Near Molong, NSW 2011

reTrain the Heart

Being green and being fair involves a complete change in the way we do things. We are calling for nothing less than major structural change in society. (Let's just ignore that minor issue for the moment!) Such a major change means there is no tidy way to start. We are not all 21 and leaving home for the first time. Many of us have a house and a mortgage, or owe money on a car. We may have a partner or an employer who is simply not interested in green or fair. We may be tied into a business or a job which we cannot easily leave. We can only start as we are able. Even for those of us just starting out in life there is our inherent complicity in what currently is.

I will discuss below some common things the mythical "average Australian household'' can do to make an immediate energy use impact. These things are a bare beginning to being green and fair, but are significant because they allows us to act, and will begin to change our consciousness, and the consciousness of these who observe us. Simply beginning will help create the environment to go further.

Nothing below is very new in terms of its "how to be green strategy." It's all easy to find on Google. Most of it has been around for years! There are a thousand other websites about these things; and they dispute the relative worth of various actions. The key thing is to act, and what's hard is finding the will to act. In Christian terms, we are required to repent; to turn around and start over in the right direction. Few, if any, of us in Australia or other Western societies are using only our fair share of planetary resources. I am not suggesting that being green and fair is only the province of Christians; far from it. But they should be at the centre of being a follower of Christ. They are integral to being compassionate like the Christ and to respecting the world God has given us. See Dont Paint the Station Green, for example.

I am also being provocative on this page. I am forgetting about being polite, and re-adopting some of the "black and white" passion of my youth. We are so complacent in Australia that we have forgotten what incredible luxury we live in. We have not realised how much we have abandoned the life giving nature of community, for the shallowness of possessions, luxury, and convenience as though these were somehow life giving.

Much of what I deal with here will be about time and convenience. It is far more convenient to throw clothes in a drier than to hang them on the line. Is this convenience actually a theft from others? We understand that to jump the queue in a shop simply because we are in a hurry is not appropriate. We disapprove of people who do this, yet we will steal from the health of the planet to avoid hanging our clothes. Another question to ask about time is this: how much time to we sacrifice for some time saving luxuries? Are they worth it? Do we actually save time?

Household Electricity: turn it off, turn it down, buy efficient and sometimes, just don't buy.
1. Apparently 10% of Australian household electricity bills consist of LCD displays, hibernating computers and instant-on televisions. A very simple green strategy is to turn them off at the wall. Modern computers, for example, do not turn off at the switch. We have to turn them off at the power. At work, where I have a laptop on a charger, a phone charger, PDA charger, and a powered USB hub, they are all fed from one power board. At the end of the day, as well as "turning off" the laptop, I simply turn of the power board, which stops all power usage. Ideally , we should simply not buy appliances that don't turn off properly.

Example: from an Australian Government Green Office Guide ( Green office guide. A guide to help you buy and use environmentally friendly office equipment Commonwealth of Australia, 2001)

An audit of more than 600 computers and monitors at the University of New South Wales revealed:

the average computer used 49 watts when fully on, 29 watts when asleep, and 2 watts when switched off. (These numbers reduce to 0 if the equipment is switched off at the power point, rather than just at the off button on the equipment)

the average monitor used 60 watts when fully on, 6.5 watts in deep sleep, and 1 watt when switched off.

Laptop computers, including their flat liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, are much more energy-efficient- typically 15-25 watts-when fully on. By selecting an efficient laptop computer and operating it efficiently you can reduce your energy use by 98-99% (see Figure 3).You can save energy and give yourself more desktop space too by replacing a standard cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor with an LCD monitor

The same paper has the following details:

Home Office
A home office has a personal computer, fax machine, inkjet printer, scanner and small photocopier.

If this equipment is left on continuously, it will generate annual greenhouse gas emissions of around 1.8 tonnes, with an electricity bill of around $220. Switching off the equipment outside working hours will cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 60% and save $135 each year on energy bills.

Selecting the most efficient equipment available, and switching it on only when needed, as well as enabling the ENERGY STAR features will cut electricity costs and impacts to less than 20% of the cost of equipment left on all the time.

If the office used a laptop computer and either the best available printer, fax, scanner and copier, or a small combination printer/fax/copier/scanner and enabled the ENERGY STAR features, greenhouse gas emissions would fall to around 150 kilograms of greenhouse gas each year, and annual energy costs would fall to under $20, which is more than a 90% reduction.

Based on paper use of 80 sheets per day, using ordinary office paper would cost around $240 each year. Efficient paper use, reuse of paper printed on one side, purchase of premium recycled paper and recycling of all paper no longer needed could cut this by 70%, saving around $170 on annual paper costs. Annual greenhouse gas emissions from paper use would be reduced from around 700 kilograms to less than 50 kilograms

2. An amazingly simple strategy is simply to turn off the lights!. We don't need every room in the house lit when we are are only using one room. In our lounge room, which requires a high wattage light for my old eyes to read easily, we simply bought a much lower wattage reading lamp that sits between us, and leave the overhead light off. It's cosier, cheaper, and the light is better. We can also replace failed incandescent globes with the new energy efficient models. According to GreenHouse.Gov.Au

Energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs: 

  • use around 20 per cent of the electricity used by standard incandescent light bulbs to produce the same amount of light
  • can last between 4 and 10 times longer than the average incandescent light bulb
  • lead to major savings in household energy costs, and can pay for themselves in lower power bills within a year

3. We can also turn things down. The toilet does not need a l00 watt globe. If we have people in our building wearing jumpers in summer, or shirtsleeves in winter, it means we need to adjust the thermostat! Freezers don't need to go below -4 degrees Celsius. Many of us have the hot water turned far higher than we need. Most electricity and gas companies have charts of the significant energy savings a few degrees more or less these can make. When we replace appliances, I reckon the energy efficiency rating should be the major deciding factor. It is simply immoral to buy inefficient appliances when more efficient ones exist. The New South Wales Dept of Energy says (along with many other tips and hints)

Switch to compact fluorescent lights to save up to $50 in energy costs and half a tonne of greenhouse gases with every bulb.
Don't overheat rooms - a 1o increase in temperature is a 10% increase on the bill, up to $48 a year.
Stand-by mode accounts for $11-15 in every $100 on the bill, turn TVs videos and stereos off at the power point
Use fans instead of air conditioners. They cost only 1c an hour.

4. We should remember, however things like this comment from Stand By for some home truths about power consumption:

The real power guzzlers are fridges, freezers, dishwashers, showers - and especially baths - and tumble dryers. These use 20 or 30 times the total power of AV items in a day. Heating water is very expensive, and some wastage isn't obvious - like the hot water that's left in the pipes after you've finished washing your hands. Insulating your pipes is one way to cut this waste.... Washing machines use relatively little power - but tumble dryers are absolute power monsters.....

It is very easy to make a fuss about things left on which are inherently small consumers; eg a night light, whilst we have over hot, 25 minute showers!

5. There are some things we simply should not buy. The Australian preoccupation with home swimming pools with their constantly running filters and pumps, electrically driven fountains, "bud" lighting in trees, garden flood lights and those atrociously kitsch illuminated posters is indefensible. As for clothes dryers and central heating on the Adelaide plains.... they're about as necessary as air-conditioners for the average home in Finland.

True, the extra fridge in the shed and the tropical fish tank were once something we knew as a bit of a luxury- but we now know their cost, and cannot ignore it. They are not sustainable in a green and fair world, and even in an unfair world our electric excesses will still bring us undone via ecological collapse if we do not soon reverse them.

It is not simply a matter of changing behaviour. We need attitudinal change. As a child in the late 1950's there was no electricity in my house. There was a kerosene fridge, and a Coolgardie Safe down in the shed. The quality and care of pressure lamp mantles was the subject of conversation, rather than how many channels you could get on cable TV. I don't recall that the lack of electricity made us sad or impoverished. Indeed, household electricity was a great advance, but it was also a great privilege and not wasted; we never left lights on. We need to recapture that mindset, remembering its cost, and mindful that much of the world has no such luxury and privilege.

Much of my childhood's era is "well gone and good riddance", especially the repressive cultural environment and its prudery and misogyny. But its frugality, and respect for what goods we were able to accumulate, is a sad loss. Much of our current consumerism is really a search for meaning and a desire for titillation and entertainment. It does not respect items for their worth, or the people and the earth that has been used to produce them.

The car: what a con!
I visited a colleague recently, who was horrified to learn I had come from work via taxi, and was returning home in the dark via bus and train. I think he felt sorry for me! I was surprised. I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate not to have a car. Perhaps it's because when I worked for myself I considered buying a vehicle for my business. Even a small car, over a three year period, was going to cost me nearly $40 per day (five day week), before I drove it anywhere!

The cost in dollars, lives, and greenhouse gas makes the car a very expensive commodity. For the farmer 30 miles out of town, and the suburban dweller who has no bus within walking distance perhaps a car is a necessity. I'm not sure if the rest of us are the victims of a massive con, or if we are simply acculturated to believing it's our right to participate, ecologically and ethically speaking, in one of the great wasteful injustices of all time. None of us intended this, but it is clearly time to reassess our worship of the car. It truly is worship. Buying the first car is a rite of passage in Australia, and we project ourselves into these machines in a manner that ranges from hilarious to tragic. Adelaide is overcrowded with four wheel drives that cost a small fortune to run, are a danger to other road users and will mostly never go off the road.

We could achieve a lot for the world by keeping the car empty and small. It takes energy to carry stuff around. The smaller the car, and the less junk it carries, the less fuel it needs. Driving slower, accelerating more gently, and braking less sharply all saves fuel... but walking and taking the bus saves a whole lot more. If we are buying vehicles we ought to pay close attention to the energy efficiency sticker. How many of us need a V8, or even 6 cylinders? There is an excellent Green Vehicle Guide provided by the Australian government.

We bought our house (ie we are, in absolute terms, extremely rich) on the basis that public transport was nearby, and within walking distance. If there had been no bus and train here, we would not have come here. As a result we are in an area which much of our city regards as undesirable, and lower class. I know people who have chosen to live a long way out of the city because of the lifestyle opportunities, the opportunity to be in a "safe" environment for their kids, and because the land is cheaper... and so on. We commuting Australians need to face the truth about this. As one of my colleagues said in a sermon I've never forgotten, people abandon their community and attempt to buy a better lifestyle by going somewhere else. It was a brave thing to say in that comfortable, middle class, hills refuge from the troubled traditional suburbs; he was calling us on our lack of discipleship, compassion, and commitment to God's justice. Buying into a better suburb is an offense against God, and an admission of our failure as a community and church.

(I have to disclose that I lived for a while in an industrial city, where my kids went to the state schools, which did them no favours and left some scars. We were enormously fortunate on returning to Adelaide to be able to have them go to nice safe church schools and recover from some of the scars. Yet perhaps these same schools are an admission of failure as a church to be adequate salt and light in the state system.)

Living in the country, and driving 50 miles into the city to work is simply a disgrace. We can do it in Australia with our low population density. In the time it takes me to walk to the train, and then walk, or take the two buses from the city railway station to work, colleagues can drive all the way from Murray Bridge or from Nuriooptpa (about 80 kms each). In fact, one of them gets to work in less time than I do! But the cost of this is ecologically and ethically indefensible, and unsustainable. It is also quite staggering! The actual dollar cost to drive to work from Murray Bridge, for example, is around $48.00... each way! (I base this on the fact that if we come in on a weekend to do emergency work, we are paid 60 cents per kilometer for the drive, which is based around Australian taxation deductions.) $480 per week! It's not that crazy; my tentative car was $40.00 a day for the five day week- before I drove it. Looking at the NRMA website (April 2007), I find that cars cost from 46 cents to a $1.03 per kilometer to run, depending on size etc. Do the sums. If I come to work from my place for $20.00 per week, even if I pay $10.00 to a taxi to bring home my weekly shopping, and maybe $50.00 to go out one night, how far in front am I?

"Aha!" says the sceptic, "but what about the fact that four of you have to pay that $20.00 for a train ticket? That makes a big difference."
To which I can only reply, "Most Australians drive to work alone. Most of us are multi car households!"

What does all this cost you and me? An excellent Australian government article by Paul Tranter poses these questions. I quote one small section dealing with comments from the nineteenth century by Henry Thoreau, and last century by Ivan Illich.

Thoreau was aware that there was no ‘effective' speed advantage in train travel in the 19 th century, at least for people who were not very wealthy. In 1974, Ivan Illich wrote his thought-provoking book Energy and Equity, in which he brought Thoreau's arguments into the 20th century. Illich explained:

"the typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this time does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts and garages, time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour"

Cars create the problems we face. We only ever thought we could live 50 miles from the city because we had cars, and now that has created a world in which we can't do without them. Quoting Tranter again

"Beyond a certain speed, motorized vehicles create remoteness which they alone can shrink. They create distances for all and shrink them for only a few" (Illich, 1974, 30-31). A geographic perspective provides an important insight into the issue of speed in cities. Not only is the effective speed of car travel in urban areas lower than we may have thought, we now have to travel further to get to destinations because of the impact of the car. The number of vehicle kilometres travelled is increasing far more rapidly than other indicators; almost three times the rate of population growth in Sydney between 1981 and 1997 (Newton, 2004). Shops, schools and other services are now spread further apart than they were before cars became the dominant mode of transport. People have to travel further now to gain access to the goods and services that they need. This is largely driven by the apparent mobility advantages of the motor vehicle, which have led to the demise of smaller shops and services close to where people live. Not only do cars give us minimal (if any) advantage in effective speed over such modes as bus, train and cycling, but everybody is further disadvantaged by the extra distances that the car has created. "In the final analysis, the car wastes more time than it saves and creates more distance than it overcomes" (Gorz, 1973).

(The article is Effective Speeds: Car Costs are Slowing Us Down, A report by Paul J. Tranter School of Physical, Environmental and Mathematical Sciences,UNSW@ADFA, Canberra, ACT, Australia. The work he quotes from Illich is from the book Illich, I. (1974) Energy and Equity, London: Harper and Row. The Gorz quotations is from Gorz, A. (1973) The Social Ideology of the Motor Car. Le Sauvage, Sept-Oct., retrieved 11 June 1999, from the World Wide Web: Tranter references Henry David Thoreau's Walder as Thoreau, H. D. (1960) Walden, New York: New American Library. but you can also download this from Gutenberg Press for free.)

We felt sorry for my farm cousins who endured thirty miles each morning and night on a school bus, compared to our six. But now kids come from Victor Harbor to Adelaide for school; well over 50 miles, past many schools, or from Mt Barker. Yes, you can daily commute to Adelaide for school... but is this really an advantage?

And all this is just our personal cost. Consider the cost to the planet:

No other country in the world has more registered cars per person than Australia.... Australia has the third highest emission rate of greenhouse gases from transport in the world. Our passenger vehicles produce almost 40 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year and contribute 56.7%of the total transport sector emissions. For every litre of petrol you use in your car, not only are you producing 2.3kg of carbon dioxide, but a cocktail of other pollutants as well. If you (travel) 20km to work every day, by using public transport instead of driving, you could save over two tonnes of greenhouse gases and save $1,800 every year. Every kilometre you don 't drive means less fuel burnt, less air pollutants and less greenhouse gas emissions. (TransPerth: Caring for the Environment.)

 Of course the figures are open to argument. Of course there are inaccuracies. And yes, some cars are more efficient than others. Some of us perhaps have more need. But all cars cost the earth, as they say.

As I have already said, what's hard is finding the will to do these things. We need a change of heart, a falling love with earth again, and a remembering of our relationship with all people. It is becoming clear that the slow train is very close. If we are not to be found tied to the tracks, unable to escape, it is time to change. We need a re-training of the heart that looks for life and meaning in more than possessions and material comfort.

(And in case we forget, the computer industry rivals aviation for greenhouse gas production.

Posted May 16 2007

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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