Save the Environment, Save Your Money

It seems to me, that there is a direct relationship between the cost of products and their environmental impact.

Monster Turtle in Bangor!
How many miles per gallon, or would it be gallons per mileLawrence Whittemore / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

If the primary use of a vehicle is for personal transportation, it is pretty obvious that a 4 wheel drive, one ton, dually is much more costly than a compact car. It is also pretty obvious that the manufacture, and daily use, of the larger vehicle has a much more profound impact on the environment.

The same holds true for housing. The larger a house, the more the cost to yourself and the environment. The cost does not stop at the end of construction. Energy use and on-going maintenance is necessarily more for a larger home.

Of course, if cost is not a factor and you are not concerned with your personal impact on the environment, then there is no point in reading this. You are unlikely to be reading it anyway. Most people ,however, will use some type of justification for the money they spend, and for their effect on the environment. I wonder at the validity of many of these arguments.

There is no way that you can live or that industry can operate without an impact on the environment. A basic definition of humanity is that we modify our environment to suit us rather than adapting to conditions. The mold was set from the first use of fire, the first use of clothing and the first construction of shelter. We are not totally unique. Birds build nests and many animals construct burrows.

Campfire Pinecone
Foter.com / CC BY-SA

We are unique in our use of fire. Our use of fire seems to have had the single most detrimental effect on our environment. It has also been the single biggest boon to mankind, without which civilisation would not exist. Nor could we support the six billion or so people who now populate this planet.

So are there practical alternatives today? Probably not.The cost factor suggests to me that converting totally to solar may not be a solution. Wind is really just another form of solar. It is difficult to calculate the fuel energy cost of solar because of the many variables The manufacture of components, transportation, and maintenance of solar all require fuel energy at this time. The cost suggests to me that the gain may be negative for many projects. In other words, solar conversion may use more fuel than it saves. This is not to say that we shouldn’t begin to convert. There should be a break even point where solar starts to provide an edge. This may come quickly as more solar is used for manufacture and transportation.

Well what do we do? I think the first, and most practical, step is to reduce our dependence on energy. Simply put, don’t use  as much energy. This can save money and may make alternative energy sources more practical.

The number one choice should be to reduce your direct use of energy. Drive less and drive smaller. Use less heating and heat smaller spaces. This can entail some major lifestyle changes. It also means some major changes in personal priorities.

If you drive a large vehicle, what is your justification? I am going to try to list some I have heard along with some I have assumed.

(1) Prestige – A large vehicle is a way to display wealth and power. Well, you can’t have it both ways. You are either concerned with the environment or how you look to your neighbor. More and more, that prestige item is making you look like a greedy consumer, using more than your share of diminishing resources.

Deadliest countries to drive in!
Probably the result of a bad decisionbrizzle born and bred / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

(2) Safety – There is a perception that a large vehicle is somehow safer for the occupants. There is some evidence that survivability is better in a larger vehicle involved in a collision. Probably true, if that collision involves a smaller vehicle. If you are going to head on with a semi, I don’t think it matters. It has occurred to me that the smaller vehicle is also a much smaller target. You could probably improve your safety more by investing in driver training for your family

(3) Comfort – Some validity here. A small car can be a little less comfortable, especially for a large person. It comes down to priorities. Is it really necessary or wise to drive for long hours at a stretch. At shorter distances, I don’t really notice a difference, and I am a rather large man. Manufacturers are improving considerably in this area.

(4) Space –  You might need the space for transporting your kids hockey team and all their equipment. This seems pretty valid. Most families, however, have 2 or 3 vehicles. Choose an appropriate one for the job. Consider if a mini-van would work as well as a Hummer. There is a reason for the popularity of 5 door or hatch-back compacts. They can provide even more cargo space than even a large luxury car.

These justifications actually assume that they confer an advantage. Actually, there are many advantages to a smaller car. Not all are related to less cost, environmentally or financially.

Welcome to Polk county, FL.
Is there a purpose for jacking so high?Ant1_G / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

(1) Parking – There is a tremendous difference between a large vehicle and a small car.

(2) Maintenance – Tires, batteries, wash jobs and storage can all be substantially easier and less costly.

(3) Turning radius – Can be very convenient and time-saving with a small vehicle.

(4) Space requirements – The garage or driveway space required can be substantially less.

Once, while in a barroom conversation, I was bragging about my commitment to the environment by driving a small car. A friend pointed out that surely there was a financial consideration. He meant, I think, to infer that I drove a small car because I could not afford a larger one. There is some truth to that. I prefer to spend my resources on other things.  I could, however, buy a three-year old luxury car, instead of a new compact. I would have to drive it less. I just can’t see any advantage to this route.

john hejduk, berlin tower, social housing 1988
Efficient, but something like an anthillseier+seier / Foter.com / CC BY

This blog is primarily about housing, but with the exception of turning radius, the above advantages apply and much of the justifications are similar. A smaller house uses less space, less non-renewable resources, and can be much less costly. Of course one could live in an efficient apartment and use nothing but public transportation, but we are talking about reducing the impact of the suburban or rural lifestyle. This lifestyle may become unaffordable for many, if we do not.

Going small seems to be a win win situation, reducing environmental impact and saving money. Now how do we spend that money without having too much of a negative impact. You could hire a maid, buy land and return it to nature, or help a third world family. I am sure you can think of many options.

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