Fifteen years ago a book was published that gave consumers in Western countries all the information they needed to make effective environmental choices. In fact, that was the name of the book: The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. Written by a pair of researchers with initials after their names (PhD), the book was meant to be the definitive authority on paper vs. plastic at the checkout counter.
The success of the book was that the researchers used data to crunch the numbers on a wide array of consumer behaviours, and to identify those that had the lowest overall impacts on natural ecosystems.
The failure of the book was that the two top recommendations were exactly what consumers in Western countries did not want to hear: 1) drive less, and 2) eat less meat. What the researchers found was that compared to all other regular consumer habits, driving a personal vehicle and eating meat had by far the greatest impacts on the planet.
For people agonizing over paper or plastic, these findings basically said don’t sweat the small stuff if you’re not going to address the big stuff. Blunt, maybe, but quantitative research calls it like it is.
Over the last 15 years I have witnessed the underwhelming reception of these findings by the general public. Much of my current eco-thrifty advocacy results from observations that eco-arguments alone do not convince people to make “effective environmental choices.”
My position is that more people are receptive to messages of saving money than “saving the planet”, and that in many cases both are possible by designing win-win situations.
For example, I graduated from University in 1990 with student loans and without a car. Some unexplained thrifty gene in my DNA told me to forgo buying a car until I had paid off my loans. In other words, don’t take on more debt until you’ve paid off the existing debt.
That experience was faster and less painful than I expected, so I carried on living car-free for seven more years before buying my brother’s old ute for $500. I continued bicycling and taking public transit for most of my transport needs but drove about twice each month until early 2000. At that point, after living nearly car-free for over a decade I had saved enough money to buy a small farm…on a teacher’s salary.
To clarify, this was by no means a flash farm, and I did work every school holiday for most of those years to earn and save more money. On 1st June 2000 I took title of 38 acres and a 214 year-old farmhouse. I called it Pedal Power Farm.
Over the next eight years I used eco-thrifty thinking and lots of blood, sweat and tears to renovate the farmhouse, build a post and beam barn by hand, and improve soil fertility. In 2008 – at the start of the housing crisis in America – I sold the farm for nearly twice what I paid. Proceeds of the sale paid for four years of doctoral research at Waikato, a second-hand Subaru wagon, and a fully renovated but once run-down villa in Castlecliff.
While car-free living cannot be attributed for all of this, it provided a platform to get out of debt and to get onto the ‘property ladder’ debt-free. Other contributing factors were fiscal conservatism and working my bum off for 18 years.
At 45 I am semi-retired with plenty of time to spend with my toddler daughter and to volunteer in the community. If you think about it carefully enough, I suppose you are reading these words in today’s paper because I made a choice 24 years ago to ride a bike.
Sidebar: The ECO School’s inaugural Unsung Hero Award will be presented today to Whanganui Green Bikes at the Cycling Advocates Network annual conference.