My ongoing journey toward a climate-friendly life

Wednesday, January 12, 2022
Recycled newspaper quietly fighting climate change in my attic

Climate change can be a dreary and disempowering topic. When we take climate action or donate to climate-related causes, we often don’t feel as if we’re creating a more positive world, but rather making a probably futile effort to avert planetary catastrophe. A lot of the discourse around climate change feels scolding and off-putting, and we’re often told that nothing we do as individuals matters. (See Don’t Look Up for a recent commentary on all of this.) But during a talk last night, my good friend Rabbi Laura Bellows put a fresh spin on climate action that I find much more inspiring: She described climate action as an expression of love for our fellow humans.

Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, who is also willing to talk about love, recently said that most people want to do something about climate change but don’t know what to do. I’ve often felt that way myself. But I’ve lately realized, a lot of things I do in my life do, in small ways, address climate change. I’m fully aware that individual actions alone will not stop the climate crisis. But I think individual actions are more significant than they’re often given credit for. They can improve the world in small but concrete ways that provide a sense of self-efficacy. Moreover, climate stewardship is a practice, and the more we practice it, the better we become at it. We go from being amateurs to experts; eventually, it becomes second nature. We become the change we want to see in the world, and that feels empowering. Climate stewardship also creates a foundation for authentic advocacy. If enough of us individuals express our preference for a stable climate through our actions, including consumer decisions, the corporations largely driving climate change will respond. And if shared visibly and publicly, it can inspire others. It’s in that spirit that I’m writing this.

To be clear, I’m neither an expert on climate-smart living nor an extreme off-the-grid hippie. Many know far more and have done far more than I have. But I can offer my experience as an “ordinary person” feeling and sometimes fumbling my way toward a lifestyle that I feel is reasonably environmentally and climate friendly, within the constraints of the American consumer economy. I’m also not claiming to be any sort of environmental or climate savior – see the section on all the things I’m not doing. I’m hoping to help people think about what they can do in their own lives, and to spark conversations that may help me enhance my own environmental and climate stewardship further. Please feel free to reach out to discuss anything you read here.

What I do and have done for the climate

I walk and bike as much as possible. If I can make a trip on bike or foot rather than by car, I almost always do. Obviously biking is a zero-emission way to get around, plus it eliminates the need for a Peloton or gym membership! I own a steel-frame Bianchi road bike and two sturdy Ortlieb panniers that have hauled many loads of groceries over the years. One caution – get panniers in a color other than red, or be prepared to endure endless jokes about pizza delivery.

I believe the main more people don’t bike is that they don’t feel safe, which I understand – I don’t feel as safe as I would like when I bike either. I don’t think this will change until we drastically reduce speed limits and put (ideally protected) bike lanes on most of our streets, as has been done in many European cities. I don’t understand why we didn’t do this yesterday (well actually I do, but that’s for another post), and I hope we will do it as soon as possible.

I drive a reasonably fuel-efficient car. Until very recently that was a beloved 1994 Honda Civic, which got between 30 to 40 miles per gallon. Sadly this wonderful machine has finally reached the end of its life. It wasn’t as fuel-efficient as a modern hybrid; on the other hand, it didn’t have a resource-intensive hybrid battery that needed to be replaced every 7 to 10 years. I will most likely replace it with a similarly fuel-efficient car such as a Honda Fit.

I grow trees in my yard and throughout my city. If you walk down my street, you will see a bunch of houses and a small forest with a house peeking through. That’s my house. I was fortunate to be able to buy a property with several large trees already established, and I’ve allowed many smaller trees to keep growing and planted new ones, each of which removes carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis. My lot is only an eighth of an acre and it’s not going to sequester a huge amount of carbon dioxide, but I’m doing what I can and hope it will inspire others.

I’ve also worked with the city’s tree commission to plant hundreds of trees in public space around town. My two proudest accomplishments are (1) facilitating the planting of a dozen or more large trees on the block north of me, one of the few blocks in town with a tree strip wide enough to comfortably accommodate large species like oak and tulip poplar, and (2) catalyzing the creation of a food forest in an underutilized city park. These trees will provide shade, cooling, wildlife habitat, food and carbon sequestration for decades to come, improving the lives not just of today’s residents but many future ones, some of whom aren’t even born yet.

I’m now learning to prune trees. It’s easy to plant a tree, but if that tree doesn’t last at least several decades, and preferably 50 years or more, it will do little good. Cities often plant trees and then neglect them. This frustrates me, but unless we’re willing to pay much higher taxes, most cities will probably never able to employ enough skilled arborists to take care of all their trees. So it largely falls to civil society and volunteers to actually try to keep trees thriving. Fortunately, I’ve discovered I enjoy pruning trees and getting them started on a long and healthy life. Especially now that most of Mount Rainier’s available public space has trees growing in it, keeping those trees thriving has started to seem like a more important use of time than planting new ones.

I eat very little meat, especially red meat. Red meat is by far the most resource-intensive and carbon-emitting category of food. The average American eats more than a half pound of meat per day and roughly five servings of red meat per week. I eat meat once every week or two, and red meat probably less than once a month. I buy it almost exclusively from local farmers who treat their animals humanely. I do like meat and I feel better when I eat it occasionally, and I’m not above indulging in the occasional grass-fed burger. But I feel better knowing that most of my meals aren’t contributing to animal suffering or the environmental impacts of meat production.

(I recognize that almost all animals that end up on dinner plates pass through slaughterhouses and that dairy production typically requires the sacrifice of male calves, and there’s a strong moral argument for a fully vegetarian or even vegan diet. On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of often unrecognized cultural value in maintaining small-scale grass-based animal husbandry as part of a diversified agricultural economy. It’s a complex issue – something I didn’t appreciate during my days as a college animal rights activist!)

I try to reduce and reuse. I may hate shopping, but like anyone else, I can be tempted by desires for new things. I try to stop and ask, do I really need it, or if not, will this item really enhance my life enough that it should be one of the few items I buy because I want rather than need it. I buy most of my clothes from thrift stores. I buy as much of my food as I can in bulk and take jars and reusable bags with me when I go shopping: plastic bags for produce and canvas bags for the full load. I try to never let a new plastic bag enter this house (except for items that come prepackaged like bread and dried fruit). Sometimes I buy milk in glass bottles that can be returned, but unfortunately not all stores consistently offer this option.

I’ve come to recognize that recycling, for the most part, is not an environmentally friendly practice. Recycling was sold to us as a way to assuage environmental guilt without making meaningful lifestyle or economic changes. Recycling metal and paper does make sense because there are robust markets for these materials. My understanding is that none of the glass and very little of the plastic we put in the recycling system are actually recycled into other products.

Probably the most important thing we waste very little of in our house is food. When we waste food, we also waste the energy, land, water and labor that was used to grow and transport it. Food is also unlike most other things we throw away: When it goes to the landfill, it doesn’t just sit there. It decomposes anaerobically and produces methane, which is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, many times more warming per molecule than carbon dioxide. Reducing the amount of food we send to the landfill is one of the simplest and most powerful things we can all do to help the climate.

We buy only what we know we will use and remain aware of what’s in the fridge that needs to be eaten. That’s not to say nothing ever goes bad in our fridge, but it’s rare. And nearly all our food scraps go into either a backyard or worm compost bin. That way, instead of producing methane, we produce an amazing soil amendment! Eating little meat helps with this, because animal scraps cannot go in backyard compost.

I am trying to make my house as energy efficient as possible. This has proven to be a tough and complex undertaking. My house was built in 1939, a time when it seems that little thought was given to conserving energy. When I bought the house in 2017, there was almost no insulation, the original metal windows (half of which are still here) were paper thin and supremely conductive of heat and cold, and the house was riddled with tiny air leaks. No owner before me seems to have cared much about addressing any of these problems and in fact, some of their renovations made the problems worse. At the same time, the house is solidly built, fully functional and (in my opinion) somewhat beautiful, and tearing it down to replace it with a more efficient structure would be enormously wasteful. Instead I’m trying to make the house as efficient as I can afford to make it.

Unfortunately this isn’t easy. Partly this is because energy efficiency requires a bunch of different improvements, each of which on its own has marginal benefit. Energy efficiency is also expensive, and I can’t replace every window or appliance at once. Here are some things I do or have done:

  • set programmable thermostats to the coldest and warmest temperatures at which we feel comfortable
  • wash most laundry on cold
  • hang most laundry to dry, taking advantage of the second law of thermodynamics. I’ve probably used the dryer less than five times since I bought the house in 2017!
  • replaced incandescent and fluorescent bulbs with LEDs
  • installed low-flow shower heads provided for free by Washington Gas
  • added cellulose insulation to my attic to try to bring it up or close to the current code of R-49. (See above photo.) While I could have paid several thousand dollars to have a contractor do this (and gotten a modest rebate), I did it myself for about $300 in materials and one very dusty day crawling around in my attic, with thanks also to the gracious help of my partner who stood outside and fed insulation into our rented blower machine.
  • added insulating foam and weather stripping to attic hatch
  • had insulation added to exterior walls that were being repaired for other reasons (thanks Pete McAvoy!)
  • added weather stripping, sweeps and caulk to exterior doors and old windows
  • plugged leaks in my basement walls and a few places in the kitchen with spray foam (doing an admittedly amateurish job)
  • insulated some radiator and hot water pipes, with plans to do the rest soon
  • replaced my aging gas-powered water heater with a highly efficient heat pump water heater (partially offset by a Maryland state rebate program). This has been a mixed bag so far, and I would recommend it only if you can put the water heater in a large space that you don’t use as living space AND that’s sonically isolated from the rest of the house. Happy to talk more about this.

You might wonder, or at least I wonder, whether any of these actions have actually reduced energy use (and thus greenhouse gas emissions). The short answer is, I don’t know. So many factors determine a home’s energy use that it’s hard to tell the impact of any particular change. I can say that my electricity company, Pepco, tells me every month that I’m using less electricity than similar “efficient” homes in my neighborhood, which is gratifying. But Washington Gas, the gas company, has told me my home uses more gas than the average nearby home. For someone who hates wasting both money and energy, this is pretty alarming. I hope the recent moves I’ve made, in particular the attic insulation, air sealing and switch to an efficient water heater, will at least make me no worse than the “average” gas consumer.

For those inclined to think this way, it seems to me the relevant unit for assessing the benefits of weatherization is therms per heating-degree-day. I’ve learned that heating-degree-days is not a straightforward unit, and I also didn’t set up a well-controlled experiment, because we’ve futzed with our thermostat settings at the same as we made improvements. So I’m afraid I will never know exactly how much good I did, but if Washington Gas sends me fewer scolding messages, I will consider that a win!

Here are some things I hope to do in the future:

  • install a high-efficiency boiler and air conditioner
  • replace remaining single-pane metal windows with double-pane modern windows (while this would help, I’ve learned that the energy savings benefits of replacing windows are low relative to the cost)
  • replace old, stuck radiator valves to allow more control over the heating system
  • remove kitchen cabinets and patch exterior wall penetrations that make a corner of the kitchen very cold. This is one of the most frustrating issues in my house because it clearly indicates a shoddy renovation that could have been avoided, and repairing it would require an expensive cabinet replacement. I happen to hate my (cheap IKEA) cabinets and would be happy to replace them for that reason as well, but it’s just not in the budget right now.
  • get an induction stove.

This is the year I’ve gotten serious about energy efficiency. I’ve pondered why it’s taken me almost five years to make most of the improvements in the first list (other than the first four), and why so many other people also struggle to take these kinds of steps. It’s partly because energy efficiency is expensive and requires some degree of technical know-how, dealing with contractors is a headache and government programs pay only a fraction of the cost. As a specific example, when I bought the house, trying to be a good green homeowner, I got an energy audit. The company estimated around $4,700 for a suite of improvements, of which government rebates would cover $1,000, leaving me to pay $3,700 out of pocket. Having just depleted my bank account to buy the house, I wasn’t in a position to spend that kind of money, especially knowing that it would be many years before I recouped it through savings on my utility bills (more on that below).

It’s also because most people who build and work on houses don’t give a shit about energy efficiency and sometimes actively discourage it. So we’re largely on our own to figure this stuff out. And at no point in our lives are we actually taught how to take care of a house, much less about energy efficiency! I’ve now finally gotten around to educating myself to at least an amateur level on some things and doing most of the recommended improvements myself, motivated perhaps by the cold winter we’re having, perhaps by having become even more aware of the gravity of the climate crisis, perhaps by watching Don’t Look Up, perhaps by some combination of guilt, stubbornness, thriftiness and force of will – who knows. I guess the lesson is that we all have a lot of demands on our time, attention and money, and the more complex and expensive energy efficiency is, the more we are inclined to put it off. On the positive side, I’ve learned a lot about my house and about houses in general, and that has been interesting and fun.

The other side of the coin is that while energy efficiency is expensive, energy in the U.S. is extremely cheap. We pay about a third as much per kilowatt-hour of electricity as do Germans, for example. That creates far less economic incentive to conserve energy, and unsurprisingly, our huge, wasteful houses use about three times as much energy as do German houses per capita. The main reason I’m trying to save energy is my conscience: I feel terrible knowing that my lifestyle wastes energy, causes carbon emissions and inches us closer to climate catastrophe. It feels like anti-social behavior, toward both my fellow humans and the rest of life on Earth. But even that only gets me (or any of us) so far. As harsh as it is to say, neither I nor anyone else is going to impoverish ourselves to save the planet.

If we really care about climate change but don’t want to raise energy prices, which I think is basically a political impossibility in America, the government will need to simply pay to educate people and businesses about energy efficiency and pay close to the full cost of energy efficiency improvements, perhaps even create a CCC-like work force to go in and weatherize structures across America. My understanding is that the Build Back Better bill contains significant funding for energy efficiency programs. It just makes so much more sense to stop wasting energy than to continue to spew carbon powering millions of inefficient buildings. And we simply cannot afford to waste any more time in addressing the climate crisis.

Lastly, I am an environmental and climate journalist. I hope that what I write helps people better understand the world they live in and make better decisions. But my professional career choice is not relevant to actions most people are going to take in their personal lives, so I won’t say anything else about that here.

Some things I have not done for the climate

Installed solar panels. I looked into it semi-seriously a few years ago, and discovered that the shape and orientation of my roof and the presence of several tall trees that block most afternoon sun makes my house a poor fit for solar. It’s also a big expense that involves some risk, and I discovered that I’m more risk-averse than I perhaps realized. My current thinking is that installing solar will make more sense if and when the big tree in the southwest corner of my yard dies and I need to get my roof replaced anyway. But it bothers me that I’m still reliant on our standard energy mix, which last I checked is about two-thirds fossil fuel.

Stop flying. One can attempt to justify any trip, but the fact is I still have a desire to visit places and family that are too far to drive to. I believe these things enhance my life and make me a more complete and worldly person, but I admit that’s a somewhat self-serving argument. Given that half of my family lives in Germany, I don’t envision stopping flying entirely in the foreseeable future, but I am trying to not fly frivolously, recognizing that frivolousness is relative. I have prioritized writing stories that can be reported close to home, reducing my flying for work.

Stop driving. My environmental conscience says we should all live densely in inner-city apartments, but I greatly prefer living in a house with a yard, which because of how American cities are designed makes going car-free virtually impossible. I also like canoeing, hiking and camping, which are all but impossible without a car. And my work often takes me to places that are only reachable by car.

Go entirely vegetarian or vegan. I was both at various points in my life. When I was vegan, I was constantly hungry and could not stay full for more than a few hours. Nowadays I eat eggs and dairy daily, and meat or fish once or twice a week. Certainly this gives my diet a higher carbon footprint than if I were vegan.

Not own a cat. Cats are marvelous and endlessly entertaining creatures, but their carnivorous, litter box-filling lifestyles are unquestionably bad for the climate and the environment.

Political work. I live in a deep blue pocket of the bluest county in the United States. Nobody who represents me at any level denies the reality of climate change. Some might argue that our local and state politicians could be doing more, and I would probably agree, but let’s face it: Mount Rainier, Prince George’s County and Maryland are not going to solve global climate change. I also feel that my time and energy are better spent getting my own climate house in order and using it to educate and inspire others, and doing the best climate and environmental writing and journalism that I can. I know many others who have more energy and appetite for political fights, so I leave those to them. (An excuse? Perhaps.)

A final thought

I would rate my actual choice of dwelling as somewhere in the middle of the climate friendliness spectrum. The house is listed as 1,446 square feet. Whether that’s accurate or not, it’s certainly more than two people need; at the same time, it’s much smaller than the monstrous “single-family” houses being built in my neighborhood today. While it would probably be most efficient to live in a one-bedroom apartment in the city, there is more to a good life than being as energy efficient as possible. I feel vastly happier and more human when I can see trees from every window, step outside directly into greenery, and put my hands directly in the dirt. I am turning my little yard into a native-plant dominated wildlife habitat and participating in community efforts to create a “native plant network.” I will admit, I’ve bought into the American homeowner dream.

At the end of the day, we need to keep ourselves reasonably happy to be effective. A bunch of depressed people are not going to save the planet.

One Comment

  1. Thomas S Silverstein says:

    Really fascinating. Thanks for writing this, Gabe. I think – perhaps justifying my own behavior – that there is a similar point to be made about domesticated cats and dogs as what you allude to regarding the cultural value of animal husbandry. Keeping pets may be less productive in obvious ways, but our relationships with cats and dogs are part of what makes us human.

    If it is helpful, I’d be happy to compare notes on utility bills since there are a lot of obvious similarities between our houses, and we haven’t been able to make a lot of these types of improvements as renters.

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