Jun 8, 2010

What you can do to use less oil

This is post 2 of a 5 part series. Previously:

In yesterday's post, I wrote about the inevitability of a disaster like what we're seeing unfold in the Gulf of Mexico right now, given our economy's deep reliance on fossil fuels. This information is only useful if we can do something about it, and today's post will address the first level of that: actions we can all take to reduce our individual contribution to the problem. It's very simple in principle—we have to directly use less oil, and reduce our consumption of things manufactured and delivered in reliance on oil—but it's worth going through a few examples.

The most obvious thing is to drive less. Driving not only consumes oil by burning it as gasoline, it also consumes significant amounts indirectly, which is why driving less is a far more comprehensive solution than getting a more fuel-efficient or electric or biofuelled vehicle. There's an astonishing amount of energy embedded in a car because manufacturing one involves mining large quantities of various metals, melting them down, producing plastic components (generally made from natural gas and with other huge environmental costs), shipping the components around for final assembly and then getting the car to you. Then there's the immense amount of oil used to make tarmac for roads and consumed in their maintenance (powering the road-building equipment itself runs on), and many other environmental costs imposed by them, such as stormwater pollution. Cars also create their own demand, because the more of a city is given over to roads and parking, the greater the distances between people and destinations, and the harder it becomes to get around without a car. That, however, is a hint of the great limitation of telling people to drive less: for many people it's not so much a free choice as one forced by the combination of places where they can afford to live and are able to work.

In light of that, the next recommendation is to use more human power and less machine power throughout our daily lives. Switching from a car to a bicycle is a significant environmental win, but many smaller things are easier to do and more universally accessible. Try growing your own food--even just a pot of herbs in a window--cooking yourself dinner, mending your own clothes, and so on. Completely opting out of manufactured goods takes a large investment of time and many skills, but making the first changes that start to add up only requires a little resourcefulness. Above all, start small and don't be intimidated by not being able to change everything tomorrow. Most people who do this find it empowering to know they can make a few more things themselves, even if they don't have time to do it routinely.

For the things you can't make yourself, whether through lack of time or lack of the specific skills, it remains necessary to buy manufactured things but is almost always possible to consume less. "Green consumerism"— the luxury of choosing items manufactured in a somewhat more environmentally friendly way — is out of many people's reach, but it's also hugely overrated. Buying more stuff still means consuming more resources, and the details are, well, details. Many more thing can be reused than most people do, and as old-fashioned and unflashy as this is, mending clothing instead of replacing it is one of the most powerful ways you can reduce your use of stuff and therefore of the oil that in some more or less direct way is an input to the manufacture and delivery of almost everything. And when you do buy new things, carefully consider whether there's a longer-lasting or more reusable version available. They often cost more up front, but that cost is very often made up for by the longer useful life they will have.

There are many more way to reduce individual impacts, but this is a starting point. Of course, it's impossible to completely opt out of the oil economy without running for the hills and abandoning most of contemporary civilisation, but the next two posts in this series will address ways in which we can magnify the effects of our individual choices, and the final post will argue for why we must keep trying even though the task at hand often looks overwhelming.

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