by J. Erika Shriner
Last April a group on Mount Desert Island pledged to cut our consumption of resources by 30 percent. Our electric and heating bills, the amount of trash we generated, the number of miles we traveled by car and air, and nonessential purchases had to be reduced to 70 percent of what they used the previous 12 months.
I must admit to a bit of “what have I done?” misgivings, especially when we made our pledge public in the local press. I already considered myself pretty “green”; I recycle about 85 percent of our household waste, we drove our hybrid Prius half the number of miles the average American drives in a year, and we had switched to compact florescent light bulbs over seven years ago. What was left?
A lot as it turns out. To date my household has exceeded our goal of a 30 percent reduction in most areas. And following the rules set by our ROOTs group (which stands for Running Out Of Time on climate action), we didn’t make any big expenditures — no solar cells, wind generators, new windows or other major house renovations. Additionally, we set out to prove that a major reduction could be made while living a comfortable, active and fairly typical American lifestyle.
My husband and I did do two things we hadn’t done previously: we made a plan of how we would reduce our consumption that specified monthly budgeted amounts for things like kilowatts and gallons of propane gas used and miles traveled, and we tracked our progress. Neither was time consuming nor particularly inventive, but the system worked. I am convinced our success is largely due to adding some discipline to our efforts for sustainable living. It required us to define specific tasks to accomplish and techniques to implement, and it gave us a method for easily determining what was working and what wasn’t.
Most importantly, we learned that cutting consumption is more about using our brains than it is about doing without or making huge sacrifices. That isn’t to say that sacrifices aren’t necessary, but they can be minimized by taking a fresh view of how we go about our lives. And fortunately, we Americans have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to cutting consumption.
Several European countries, which have a higher standard of living gauged by life expectancy, educational levels and income, use half as many resources per capita as the U.S. They are also, according to one recent study, happier with their lives than we are in this land of hyperconsumption.
So what did we do exactly? In terms of our heat, we decided that the mistake we had made in the past was attempting to heat our house rather than our bodies. It’s our bodies that feel the cold; our walls and floors really don’t care about the temperature inside. We turned down the heat, started dressing warmer and filled our wardrobes with polar fleece thanks to an abundant supply at a local thrift store.
We finally implemented all those tips we’d read about to cut electric bills. We installed power strips on all of our electronic devices and shut them off completely when they weren’t in use. We turned up the temperature in our refrigerator and freezer to 37 degrees and 3 degrees respectively. We purchased an additional clothes drying rack and use our clothes dryer only in emergencies.
We eradicated impulse buying — we buy only what we truly need.
We really planned our automobile trips and became better list makers; no more running to the store for a quart of milk. We coordinated trips with friends to social events and out-of-town shopping trips. We discovered the wonderful bus service from Bangor to Boston and added to our frequent traveler miles with Amtrak.
And we did a countless number of smaller things that with repetition become habits — turning off lights, using pan lids when cooking, cooking several meals at a time (saves energy and time), washing clothes only in cold water and reducing the length of hot showers.
Here’s the best news: our lives seem more rational, more in tune to the realities of the 21st century. It feels good to know we’re doing our part to address climate change. We may not save the planet, but hopefully we’re proving that normal people, living normal lives can dramatically cut consumption. And — as you might expect — the hundreds of dollars we’re saving on gas and utility bills are a nice bonus.