After all this discussion of impact and the environment and so on, I thought I’d assess Fix in terms of where I can really feel it…in my wallet. Bear with me – I’ve got some creative accounting going on. My system depends on me remembering and recording everything I buy, which I’ve gotten pretty good at after two-plus years. I also kept separate budgets for my big trip and the couple of art projects I did in 06 and 07, so those don’t figure into my averages.
Subjectively, it felt pretty great to whip out my debit card for basically everything, even the bigger things, knowing that there would be cash in my account to cover it. I was thrilled to see my credit card balances going down sharply after years of watching them creep up, and more relaxed about money than I’d felt in a long time. I found myself going to the ATM with much less frequency: part of that was the debit card, but a lot of it was that by simply eliminating buying things I could pretty precisely predict how much cash I would need for a period of time.
Starting with my total expenses, I spent $277.32 less each month in 2007 than I did in 2006. That includes the trips, performance tickets, and credit card payments I paid for with the money I was saving by not buying things!
In “The Rules” I quote a figure for spending on manufactured goods in 2006 (that I can’t get back to) that doesn’t include food; at the time I came up with it, I was including medicine and used items, which I didn’t later prohibit with the rules of Fix. Using these same criteria, I spent $1983.84 on manufactured items in 2007, roughly 1/3 of what I spent in 2006.
Breaking these things down into categories (averaged over the year), I spent 7% of what I did in 06 on stuff for my apartment; 39% on clothes – 5% if you don’t include the smock; 58% on food; and even in my catch-all, “other/misc.,” 77% of what I spent in 06. Spending went down in all of my categories except rent, utilities, and credit cards (which went way up), though the other dips were not as dramatic; I had a pretty big move in 06 – it may not be fair to include the “house” category here.
Finally, by Fix’s rules, my “violations” added up to $408.80 - $34.07 worth of missteps each month; the “questionable items” came to $660.37 - $55.03 per month. Seems like a lot – definitely more than I imagined at the outset.
I’m not exactly sure what all of this means, but it made a pretty big difference in my day-to-day life in 2007. I was glad to have the money, which made me feel more secure and enabled me to have new experiences. I suspect that the theoretical, moral, and scientific arguments environmentalists develop in the short term for buying and using less will be trumped in the long term by the simple fact that oil-based goods -- i.e.: everything -- will become outrageously expensive if not unavailable. So perhaps the personal finance angle - fueled by the mortgage crisis etc. - will be the most effective for the short term, with the added benefit that it makes theoretical, moral, and scientific sense to BUY LESS CRAP.
As for me, I can be a little less worried about losing my job, my apartment, getting sick, etc. I can buy nicer (non-stuff) gifts for the people I love, and take on fewer freelance projects for the extra bucks I always need. With more cash, I can buy higher-quality things that I will take care of better so they last longer. I've already been able to make a couple of donations to organizations that I have long wanted to support. No, money doesn't buy happiness, not directly -- but a lack of it, especially over an extended period of time, can cause some serious stress.
Hi, I'm sorry I'm posting two short ones in a row - I'm working on something I'll share as soon as possible. This piece was on NPR this weekend; thanks to Dad for passing it along. She gives me some good things to think about: I even considered darning my socks - and never got to it on my days off...(There's always next weekend!)
Do not collect $200. Check these out.
James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency. Liberals don't have a corner on the end of the world. Read it immediately.
To keep yourself from opening your veins on the spot, have a copy of Czech Dream on hand for a good laugh. Americans don't have a corner on crass consumerism.
My building doesn’t recycle. According to the NYC Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY’s) extensive and exhausting website, that means the building management could be receiving fines of up to $10,000 per day.* Somehow I doubt that they’re receiving a $10k fine per day – if they were, they would have set up the bins and put out the sign a long time ago. A while back I considered becoming a tenant liaison through the DSNY’s Apartment Building Recycling Initiative Program and then thought better of it, due to my limited Spanish skills and schedule – and the super-sketchiness of the landlord. (You have to get the building management’s permission to help them out.)
Instead, I’ve been tiptoeing around to other neighborhood recycling bins, guiltily tossing in my glass, plastic, metal, and paper. (Sorted and clean!) Before my sister noticed the nearby bins, I had lugged a few huge bagfuls of paper to work. I’m not 100% convinced that they recycle, but I was thinking I had a better chance than with my own building! I’ve managed to reduce my trash quite a bit by paying more attention to the paper; I’ve reduced it further by saving the food scraps in the fridge and taking them down to the farmer’s market once a week. The Lower East Side Ecology Center sets up a collection every Saturday at Union Square – they might even do it on Mon, Wed, Fri as well. I purchased their compost and potting soil for my tomatoes last summer, giving me – in my hyper-urban state – a tiny feeling of living off my land. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Royte from Garbage Land didn’t feel very good about the LESEC; she was concerned about how they process and remove icky chemicals from the rotting food – I’ll have to go down there and see for myself.
Royte’s book also included some interesting thoughts about recycling that I hadn’t really considered up until now. In short, many environmentalists don’t believe in household recycling at all, as it furthers the notion that environmental problems are the responsibility of the consumer, when in fact, the manufacture and packaging of products creates far more waste than any of us throw out. By aggressively promoting recycling, companies and governments don’t have to come up with less wasteful processes or products or meaningful legislation. She says it better than I do:
Individual recycling was not only unhelpful…it was also a shining example of how individual goodwill had been perverted by capitalist goals…By trying to shrink my garbage footprint, I was…abetting a bankrupt system by doing what the government, educators, and environmentalists (who increasingly partnered with corporations) told me to do. Recycling merely made it easier for individuals to keep consuming and to keep discarding. It also gave waste hauling companies who ran recycling programs an opportunity to look as though they cared. (And to make more money.) (Garbage Land, 282).**
*"Buildings with ten or more apartments that receive four or more Notices of Violation within a six-month period will be fined $500 for each bag that violates recycling regulations, up to a maximum of 20 bags within a 24-hour period. This translates to a maximum fine of $10,000 per day."
**To be clear, Royte is referring to her own habits as interpreted by one of these theorists and continues to recycle, as far as I know.
After some thinking, I decided that the primary function of the different companies and pricing is to quantify (our misgivings about?) personal energy use/abuse. Which is not unimportant. Having a price to describe something is one of the few ways I can feel objective about something. Price is something I think I understand: tons of carbon that are invisible and impact the earth in (vastly accelerated) geological time I understand in a much less tangible way. Offets are a product like anything else, and are treated as such: click here for a website offering to get you the lowest price on your offsets!
Of course if there's one thing this project has taught me, it's that price doesn't really tell you that much: junky products can be expensive; the simplest solutions to things are often cheap or free; and, most things don't include the real costs required to make, produce, distribute, and dispose of them. (See The Story of Stuff for a quick synopsis.) So that's what the projects are about. Here, we have the pastoral illusion that Whole Foods provides us: happy cows and chickens and Joe Farmer continuing the tiny family business for eleven generations. Wind farms in depressed economies, leafy green trees and new habitats for exotic animals, the restoration of the Great Plains Main Streets! These companies know that this is what we want to buy; this is what they sell us.
For now, I'll take the risk of being had, of playing the fool. The oil trader at my finance firm told me with a twinkle in his eye that he'd like to go into the offsets business, the "best fraud [he's] ever heard of. Paying a guy in India not to drive to work today!"
To recap: in 2007, I flew round trip from New York to Burbank; New York to Oakland; New York to Sao Paulo and then from Sao Paulo to Natal; New York to Denver and then from Denver to Kalispell; New York to Sacramento; New York to Mexico City; New York to Boston; and finally, New York to Santa Ana. According to Native Energy, that's 41,666.49 miles, 16.6 tons of carbon. $204 to Great Plains wind energy projects.
I'm not gonna lie: largely unsatisfying. That's a full 7% of my monthly budget. A 7% I'd much rather spend on a nice pair of new shoes.
So I followed Rob’s advice and investigated carbon offset providers and their projects. My research wasn't exhaustive - I started with a Google search and then made a table of the companies that caught my eye. All of the below options are verified by a variety of outside bodies, such as the Environmental Resources Trust. (From what I understand, in this new industry, verification isn’t required nor standardized, so this alone isn’t an adequate measure of the quality of offsets purchased.)
TerraPass - calculated 41,423 miles flown, 16.5 tons of carbon emitted, $74.25 to offset
TerraPass was the one company I had heard of before, so that’s where I started. I felt I learned the most from its job listings corner; while I like their enthusiasm for the for-profit model - I've worked in nonprofits, I know how little they can accomplish (though not all of them) - I don't like this little quote about products:
You are turned on by the idea of working with consumers. We sell stuff. Do you like to talk to customers? Do you have a good head for creating products that people will love?
They have a whole shopping center on their site, with icky throw-away products! And they give you crap like stickers and bag tags if you buy their offsets! (You can op-out, though.)
In more substantive matters, and bad press aside, I felt like their projects were a little high on the technology side and a little low on the renewable side (perhaps this is a misperception?) Their project portfolio also hasn't been updated in over a year.
Carbonfund.org - calculated 40,000 miles flown, 16.7 tons of carbon emitted, $41.80 to offset
This one seems a little nonprofitty in that their website isn’t as slick and organized as TerraPass. I like the local focus of their projects and the wider body of verification organizations looking after their work. They support reforestation projects, which I understand aren’t that well-respected in terms of carbon sequestering or local sustainability.
Sustainable Travel International - calculated 41,000 miles flown, 18 tons of carbon emitted, $286.69 to offset
STI seems like it falls somewhere between Carbonfund and TerraPass in terms of organizational infrastructure: their website is a little nicer to look at though a little confusing. I like that they have a spreadsheet comparing many of the products out there; TerraPass and Carbonfund aren't on the spreadsheet - which were the first two companies that came up when I googled “carbon offsets.” The spreadsheet also contains the three projects it primarily invests in...a little sketchy. [Update: I can’t find the spreadsheet anymore on the STI site – if you’d like to see it, email me and I will send the one I downloaded a few weeks ago.] One of STI’s three projects is very concerned with local jobs and local impact on the environment, which I like; another is Conservation International – and biodiversity is something I feel strongly about. Plus two of their three projects are the American branches of European models and those Euros seem to be much better at not taking up so much space and resources!
Native Energy - calculated 41,667 miles flown, 16.6 tons of carbon emitted, $204.00 to offset
I like the projects Native Energy supports, mostly wind farms and methane-capture projects on family-owned dairy farms. The for-profit company is partly owned by an organization of Great Plains Tribes, who have tremendous wind resources – it seems like an excellent money-making scheme to me. Their website makes me think they have a very hands-on approach, which I like; I also appreciate their commitment to communities in need, like small farmers and Native Americans.
FlyNeutral - calculated 41,438 miles flown, 18 tons of carbon emitted, $135.00 to offset
FlyNeutral is an interesting enterprise: it’s a project of the Presidio School of Management, a business school. They work entirely with the Chicago Climate Exchange, using credits to fund large-scale sustainability projects. I interpret their model as largely theoretical and economic, which, when compared with the financial models that make the rest of the world run, aren’t so abstract after all.
So...what do you think? Obviously there are a lot of choices...I have a feeling, though, that regardless of which offsets I buy, it is largely a symbolic gesture of responsibility on my part. It seems that this is a little tit-for-tat when what really needs to change is policy and commerce, and in a big way.
The way I see it, the offsets model leads to cheaper alternatives to dirty energy, which will make the cleaner alternatives grow and get incorporated into the existing infrastructure. Which is good. The endpoint, though, doesn't make sense: at a certain point there will be a stalemate between the very dirty energy like private jets (and even air travel in general) and the cleaner energy, which isn't perfect, of course. There will be no more energy to offset, unless we encourage people to use more energy. Clearly this is far off, and maybe impossible, given the growth of the population and the explosion of developing nations; however, it seems that offsets are a more likely a stopgap solution for this trendy green moment, making people feel a little more "responsible" without having to examine their desires or needs.
Find below part of a conversation with my first expert guest, my relative Rob Elam, a cofounder of Propel Biofuels. I asked him for his opinion on offsets, something I have mixed feelings about.
Hey, Rob -
I wanted to follow up on the conversation we started about offsets at the reunion last summer. For some context, I am keeping a blog about not buying anything new in 2007, which you may already know about. Of course I realize that the project has a lot of "green/zero is the new black" going on," and I hope I demonstrate some self-awareness of that in my writing. Some other enviro stuff has snuck into Fix, and I'd like to explore this issue of offsets if I can.
Ironically (?) I've used the money I've saved by not buying crap for travel, which is of course so terrible for the environment. Energy generally isn't one of my main areas of focus, as I see my single, city-livin', bike-ridin' lifestyle as pretty low impact (relatively speaking). But now I feel I need to repent a little, having jetted to CA four times, Brazil, Mexico City, Montana, and Boston in the space of 12 months. The easiest thing to do is surf over to TerraPass and click and charge, but what with the bad press, my general ignorance, and its scary resemblance to buying indulgences, I am given pause. After some research, I didn't find a better alternative, just more questions.
What do you think of my current dilemma? Should I just forget the whole thing and concentrate on taking a train next time?
Good question. I know Tom Arnold, one of the TerraPass founders. They are a good company. It's all about the quality of the projects funded by the offsets. Do your research.
Offsets ain't perfect, but heck nothing is. We are dealing with a HUGE problem- Big Oil, Big Ag, Big Utility- energy, mobility, lifestyle, global economic and environmental impacts. China, India, Russia. Population growth. Dwindling supply of crude oil. Climate change. Poverty. War.
Offsets. Be aware and diligent. It's a start. And the emerging voluntary carbon markets, in which offsets play a big role, are important.
Don't even get me started on lifecycle CO2 emissions and energy balance. Electric cars? The energy doesn't come from the wall outlet- it comes from coal primarily, or hydro- both incredibly destructive to biodiversity and the environment. The batteries for energy storage? Mine tailings and toxins. Biofuels, nuclear, solar, wind. Trade offs to all the renewables. (Nukes are hardly renewable- the waste product is eternally toxic).
Tough choices. As educated consumers we can begin to make better choices, but be aware of corporate greenwashing and how our own lifestyles impact on our world.
No Impact Man brought Intro 104 to my attention today. It's a bill that would require electronics manufacturers to provide "end of life management" for their products in New York City. Ideally, such a bill would encourage the re-design of products so that they contain fewer toxic chemicals and elements that are easier to recycle. As it is written, computer and other electronics companies will work with the Department of Sanitation to establish programs in NYC to reduce the amount of nasty e-waste ending up in New York's (really Pennsylvania's, Ohio's, and other states') landfills and Newark's incinerator. As you may or may not know, e-waste is the largest-growing portion of NYC's waste stream, evidenced by the CRT monitors on the sidewalks in nearly every neighborhood.
Intro 104 seems like excellent legislation until I realize that it means, at least in the short term, that the export of e-waste to developing nations - which is standard and largely unregulated - would increase by a giant factor. This just makes non-Americans sick and pollutes non-American land, because labor and land "cost less" in other places. In order to get electronics manufacturers to seriously think about source reduction, the pressure has to come from all sides: legislation like this that speaks for the consumer, taking the burden of recycling off of him/her - as well as legislation that controls cheap overseas dumping and legislation that limits "recycling" (actually downcycling) in favor of developing more sustainable manufacturing methods. That's a lot of legislation! Still, the bill appears to represent a start; you can take action in the following ways:
Take your e-waste to Union Square this Sun, Jan. 6, 10 AM - 4PM.
Jared Diamond's Jan 2 "What's Your Consumption Factor?" Op-Ed in the New York Times is getting emailed and posted all over the place. I'm glad he's feeling "cautiously optimistic" about tackling our consumption, population, and technology problems, and spreading the consumption message to a wide audience (though I think he's preaching to the choir a bit). I would like, however, to comment on a little theme of the piece that goes unexplored.
Diamond asserts, "people who consume little want to enjoy the high-consumption lifestyle. Governments of developing countries make an increase in living standards a primary goal of national policy." Later, he says, "we often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies — for example, institute honest government and a free-market economy — they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even now for only one billion people." The way I see it, this isn't just a promise. The US has been selling this message for the last 100 or so years. Every pop song, commercial movie, television show - pirated or otherwise - is telling everyone that what you need can be bought and it's probably your fault if you can't buy it. Ninety-nine cents. $9.99. $99. $1 mil. Whatever. It's the magic world of the minority that in no way represents how the majority of people live. And it has a remarkable way of making people feel bad about what they do have. Cultural imperialism is probably our biggest export - Anyone up for a pizza at Pizza Hut?
A super-fly life for each and every one of us 6.6 billion? We've been selling something that was never ours to sell.
Recently, a fellow blogger asked if, since my blog is called Fix and everything, I have found out how to fix manufactured items like, say, a hair dryer. Um, no. My blog should really be called Scrounge, or Borrow, or Do-Without, or even I-Have-Six-of-Those-Already-So-I'll-Just-Throw-it-Out. The truth is, I haven't really fixed many things this year: some clothes, a lot of meals and baked goods -- I'm hard-pressed to think of even one thing I've fixed and continued to use. I have some things waiting to be fixed: a stovetop coffee maker (can't find the right size grommet that will make it whole again); a pair of flip-flops that need some Crazy Glue (I think I have some of that somewhere); some holey socks (my sister told me she darns her socks, which ups the ante a little!) Perhaps the fixing part will come in 08, as I run out of the surplus crap I've dragged around NYC for the last 10 years.
I don't think I'll start buying again in the same way in 2008 - not-buying has become a habit, and, as is more evident every day, I don't really need anything. It occurred to me that maybe I'll keep Fix up until the toilet paper runs out - should happen in about Feb-March, barring any major houseguests. Still, I have this theory that buying something here and there keeps us (maybe just me) from buying a lot of little stupid things that we (I) don't really use/need. Perhaps I'll start with the H&M gift certificates - by now I've racked up quite a shopping spree, which will be a good farewell to the store. And I may need to get a phone soon: my mom is making our conversations shorter and shorter, owing to the hideous noise it makes (or so she says).
Finally, I've added some new books and links. I'll direct you specifically to Brave New Leaf, who is making a bunch of moderate lifestyle changes and sharing the results in an extremely organized, almost scientific way. Originally I had envisioned that Fix would be more like this, with experiments and data and such, but somehow I always end up in abstract, existential territory. Sigh. I also envisioned doing a garbage experiment like Elizabeth Royte's in Garbage Land, a book I loved. Even if you don't live in New York, her fast-paced, humorous, and erudite writing is worth zipping through: she covers both the details and the larger issues presented by the constant rejectamenta of the First World.