Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Part 1: Choices

Sharon Astyk in her book “Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front” talked about her experience starting up the ‘Riot for Austerity’. This is nothing to do with the riots going on in Greece and other countries against the austerity measures being implemented by governments, and was started prior to the financial crisis. It is about voluntary austerity, choices made to be more frugal and to reduce consumption in order to be more sustainable. It is not something forced on people by a government, which leaves people in debilitating poverty with no options.

So Sharon and a friend decided to see if it was possible to reduce their consumption levels to 90% of the average American consumption. This included energy, transport fuel, consumer goods and growing most of their food or buying local.

Now you could say that Sharon lives on a 27acre smallholding, which has sufficient woodland to use wood for cooking and heating, and land to grow crops and keep livestock, so she has an advantage to the rest of us, but the point is that she chose that. She chose an old un-insulated farmhouse over a modern suburban dwelling. She chose to live further from yoga classes, coffee shops and fashion boutiques, to devote her time to growing food and living sustainably. She gave up many modern day luxuries that we take for granted to live the sustainable life and I think we all have the power to make better choices too, where ever we live and however rich or poor we are.

I live in England, pretty much in the middle (we call it the Midlands ;-) ), and this is the place and culture that I know best, so I am going to relate this 90% reduction to the UK, and then to my life, and see what comparisons can be drawn. I am not an academic, so I am going to talk in general terms looking at the bigger picture, rather than being picky about the detail. I have spent more than 10 years working in various roles looking at reducing energy consumption, so it seems a good place to start to compare energy consumption.

The US Energy Information Administration provide some pretty good statistics for energy consumption per housing unit, so I have used those throughout. Likewise the Department of Energy & Climate Change provide the stats for the UK. The table below shows the average energy consumption for 2009. There are areas of the US where the climate is hotter and heating isn’t really a requirement, so I have added New York State here as well. The UK is further North than the state of NY, but I think the climate is fairly similar. It may even be milder in the UK because of the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.
Average Household Energy Consumption kWh
Average Household Energy Consumption Btu
US 2009
New York State 2009
UK 2009
My home 2009
My home 2012
90% reduction target

 The UK energy consumption is 28% less per average Household than for the US already, but still we would need an 86% reduction in energy consumption to meet the same target. That is a pretty tough target. I had imagined that we would be nearly half way there already (Wishful thinking!).

My home energy consumption looks pretty bad in the table I have to admit, but comparing the consumption per person rather than per household shows us in a better light. The average energy use is 8,100kWh per person in the UK (for 2008), whereas we used 4,226kWh per person in 2008 (only 3,766kWh per person in 2012) so actually we are well below the national average. The US average is 10,228kWh per person, so as individuals my family are already using 63% less per person.

I am going to see how much further we can go towards the per household target though. It is no good playing with the statistics to try and make things look rosier, because the bottom line is we need to reduce our consumption significantly. We made a choice to have a larger family, which explains why we have a higher household energy consumption, but I am not going to use it as an excuse to not aim for the same targets.

It may also be worth noting that my husband and I both work from home. This also contributes to our household energy bill, but really is offset by the fact that there is no separate office workspace dedicated for our use during the daytime hours, which is kept heated, cooled and lit by some company, that could have been employing us if we had not made the choice to work from home permanently.

I was reminded of this choice recently because I went for a job interview. I had happened upon a job that had good pay and was something that I felt I could do and do well, but more it had good pay. (Not that working for myself isn’t good pay, it is just it is sporadic and depends on me spending time actually working, er…not writing blogs.) I came out of the interview and bumped into a friend, Paul, waiting to go in. When he said he wanted to get this job to reduce his daily commute it was an enlightening moment for me. Instantly I was reminded of why I chose to start working from home five years ago, to cut out the awful commute, reduce my carbon emissions and spend that extra time with my family. This job would mean a return to commuting for me. I knew that Paul’s daily commute was further than mine had ever been and he had been doing it for several years. I stood there knowing that it made so much more sense for him to get the job. And he did. (Congratulations Paul!) Everything happens for a reason and I was reminded of the importance of why I do what I do that day, and it made me think about what I really need to be doing. 

Overall, looking at my family and as a nation, we really have a long way to go to reduce our energy consumption to our global fair share and need to start making those sustainable choices right now in everything we do. This will help us to be prepared for resources becoming scarcer and more expensive and make it easier to survive when they are gone.

More on the 90% reduction theme next time.

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