People in the United States, and Quakers in particular, are at a confluence of social, economic, and environmental events like none we have seen for decades. The rapid rise in gasoline and heating oil prices ($4.00 a gallon for gas, $4.65 for No. 2 heating oil as of June 1) over the last few months has finally gotten our attention in a way that global warming and the Iraq War could not. There is an immediacy in filling up the tank at $80 to $100 and knowing that fuel oil for the house will cost as much as real estate taxes this year. Call it “forced simplicity,” but most of us are thinking about how to conserve our cash by conserving energy, looking at our purchases on a need—not want —basis, and focusing on our part of the stewardship question. The values that Faith and Practice espouse are actually becoming more mainstream.
The social implications of high energy costs and the resulting higher food costs are profound. Lower-income people and those on fixed incomes are especially at risk of losing their homes because their bills will be too high. Inner-city residents whose homes are particularly energy inefficient (lots of air infiltration, low insulation values, maintenance needs) will suffer this winter. Middle class families as well are wondering if the 3,000+ square foot tract home with the 18-foot-tall foyer and gigantic kitchen/family room will siphon away money from vacation, college, and retirement savings. Will anyone be able to afford homes like this if oil goes to $200 per barrel? Who will want to?
Petroleum and food prices are linked like never before. Heat or eat—I know a few people making that decision now. Changing what we eat and where we buy our food is undoubtedly effected by rising energy prices. My daughter, radicalized—educated, rather—by her peers in Young Friends, insisted that we become vegetarian. She dropped meat instantly when she learned of the barbaric way cattle are grown and processed in this country.
Joining her in solidarity—then having watched food prices rise dramatically as ethanol production sucked up corn harvests and transportation prices got tacked on too—I am doubly glad to have meat off the table. Does it make sense to harvest lettuce in California and drive it 3,000 miles to my local grocery store? Buying local is a mantra everyone is humming now. Supporting local farmers makes more sense than ever—it also indicates a sub-theme: we are all looking for answers in our community, rather than worldwide.
Many Quakers already live more simply than the average person, but there are good reasons to go beyond that now. We all have to save more energy. Besides the obvious benefit of lower heating and electric costs, there are tangible benefits in the comfort and durability of our homes when we go a few steps further. My goal is to have a home that saves me money, contributes to our country’s energy independence, and helps bring our troops home from the Middle East (by no longer using Persian Gulf oil). A thoughtful approach to energy use can achieve all of these goals and more, if we all participate.
Below is a compendium from “top ten” lists I have gathered from recently attended seminars and articles. These are measures that work. The families with the biggest homes and the most energy use can make the biggest impact on overall energy use and the environment. Downsizing takes on a whole new meaning now.
Slow down on the highway—65 mph gets us there fast enough and saves a lot of gas.
Become a vegetarian, or at least be an omnivore who eats less meat and more whole foods. Shop with farmers in your local equivalent of our County Food Shed Alliance—naturally grown produce, fruits, chicken, meat, and cheeses: http://www.Buckscountyfoodshedalliance.org or Snipesfarm.com. Every county has a similar organization.
Do you have kids? Get them involved in tracking your energy usage and making appropriate inroads. (It was Lady Bird Johnson’s Keep America Beautiful campaign in 1964 that first made me environmentally aware.) Check out http://www.EnergyStar.gov and its Home Energy Yardstick to track your energy bills and compare them to other similarly sized homes.
Have an energy audit. This should include a blower door test and infrared camera diagnosis. The energy audit will pinpoint the deficiencies in the house’s envelope and offer suggestions for remediation.
Add insulation to the attic to achieve a rating of at least R-38 and preferably R-50. (“R” stands for resistance to heat flow—the higher the rating, the better.) It is crucial that any and all gaps or holes that allow air from the lower floors into the attic be sealed—expanding foam works well. Sealing air leaks throughout the house is the number one thing to do to reduce energy loss and increase indoor comfort. Keep heating and air conditioning ducts in the conditioned parts of the house or insulate them if they are in an unconditioned space. Look at http://www.essnrg.com for attic stairs or hatch covers that have an R-30 rating and are easy to install.
Keep the furnace maintenance up to date. If you need a new furnace or can afford to get rid of the oil-fired furnace, have a heat pump installed. Heat pump technology is much advanced and can save you a lot of money—especially because fuel oil prices will continue to rise as worldwide demand increases and supplies decrease. Look at http://www.gotohallowell.com for all-climate heat pumps.
The most energy-efficient light bulb is one that is off. Short of that, switch to LED and fluorescent as much as possible. Set back or turn off your thermostat—in our home we only run the furnace eight hours a day, i.e. only when we are actually at home, and the same with the air conditioner. We can do this because our house is air-leak-sealed and well insulated, and because we have come to accept a wider range of cooler/warmer indoor air temperatures.
Repair dripping faucets, especially hot water faucets. Insulate your hot water heater. The jury is out on whether a continuous-flow hot water heater is more cost-effective than a hot water tank. Solar hot water is really cost-effective. Use very-low-flow showerheads.
Shut off the TV, VCR, and everything else that draws phantom energy. Put exterior flood lights on a motion detector.
Use high-energy appliances such as the dryer during off-peak hours. (In our area, off-peak is Monday through Thursday 9 pm to 8 am, Friday 4 pm through Monday 8 am, and holidays.) Better yet: use a clothes line.
Buy Energy Star appliances. If your refrigerator is circa 1993 or older, get rid of it. Consider a front-loading washer.
Tubular skylights are one of the best green products because they bring natural light into darker parts of the home. They save energy and increase ambiance. Brand names include Solar Tubes and Sun Tunnels.
Dual flush toilets are popular now. See for information on that and a whole lot more.
Use wireless lighting if you need to add a fixture somewhere and don’t want to run the wires to it.
Reuse, Reduce, Recycle. Cardboard, newspapers, plastic bags, all metal—make a commitment to finding places to recycle these items. These are natural resources—just not in their original form. As a society, we have to stop thinking that something we no longer want is waste (or trash). The whole concept of waste will become an anachronism in our children’s generation as products begin to be manufactured with reuse or recycle in mind (this is called Cradle to Cradle and is already common in Europe).
Use green building products—there are lots out there for just about any home improvement project. Especially prevalent are: flooring, paints and wall coatings, countertops, carpeting, furniture, lumber, and wood. The energy audit will determine if your house is tight enough to require an Energy Recovery Ventilator—go to„ or for more information.
Insulate uninsulated walls. Spray foam is fantastic for open walls that will be covered with drywall, although it is subject to oil price increases. Dense-pack cellulose (made from recycled paper) is excellent for filling wall cavities. Insulation problems occur especially in/at split-level homes, knee-walls, cantilevers, porch connections, and any “McMansion” built by the big-name builders we all know.
There are three E’s associated with greening our homes and lifestyle: Economy, Environment, and (social) Equity. Quakers have been leaders in these separate movements for decades. Friends Center in Philadelphia and Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington, D.C., have gathered international attention by greening their office buildings. Now is a good time for individuals to do everything they can to embody the three E’s. Talk about what you are doing within your circle of influence— we need to move towards a tipping point.
Ultimately, though, this is about reflecting and acting on one’s own priorities and values. We know that it is the individual who can effect the most change. As world citizens, we know that even our smallest actions have repercussions around the world. Small steps do add up. Nothing happens without taking personal responsibility.