now training everyone else how to do it.

That leaves ten countries to worry about. Of these, six have cut their fertility rate by at least half over the past 50 years: Algeria (2.74), Kenya (3.14) India (2.45), Pakistan (2.68), Egypt (3.53) and the Philippines (3.06).  These countries could still use encouragement and financial support but they are not where the biggest part of the problem lies.

That leaves just four countries that need heavy-duty work on the fertility rate front: Tanzania (4.83 births per woman), Nigeria (5.13), Ethiopia (5.07), Congo DR (4.53). It’s not that these countries have made no improvements; they used to range from 6 to 7 births per woman. It’s just that they still have a long way to go. But worrying about four countries is much, much easier than worrying about 224. These four nations comprise 422 million people. Even within these countries there are bright spots. For example, in Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia, the fertility rate is already below population replacement levels.

Early Birth Control Clinic
The task of reining in the fertility rate in these four countries seems daunting. Indeed, for decades many have insisted there was nothing to be done about over population because women would always have as many babies as they could. It turns out, however, that when given education and access to voluntary contraception, women all over the world--of all races, of all religions, on all continents--choose to have small families. Indeed, some women choose to have no children at all. This is how birthrates have fallen all over the world, even in Islamic countries like Turkey, Iran, and Bangladesh, even in Catholic countries like Poland, Mexico and Brazil. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise since pregnancy and childbirth are no cakewalk; in fact, in some parts of the world both are quite dangerous. And women have long known that it’s easier to successfully raise children to adulthood the fewer one has to tend. In any event, the fact that, when given a choice, women prefer small families is great, great, stupendous news. If women didn’t have a natural predilection for small families, if we had to fight against women’s innate desires to avoid calamity, the world would indeed be in trouble. The true problem we face is that in developing countries 225 million women want to delay or stop childbearing but are uninformed about effective contraception or lack access to it.

Again, so we’re clear:

Education + Contraception + Women’s Innate Preference for Small Families = Low Fertility Rate.


What about men, you might ask? Don’t they matter to population growth rates? If men stopped having sex with women altogether, they might, but this appears to be against the innate preference of most of them. When men use birth control or are sterilized they matter to population control, but male sterilization is a hard sell worldwide, and male condoms, while cheap and better than nothing, have a high failure rate. Where men really count is insofar as they prevent women from getting educated or keep them from access to reliable forms birth control. This is not to say boys and men shouldn’t be educated. This is not to say it wouldn’t be helpful if men wanted small families, too. This is not to say it wouldn’t be great if we could come up with some kind of long-acting reversible form of birth control for men. But right now, it’s women and girls who impact fertility rates and population growth in a big way.

Now you might think this can’t be, that low fertility rates are an outcome of wealth not education. Women in poor countries have lots of children; women in rich countries don’t. But this ain’t necessarily so, as we can see when we plot the data from our 34 most populous countries:

Births/Woman vs GDP/Capita

High GDP/capita countries have low fertility rates, but so do lots of low GDP/capita countries. What is predictive of fertility is women’s education, especially literacy.

Births/Woman vs. Female Literacy Rate


Educate girls and young women, births per woman go down.
Notice a pattern? (UN data 2000)


Mean Age at First Birth. Why is this important? Imagine a cohort of ten women. If each them has a daughter at age 20 and a son at age 22, and if all their daughters do exactly the same, at the end of 102 years, 120 new human beings would result, with the last set of sons born in year 102. Now let’s imagine this same cohort, but change the women’s age at their children’s births to 25 and 27. At the end of 102 years, 100 new human beings would result, with the last set of sons born in year 102. A twenty percent difference! So you can see, spacing out the generations results in a substantial reduction in population growth.

For our 34 highest population countries, the mean age at first birth ranges from 18 to 30.3. What promotes a higher mean age at first birth? Well the number of years girls spend in school seems to correlate.

Years at School vs. Mean Age at First Birth

If we want to raise mean age at first birth, it’s also a good idea to reduce the teen birth rate. This usually involves a combination of keeping girls in school and giving teens access to contraception. In developing countries, the average cost to educate a child for a year of lower secondary school with reasonable class size is $339. The average cost to educate a child for a year of upper secondary school with reasonable class size is $738. (It turns out children all over the world learn little when there are fifty kids per teacher.) Thirteen years of education for a child is roughly $5420, which comes out to $417/year. The cost to provide a woman with contraception in a developing country runs roughly $18/year. So let’s say 13 years of education and 15 years of contraception. Total lifetime cost: $5690.

Technology that matters
Out of the 422 million people in these four nations most in need, roughly half are women, or 211 million. All these countries skew young with a median age of 18 – 19. This puts the number of girls in these five countries between the ages of 5 and 18 around 76 million. Right now roughly half of these girls don’t go to school at all. The cost to educate all 76 million of these girls for one year would be $31 billion. The cost to provide one year of contraception for 80% of the 90 million women between the ages of 15 and 30 in these five countries is $1.3 billion. So $32.3 billion a year for the next ten years is what is needed to get the world’s population growth problem under control.

$32.3 billion a year. This may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. It’s just .04% of the world’s annual GDP. No, the decimal point is not wrong. The cost to make significant headway on over population is just 4/100ths of a percent of the world’s annual income. Heck, it’s less than 2/10ths of a percent of US GDP. The US plans to spend $26.2 billion in foreign humanitarian and military aid in 2017, but 29% will go to just five countries: Israel ($3.1 B), Egypt ($1.46 B), Afghanistan ($1.25 B), Jordan ($1 B), and Pakistan ($.74 B). The African four that need the most help will receive only $2 billion in total, less than Israel will receive alone.

Excellent investment
In 2015, the US spent $598.5 billion on its military. If we took roughly 6% of that and applied it to girls’ education and women’s contraception in these four desperately poor African countries annually, we would turn around the gnarliest part of the world’s population problem in short order.

Let’s look at it another way. If the 967 million citizens of twenty very rich countries (New Zealand, Norway, Australia, Switzerland, US, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Canada, Belgium, France, UK, Finland, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Spain) kicked in just $34 per citizen a year, cataclysmic disaster for all of humanity could be averted. That’s nine lattes at Starbucks.

Education + contraception. It’s not brain surgery; it’s not pie-in-the-sky geo-engineering. It’s cheap, it’s low tech, it works.

Now let’s examine mean life expectancy. This is the factor that has been masking both the drop in fertility rates and the rise in mean age at first birth in countries all over the world. As people live longer they increase the population. For example, imagine an island where one person is magically born each year. If each person lives seventy years, at year 70 this population would reach steady state, where one person would be born for every person that dies. If each lives for 75 years, then the steady state population would be reached at year 75 with 75 people. So as the median lifespan inches up, it causes population growth. But the growth is not geometric like fertility rate growth is, and it won’t continue forever. As countries progress, lifespans increase rapidly, but then they reach a plateau, after which increases happen slowly, if at all. In addition, countries that reach longer lifespans tend to do so concurrently with the education of women and higher mean age at first birth. This means, remarkably, that the countries on the planet with the longest of lifespans also have well below replacement fertility birthrates. Eventually the deaths in that country will exceed births, and population will decline. Which is what we see happening in Japan and Germany today.

What is the carrying capacity of Earth? I’ve seen lots of numbers, but let’s imagine a relatively pleasant planet with adequate room for other species to exist (beyond zoos), where every single person alive enjoys the advanced standard of living of, say, the average Swiss citizen today. The ecological footprint of the average Swiss is 5.8 hectares. The biocapacity of the planet to support human life is equal to roughly 12 billion hectares. (This includes all biologically productive land and water that supports significant photosynthetic activity.) Figure at least a third of that should be set aside for other species. But also figure humanity will put its collective mind to the task and outdo even Swiss efficiency and ingenuity to get that footprint down to 3 hectares per person with still a Swiss standard of living. That would imply that the planet can support about 2.7 billion human beings sustainably in a fairly nice fashion. Everyone eats well, everyone gets lovely health care and education, everyone born can expect to live to the grand old age of 83. And we all live lightly enough on the planet that it can repair and replenish itself and provide for humanity indefinitely. Sound good? But how do we drop down to 2.7 billion people without mass suffering and pain?

You guessed it. Through worldwide education of girls and providing contraception to women. Increasing the mean age of first birth worldwide to age 25 will balance out the rise in lifespans. At the same time, the reduction in fertility rate worldwide, to just under the replacement rate, will give us a 1% per year population decrease. Imagine that for every hundred people who die, ninety-nine come into the world. The incremental difference would be small, but it would add up.

So say we stop being shortsighted and stupidly cheap. Say we manage to stabilize world population at 8 billion. And then, through voluntary birth control and education of girls, we start decreasing population by a mere 1% a year. Nothing traumatic, nothing humanity couldn’t take in its stride. (Yes, we’d need a new non-growth based economic system, but we’re going to need that anyway.) In just twenty years, we’d be down to 6.5 billion. In fifty years we’d be down to 4.8 billion. And in 108 years, we’d achieve 2.7 billion on a healthy planet, with plenty of food, clean water and a high standard of living for all. How we get there is by educating girls and providing contraception to women, something that we already know how to do and that doesn’t cost much.

What can I do, you might say, besides encourage my government to immediately start spending money on education and contraception in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Lots of things.

 1)   Put some space between generations. Don’t have children before the age of 25. Don’t be    in a hurry for grandchildren. Encourage your daughters to stay in school and make sure they have access to the very convenient forms of long-acting reversible birth control available these days. Spread the word that age 25 is plenty early to become a parent.
 2)   Support sex education and contraception for teens. Yes, no one likes teens having sex except the teens themselves, but preventing teen pregnancy is paramount. Long-acting, reversible contraceptives are also the best way to prevent abortions.
 3)   Donate money to girls’ education efforts in Africa via organizations such as Camfed, Share in Africa, or Enhance Worldwide.
 4)   If you don’t want children, don’t have them! Don’t let anybody guilt-trip you into them. If you want just one kid, that’s fine! Only children do very well in life, often better than children with siblings. If you do decide to become a parent, be a very good one.
 5)   Never shame or guilt-trip anyone into having children. Never imply it’s selfish not to have children; never imply that it’s sad or tragic. Not everyone is called to be a parent, and that’s a good thing. And some people who have children would be far better off if they hadn’t.
 6)  Don’t boo hoo or forecast doom when a nation has negative population growth. Celebrate! They are doing the world a favor.
 7)   Don’t focus on immigration. We are all on this planet together. The point is to reduce the number of births wherever they happen. We shouldn’t be building walls, we should be educating girls and providing women with contraception. (If you’re an American worried about Mexico, consider contributing to an organization such as Mariposas Mexico that supports the education and development of young women in rural Mexico.)
 8)  Ensure your country offers enough support to the elderly so that children aren’t essential to old-age survival.
 9)   Support dog parks in your town/city. This may seem crazy, but it isn’t. Many people have pets instead of children. This choice should be honored and supported.
 10)Advocate for making long-acting, reversible contraception and voluntary sterilization free or nearly free in your country. Support organizations that offer free or nearly free long-acting, reversible contraception and voluntary sterilization.
 11)Treat the children in your community like the wonderful, precious beings they are. Help them grow up to be joyous, secure, principled adults who will create and then prosper in the harmonious, equitable future they will inhabit.