As “off the grid” as it gets

January 29, 2009

A visit to a Burlington County resident’s rustic home exposes what it takes to “live green.” It’s harder than you think.

 

Shamong, NJ: When you drive up the long, dirt driveway, canopied by scrubby pines and overgrown deciduous trees, there’s an undeniable rustic beauty that unfolds right before your very eyes—even in the dead of winter. And as you get closer to the old log home that sits back from the road on three acres of open space you might be able to dream of the days when early Americans lived off the land, claiming nature as their own.  The grass, at the moment, is tall and brown. The blueberry bushes and Mountain Laurel aren’t trimmed. And the house is shrouded from view by huge, old, gnarly maples whose branches keep it a mystery from the road.

That seems to be where nature leaves off and humanity’s carbon-footprint begins. The stretch of space that wraps around the back of the house has the inherent look of a scrap yard. There’s a Geo Metro parked around the drive. Two old Ford pick-up trucks. Piles of scrap wood. Two-by-fours for burning.  Buckets filled with rainwater. And an enclosed area filled with what looks to be a vintage tractor, scrap metal from old cars and various architectural salvage like old windows, old doors, and a few wrought iron gates.

But what looks like a yard filled with junk and waste, in actuality, is evidence of a green life.

There is no front entrance to the house, so I walk up the L-shape ramp on the back deck to meet the owner. I’m faced with a wall of sliding glass doors and I knock on one that seems to lead to the living room. I don’t have to wait too long before I’m ushered in. John Green (not his real name) shakes my hand. He’s a short man in his late forties, with a full, wiry beard and butt-length dark brown hair that he rolls up in a ponytail and tucks under a baseball cap as we say our hellos. He’s a musician and a restaurant owner, and dressed in what he calls his “usual.” Black workpants that he buys used from Columbus flea market and an off-white waffled thermal undershirt that looks like it needs to sit for a couple days in a bucket of bleach. There’s traces of dirt under his fingernails from working outside all day (it’s his day off), and an earthy smell of cedar, incense and firewood permeate the room.

The inside of the house is much like the outside. Cluttered and dusty. Decorated with antique-ish country kitsch. Tin Coca-Coca signs and pin-up girls from the 50’s. Cast iron skillets hanging from the wall. An extensive collection of oil lamps. The structure, itself, is stunning. Cathedral ceilings with skylights, exposed beams, untreated, unstained hardwood floors, log walls, mohair sofas, an intricately built stone fireplace in the living room. Well-worn orientals throughout. At first glance it looks like a model log home with all the amenities of rustic living. But there’s definitely something unusual about the house. For starters, it’s cold. Maybe 50 degrees, relatively warm compared to the 37F outside, but still cold by most Americans’ standards.

I ask him at what temperature he keeps his thermostat, as I rub my hands together for a little bit of friction. He laughs and tells me it’s not turned on right now. He might turn it on later, in the middle of the night, if it gets below 20, but only to keep the pipes from freezing.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to have the thermostat turned up to seventy-something. We lived in fifteen different houses when I was a kid, and every one of them was big and drafty. My father was the king of excess. Possibly responsible for half the deforestation of America due to his job selling copy machines along with reams of chemically treated copy paper. The most I ever knew about conservation back then was my best friend’s dad. He kept the thermostat at 65 degrees no matter what, even through the dead of winter. I remember visiting their house in January, feeling resolutely uncomfortable in sixty-five degrees. Much like I was feeling here in fifty.

John tells me to look around. So, I do. I notice that the kitchen, a small galley-style room to the right of the living room, looks like it doesn’t get much use. There’s an industrial-sized glass-door refrigerator that’s not turned on. A microwave that isn’t plugged in. And a stove sits, unused, collecting dust. There’s a very small trashcan on the floor, which looks as if it doesn’t get much use either. Stairs lead down to a partially finished basement from the kitchen that, as he tells me, he’s finishing himself. There’s a music room lined with at least twenty different well-worn instruments, electric guitars hang from the walls and an old piano with yellow keys sits in the corner.

The oddness of this house is that parts of it look functioning and lived-in, while other parts look as though they’ve been left for abandoned; untouched, vacant.

As he leads me around, I can’t help but wonder where the main “living” goes on in here. Not that I’ve been to every house in Burlington County, but I’m statistically guessing that 95 percent of all homes, though designed differently, all have a central living space with sofa, television, throw pillows, something that generates the business of relaxing and consuming. Aside from the kitchen, this “living space” is usually the room that eats up the most energy. Due largely to our American overindulgence in comfort, the living room is a point of convergence and excess. When I think of my own not-so-green living room (I also have  a family room), I’m a bit ashamed: I have ten lights that work on dimmers, a wide-screen TV hooked up with an X-box, a Wii and some an old Nintendo game system. My children’s computer is in there, equipped with all the necessary printers and speakers and cable box, and so on. The cell-phone charger is in there as well, and in the summer, there’s an air conditioning window unit usually blowing from noon till dusk—but only on the hottest days.

Think about it. Ninety-nine percent of Americans own at least one television set. And the average American household has 2.24 of them. Despite the fact that television use only eats up roughly 2.9% of a household’s energy expense, there’s 26.7% of energy use that comes from computers, cell phone chargers, stereos and so on. Whether in one room, or scattered throughout the house, these technologies increase our carbon footprint dramatically.

US HOUSEHOLD USE OF ELECTRICITY, 2001

 U.S.Household Use of Electricity, 2001

 

As we come back upstairs, he takes me back through the bedrooms; two small bedrooms with closets filled with old clothes, and finally the master bedroom, which indeed, looks lived in. Here it is, I think. The room most used. Clothes strewn about. Hundreds of tiny pieces of paper with phone numbers on the dresser. Books by the side of the bed. And yet, as I scan the walls, outlets and floors for energy-sucking appliances there is literally only one radio on the end table, perpetually tuned to NPR, and a heating blanket plugged in and set on low. Nothing else. Aside from a light fixture above us, which is turned off, traces of inefficiency and energy consumption are simply non-existent. 

“Let me explain…” he says, as if he’s read my mind based solely on the expression on my face; a look of longing for an answer to one simple question: how can anybody live like this? When I think about how much stuff I have plugged into my walls—toaster, refrigerator, washing machine, dryer, coffee machine, hair dryer, stove, stereo, wall adapters, chargers, phones, DVDs, game systems, power supplies, computers, TVs, air conditioning units, lamps, —I feel like my own power station compared to John. And I certainly couldn’t live without these things.

Can any of us?

He walks around the open rooms pointing to empty spaces, unused outlets. He has no television, no computer, no cell phone. He showers about three times a week unless he’s been working hard and gets exceptionally dirty. He has no need to store or cook food because he works at his own family-owned restaurant and so none of the kitchen appliances are plugged in. The little food he does keep at home is usually in the form of dried fruits or nuts, stuff that doesn’t require refrigeration. He uses approximately 270 gallons of oil per year. His electric bill is roughly $20 a month. (mine is a $175 a month). Despite his single status, that’s almost unheard of for a homeowner with a 2,000-square-foot property on three-acres of land in southern New Jersey. By comparison, the average electric bill for a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey is $60.

It gets better. He rarely buys new clothes, not because he can’t afford them, but because he prefers the vintage look. So, he mostly shops at the Good Will or men’s consignment shops. When he washes his clothes, he does so when he showers, with mild soaps, hanging them in one of the spare rooms to dry. He never uses bleach or pesticides (these chemicals create what is known as organochlorines, or chlorinated organics. Environmentalists say organochlorines are extremely toxic and harmful to the ozone layer ). If he needs building materials or supplies, he borrows or trades with his neighbors first, before going out to buy something. And he rarely, if ever, turns on a light in a room he is not presently in.

Considering that our homes account for 18 percent of both energy consumption and CO2 emissions, I was curious to see how John’s capacity for conservation and minimizing waste stacked up to the national average. The only way to do that was to plug some predetermined household facts into a carbon footprint calculator online.  Out of the myriad carbon footprint calculators online I chose one from the UK. The calculators for U.S. residents didn’t offer an opt-out option for things like washers, dryers, stoves or refrigerators. The calculators assumed that your household had an average of two televisions, a computer and a stereo system. John didn’t have any of those things. I needed to be as specific as possible.

So, I plugged in information from his electric bill and oil bill, his transportation habits and appliance use, trying to be as detailed and as honest as possible. Things as seemingly inconsequential as diet needed to be accounted for—a carnivorous diet, for example, may put a much greater burden on the planet than, say, a vegetarian diet. Buying groceries locally or at a co-op is better than eating out frequently, and so on. I went on to plug in mine, as a comparison, and out of curiosity.

The results put me to shame.

The average American produces roughly 20 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. John’s average was 6.75.  Mine, for my four-bedroom rancher with two cars and two kids, was 25.7!

It’s not like I haven’t been trying. I always recycle paper, plastic and cans. Fifty percent of my light bulbs are energy efficient and I keep my thermostat between 66-68F in winter, as suggested. I shop at Whole Foods and buy organic and local when possible. In the summer I dry my clothes outdoors. I never use bleach or hot water in the washing machine. I try to use public transportation whenever possible. In fact, I was so determined to live green that for my 40th birthday I took a trip to Taos, New Mexico to stay in what is popularly known in the green housing industry as an “earthship.” An earthship is a thermal mass building, which is completely self-sustaining. It has its own contained sewage system, its own solar/wind powered electricity and it’s built of all natural and recycled materials like old tires, bottles, cans and so on. The idea was to gain insight into how I could redesign my own home into a more efficient one.

But the idea of staying in an artistic, earthy and futuristic hut, filled with a greenhouse of banana trees and berry bushes at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains sounded  more ideal than it actually was. The reality was harsh. Because the house is not attached to any electrical grid or community water system, there was the latent feeling of being eerily detached from society’s network of water lines and electric wires. When you are completely off the grid, you alone need to have the resources to sustain your own living. You alone are responsible for what goes wrong. If the sun doesn’t shine for a month straight in the winter, you will be cold. If there’s a draught, you will go without water.

I realized then, that most of us were not taught to be survivalists. That we are almost completely dependant upon “systems.” And that it would not be wrong to say that most of us find strange comfort and security in our connection to power infrastructures.

The idea of living 100% green is not easy. Nor is it possible.   

Most of us could not make the sacrifices that people like John make on a daily basis. We could not give up our televisions, our cell phones, our stereos and the myriad other appliances that have come to represent comfort and necessity. But how do we reconcile technology and advancement with green living? How does “choice” co-exist with “responsibility” to the environment? Perfect green living may not be possible, but progress toward greener living is.

But it takes sacrifice. It takes a lot of effort. It takes changing the way you think and feel about the simplest of things like diet, food shopping, clothes shopping, recreation, relaxation. These have become such a part of our lifestyle that to nudge the thermostat down to 50 degrees would seem, for many of us, nightmarish, an affront to manifest destiny, our natural calling to move forward and perfect living. But taking two steps back in the case of global warming is not exactly what I would call regression. In this case, it’s progress. Conservation is progress.

In order to attempt a greener life there’s an easy path to follow: the more you do for yourself, the less dependent you become on consumerism. This is the key. For example:

  1. Collect your own rainwater for hydrating your plants or washing your car.
  2. Keep your thermostat below 65F and bundle up with blankets instead.
  3. Instead of watching the news at home alone, watch it with friends.
  4. Grow your own fruits and vegetables.
  5. On warm sunny days, dry your laundry outdoors.
  6. Unplug appliances that are not in use (some will continue to eat up energy even if they’re turned off).
  7. Trade or borrow items with neighbors so that you don’t buy a new one.
  8. Eat less meat.
  9. Keep your lights turned off when you’re not using them, and switch all bulbs to energy-savers.
  10. Overall, buy less. The less you buy, the less waste you produce.

If we assign value to each action we take toward greener living, we can change our behavior. We can start to see the importance and the impact we all have on the environment. There’s an old Kenyan proverb: Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children.

Before I left John’s house, I asked him if it takes a lot of effort to live so green. He looked at me as if I had five heads. “I don’t live a certain way to save anything…I live this way because it’s who I am. Because I was taught to live this way. And because I enjoy it.” Unfortunately, nature nor nurture graced me with those same values. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn them. It doesn’t mean it’s OK for me to give up trying a little harder every day to be a better person. 

Resources:

The first step to living green is knowledge.

Global carbon footprint calculator:

www.myfootprint.org

UK carbon footprint calculator:

http://actonco2.direct.gov.uk/carboncalc/html/

US carbon footprint calculator:

http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/ind_calculator.html

Other helpful links:

www.motherearthnews.com

http://earthship.net

http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/howmuch.html


 

 

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