Monday, October 20, 2008

Week Four: Keep It Warm (and Cool)

Looking around the room in our Carbon Bustin' circle, bathed in the glow of our own infinite wisdom and sheltered by the warm blanket of greenhouse gases, we decided to merge weeks four and five together. We collectively agreed we have no time to waste.
Carbon bust we must we cussed.

Week four is about keeping yourself and your home a decent temperature without using energy, week five about changing the way you heat your home.
Seems like they go together like a toque and a sweater.

Of course, it is never a straight sell when it comes to comfort, and there are always those who feel the cold more than others.
And not all of us can figure out ways to move carbon-free to warmer climes, although we may try and try and try.

So looking around our apartment, what could we do to make our home a more comfortable temperature without sparking up the old gas fireplace?

Well, the first thing we did was take off our shoes and socks.

If stripping off your toes clothes seems counter intuitive to warming yourself, fear not— You aren't the only traveller feeling lost on the path to carbon neutrality.

The baring of our soles led us to find a steady stream of cold air blowing through the living room along the floor, straight through one door and out the other.
Identifying the places where the cold gets in and the heat escapes is the first step — plugging it is next.

So high on our list of things to do, right up there somewhere between getting a new pair of socks that doesn't have holes and moving to a beach in Mexico, is keeping the cool breezes blowing outside by weather-proofing our place.

Well, it might be just below moving to a beach in a Mexico. We'll have to see how motivated we get.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Accidental Vegan

One of Guy Dauncey's favourite statistics is the following: a vegetarian using a car for transportation has a lower carbon footprint than a meat eater riding a bike.

His point is not that vegetarians are weak from lack of protein and can't muster the strength to pedal; he's saying that compared to car emissions, eating meat is a bigger contributor to greenhouse gases.

This is due to the high methane production expelled from cows, the fertilizers used to grow the feed for the cattle and the large amount of land needed to grow meat versus vegetables.

The only real question is — where on a bike do you hang your gun rack, beef boy?

As Katie and I are mostly vegetarian — we empathize with Buster Lynn's friend who believes that for Thanksgiving, turkey becomes an honorary vegetable — we wanted to test ourselves with veganism and eliminate any cattle-connection we had.

Katie has dabbled in the past and survived on a diet of rice, crackers and ketchup. Our goal was to actually eat food we enjoy — not that ketchup isn't an enjoyable staple — and eat vegan for two days.

I've got to admit, it wasn't as easy as we thought it would be.

When we look in our fridge dairy stares back at us. Yogurt, cream for coffee, eggs and the biggest contributor, cheese.

For me, the first day was easy. I didn't eat until 1 p.m., then had an apple. Then I cooked beans and rice for dinner and didn't have ice cream. It was a case of accidental veganism.

When Katie and I actually concentrated on eating differently and not taking my initial approach, it was an exciting endeavour. (Imagine dying from starvation because you tried to be vegan. I can see my epitaph now: No cow, he said. And now? He dead. )

It took an effort in planning to find meals that didn't include dairy, but for our two days of veganism we were looking forward to experimenting with new recipes. We pulled out the vegan cook books and went to work. We had nut loaf, salad, and some other stuff. — to be honest, I can't remember all we ate. Maybe dairy is responsible for helping the memory.

We had vegan treats from the Community Farm Store's Corfield Cafe, which we are fortunate enough to live close to.

The hardest thing was realizing how much we depend on dairy for making our meals tastier. We often take dairy-free food and sprinkle it with a touch of animal product to enhance the overall flavour: brown rice with butter, vegan chili with grated cheddar cheese on top, or Katie's biggest weakness - cream in her coffee.

It would be easier for us to be vegan with better planning, and even more so if we never brought dairy into the house. We'd have to find something else to put on rice though (could shrivelled raisins take the place of creamy butter? or how about simply dirt?).

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Week Three: Wake up to Green Electricity

If stumbling around in the dark, stubbing toes, cursing loudly and spending hours upon hours fumbling blindly trying to find a matching pair of socks is considered good for the planet, call me David Suzuki.

With militant fervour I wander through the apartment flicking off lights, unplugging cell phone chargers, toasters, etc. You wouldn't want to be on a life support system in our house unless your mechanical lung had a hand crank — I'd unplug you faster than you could say "You're out of my will."

When it comes to obvious conservation techniques, we like to think we're doing our part.

Of course, we have a long way to go.

With just two windows in the apartment, both on the same side of the building, we keep fans on to keep air circulating. This contradicts energy conservation, and makes life even more exciting — not only is it dark, there's the loud apocolyptic noise of industrial strength fans to throw your senses into turmoil.
We tend to bang around, crashing even harder than the American housing market.
(And you thought it was because I cycle a lot that my helmet is always on my head.)

As you can see, the aim this week was to focus on our electricity useage.

Because there are just two of us, we have a small fridge — 8.8 cubic feet (in layman's terms that's three zucchinis, 12 apples, a jug of soy milk and two-and-a-half cases of Heineken). We also have an apartment size deep freeze, a computer, a t.v., vcr, dvd player and three lights we use regularly.

Following this week's reading, I started turning off the power cord to the t.v., vcr, and dvd when not in use, and unplugging the laptop at night.

We, like any new age, new wave, just-stumbled-out-of-a-dark-cave-and-stopped-burning-coal environmentalist, have changed our lightbulbs.

But I can't stop thinking who really cares?

Yes, electricity, especially that produced from coal-fired plants, can have an impact on carbon output and the environment. And yes, using only renewable energy like wind or solar is ideal.
But religiously unplugging a cell phone charger will save something like $0.25 worth of electricity a year.

Take that, global warming!

Carbon Buster Jon was kind enough to point out to me that the personal electronics sector is one of the fastest growing consumer areas in the world, so if each person unplugs, it amounts to a lot.

I guess it will make a difference. And it does make sense to me to me to be responsible for our energy and only use what we can generate ourselves or through sustainable means.

It seems like a decent goal to have.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Week Two: Change the Way You Eat

Week two had us take a close look at our eating habits.

And while Katie’s suggestion that I should add the words “chew” and “napkin” to my vocabulary is, umm, appreciated, I think Dauncey intended we think about the carbon cost of our eats.

The majority of the shopping we do is for organic food at the Community Farm Store, the hub of all things healthy in the Cowichan Region. We buy local cukes grown by Cindy, we buy our eggs from Mary and her mom at the Farmers Market every Saturday, and we buy peppers from Providence Farm.
If we can buy something that was produced locally, we do.
Still, much of what we eat carries a heavy carbon cost thanks to the transportation and packaging. Things like noodles for our stir-fry, rice, ketchup, sugar — the list goes on and on.
In an attempt to cut down on carbon costs, for a few months now we’ve been trying to avoid tropical treats like bananas and mangoes and avocadoes. (I actually made zuke-a-mole, a zucchini-based substitute for guacamole. The recipe swore you couldn’t tell the difference. The recipe lied.)
During the summer when local fresh fruit is abundant, it’s no problem.
But winter is fast approaching and the local fruit is running low.

Not being versed in the technicalities of homesteading, one of our plans was to resurrect the art of “putting up”. We bought the Ball Blue Book, the bible of food storage. We were given all the equipment we needed to get started by generous Dee in Mesachie Lake through the Cowichan Valley Recycle site — a big ol' pot, a canning rack, a whack o’ jars. All we needed was some lids, some fruit, and apparently a lot of spare time.
First we canned cherries. For hours upon hours upon hours we washed, we pricked, we boiled, we sweated…At the end, we had four quarts of cherries. Four pathetic quarts!

Not to be deterred, we soldiered on. We canned peaches, pickled cukes and zukes, and made plum jam. We also found a small freezer that was looking for a new home (Thanks to CV Recycle again) and froze cherries, peaches, strawberries, plums, green beans, etc…
We imagine the energy costs of running the freezer are likely quite high, but we think they must be lower than the costs of buying the fruit and vegetables in the store during the winter. If we’re wrong, we’d love to know.

Another of the ways to reduce carbon output involved growing our own food. Our plot at the Jubilee Community Gardens has been a prolific provider of beans, zukes, strawberries, tomatoes, peas, lettuce, potatoes, chard and chives all summer and we’ve saved as much as we could, but we didn’t know what to do for the fall and winter.
One of the Busters, Lynn, passed on a list of fall planting times to us which has proven to be extremely helpful.
Since the group met, we’ve planted garlic, endives, kale, Ethiopian wheat, barley and cauliflower, which means we should have leafy greens into the winter and some good treats early in the spring.
We still need to bury some beets and turnips, and to look into some bush beans.

There’s so much that can be done when it comes to food just by taking the time to think about our eating habits before we buy those things we’re used to buying.
And there really is nothing better than eating something fresh from your own garden.

PS. One of the treats of meeting with the Cowichan Carbon Busters once a week is getting to sample desserts, which each member takes a turn making. Last week, Kathleen made the suggestion we try to make the desserts out of as many local ingredients as possible.
With a shortage of flour produced on the Island, it’s been near impossible to find a totally local recipe. If anyone has suggestions, please let us know.
I’m going to try meringue made with local honey and eggs, baked and topped with local strawberries.
Either that or Zuke-late mousse. I’m sure no-one will be able to tell the difference…

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Week One: Calculate our Carbon Footprint: 6.1 tonnes CO2 per year

When Katie and I joined Carbon Busters, we figured this was going to be a breeze. How big could our carbon footprint be?
We spend our days picking up other people’s recycling on our bikes. We live in a 600 square foot apartment and are vegetarians. We don’t take long, expensive flights around the globe (we have the desire to, just currently not the means). And we don’t have a brood of heirs spending our savings on iPods and other forms of luxury, biding their time on our dime before taking over our empire. Our footprint should be tiny.
By our estimations, we figured we’d actually be cooling the climate just by waking up in the morning.
To butcher a line from Tina Fey, it turns out our confidence was disproportionate to our looks, abilities and grip on reality.
While our passion for recycling makes the job worthwhile, we likely won’t be able to retire until we’re well into our 90s, so Katie has a second job in Victoria. It’s recently increased from two days a week to four, which means a weekly commute of 500 kilometres.
It’s true we own an older VW Rabbit that runs of 100 percent ethical Bio-diesel made from waste vegetable oil right here in the Cowichan Valley. But it’s also true Katie drives a gas-powered Jetta because frankly, it has more comfortable seats and can make it up the Malahat without being passed by cyclists and pedestrians. And at 4 a.m. in the morning when she’s generally commuting, speed and reliability are fairly important attributes.
So while her commute means we can put food on the table, it also accounts for 60 per cent of our carbon footprint.
The other 40 percent is generated through an inefficient gas-heated central boiler that keeps our strata’s four residential and five commercial units heated and with a steady stream of hot water, and through our dairy eating habits.
None of these issues contributing to our carbon footprint seems insurmountable.
For Katie’s commute, we plan to sell both cars and buy a diesel Jetta and run it off bio-diesel and straight waste veggie oil.
Finding a solution to our heat and hot water needs may take some research, but the technology exists to reduce those costs substantially.
And we’ve already started buying more local, organic dairy then we did in the past, which incidentally turns cheese from a good food to a great food and makes a person feel guiltless about eating ice cream.
Working toward carbon neutral will be a challenge, but not impossible.

To calculate your carbon footprint visit and navigate to the personal carbon calculator.

PS. I have to admit, I have a bit of a soft spot in my liver for imported beer, imported wine and tequila. And while this fondness for fermentation from afar has a positive affect on my dancing abilities, it has a negative affect on my carbon footprint.
So, in an effort to be more environmentally friendly, I pledge to look for local wines and spend more time at the local brewpub. Consider this my gift to the planet and to your children’s future. Cheers.

Cowichan Carbon Busters

On Wednesday, September 17, Katie and I and nine other households in the Cowichan Valley began meeting as the Cowichan Carbon Busters. Our mission — to reduce our household carbon footprint.

During the next 10 weeks we will follow the steps laid out by environmentalist Guy Dauncey to reduce our carbon footprints.

By the end of the course, we should all have in place a fairly extensive plan to reduce our carbon footprint during the next few years.

It will be easier for some of us than others, but for all it will be a learning experience.

Hopefully you can follow along and find some of the tips we learn useful in reducing your own footprint.