Sunday, January 18, 2015

Missing the Point About Anti-Consumption

A lot of people want to be anti-consumerist, but want to do this by purchasing more things.
So rather than "rape the planet" by using a thin disposable shopping bag, they spend $1.99 each on a series of "reusable" ones that get left at home.

I was reading some other blogs and online discussion groups (a sure way to mental depression, by the way) and was intrigued by what some folks consider to be "anti-consumption" these days.   To some folks, it means spending more and buying more stuff - as odd as that sounds.

For example, in one forum, a lady professed that she would "rather spend more money, if my choices as a consumer will help save the planet!"   This is an interesting comment to parse from so many angles, it isn't funny.   Let me address them one at a time:

1.  Saving the Planet is a Marketing Gimmick:   If you really want to save the planet, commit suicide, and perhaps kill a dozen people before you go.   That sounds sick, but the problem with our environment can be summed up in three words:  too many people.   Yes, it might help a little bit if you recycled a bottle here and there or didn't use ozone depleting chemicals (which have been outlawed, so the point is moot).  The real deal is, as a citizen living in the West, you consume 2-5 times as much "stuff" as people living in third world countries.   Unless you are willing to lower your standard of living to theirs, going to paper cups over Styrofoam really isn't making much of a dent.

On the other hand, our friends at Marketing, Inc. have figured out that you want to save the planet just as you want to eat healthy but in both cases, you really don't want to make any real sacrifices but will spend more money to give the appearance of doing so.   So they can take a product and label it as "Green" or "Earth Friendly" or "Low Fat" or "Gluten Free" or whatever trendy term du jour is in vogue (Organic, anyone?) and not only will you buy it, you will pay twice as much for the privilege.

In most cases, you are just falling victim to a marketing trap.   The guy who buys his coffee at 7-11 isn't degrading the rainforest or screwing 3rd world farmers any worse that you are, by paying four times as much for the same cup of coffee at Starbucks.   You've been had, my friend, and you are grade-A, first-class Chump Meat, cum laude.

2. Saving the Planet is a Total Status Thing:  The other aspect of this is Status.  As I have noted time and time again, status is not limited to having a Cadillac Escalade and a fancy watch.  Status can take many, many forms, and "caring about the homeless" or "caring about the 3rd world" or "caring about the environment" (all while doing little or nothing to really help these causes) is one way to flout status.

As I noted before, the Prius is a fine car and an engineering tour-de-force.  And perhaps hybrid powertrains are the wave of the future.   But you can get very similar mileage from a diesel Rabbit, or from a tiny Chevy Aveo, for an awful lot less money, and without the need to strip-mine the Andes for rare-earth battery elements.  Driving a Chevy Aveo, however, says to the world, "This is all I can afford!" while driving a Prius says, "Look at me!  I am saving the planet!"

And most Prius drivers speed or tailgate anyway, so they really are not carrying their intentions to actions.   If you just learn to drive responsibly, you can do more to save the planet than all the purchases in the world.

In other words, you can't buy your way in to political correctness.   You have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.   Sadly, most people are doing the latter, and I am sure you said, reading the last sentence, "Well, that doesn't apply to me!" but it does, and I mean you, the reader of this sentence, right now, right on your computer screen.  YOU.  Yes YOU are a hypocrite.

But don't worry, we all are, so get over it, deal with your human frailties and move on.

3.  Consuming more is not consuming less.   This seems pretty self-evident, doesn't it?  But it is lost on most people.  This same lady, who chastised me for "not caring about the planet" (status again!) told me that she likes to drive her Mother to Starbucks for a special "treat" now and then, and since Starbucks is "Green" and "Fair Trade" she is saving the planet as she consumes!

But of course, this means cranking up a car - likely an SUV - and then burning hydrocarbons while you go to the store, and that means more CO2 in the atmosphere and more pollution in general.

Maybe a better "treat" for Mom would be to stay home with her and bake a small batch of cookies, make a small pot of coffee, and sit and chat with her.   I suspect she would like it better than a bouncy ride to a strip mall to have overpriced coffee in an overheated, loud, and uncomfortable coffee shop.

But no, she was convinced that traveling to a coffee shop made more sense, environmentally, as a paper cup was less impact on the environment than washing a ceramic one.

On yet another forum, I was vilified yet again because I dared question the religion of hydronic heating.  To give you the Reader's Digest version, hydronic heating accounts for about 2% of the entire heating market in the USA, simply because it only works in very cold climates, it is very expensive, and very complex.  It also doesn't save any energy.  Heating plants of all types today have nearly 100% efficiency, with the worst being around 90% or so.

But the hydronic faithful will tell you that it is a "different kind of heat" despite what the laws of thermodynamics say.  And they have a friend who "cut his heating bills in half" by installing hydronic heat.  But they can never point to any scientific study or even an industry paper that claims or shows that hydronic heating is more efficient that other kinds.

I was able to cut my heating bill in half by removing my old gas forced-air furnace.   Of course, I replaced it with a new one.   New heating equipment will always be more efficient that older, less-efficient units and worn-out units.

While I can understand why people on a "We Love Hydronic Heating" blog have erected a scaffold in my name and have hung me in effigy, it is curious that folks on the "Save Your Money" blog (which is monetized!) have taken to demonizing me for speaking the truth.   If you really want to "save your money" you should consume less, not more.

Want to cut your heating bills?  Buy a smaller house.   Use less, need less, consume less.   Going to high-tech and complex solutions to simple problems may, in theory, reduce consumption, but in reality, increases up-front costs in favor of "paybacks" that might be years or even decades down the road.

And this is not limited to hydronic heat.   $1000 front-loader washing machines may look cool and save water and use (somewhat) less electricity - but they cost more than twice as much as conventional top-loaders.   When you raise this point, the front-loader people will say stupid things like, "Well, they wear less on your clothes" which makes as much sense as "It's a different kind of heat" - and conveniently both nonsense arguments can't be refuted, other than to note that heat is heat, and our clothes were hardly being tattered to ribbons in the decades we used top-loader washers.

It is like NEVs or Electric Cars.   Electric cars may someday replace the IC car.  But not today - just yet.  And NEVs are just "extra cars" to own, that don't go very far.   So instead of "saving the planet" by consuming less gasoline, you are raping it further by purchasing an additional car.  If you have three or four cars parked in your driveway, the fact that one of them is electric doesn't make it any better.

Don't get me wrong, I am not one of these people who harbor an irrational hatred of electric cars (and they exist, in legions!).   As an Automotive Engineer and an Electrical Engineer, I appreciate the technology and want to see it succeed - on its merits.   And before I die of natural causes, I probably will own such a car, perhaps.  Although at this stage in my life, are thinking of downsizing to just one car and in order to have the flexibility we need in our life, that would have to be an IC or Hybrid car, as electric cars just can't drive from here to California in any kind of practical manner - and probably will not be able to, in my lifetime.  So maybe I will never own one.   And it certainly makes no sense for me to sell my current car, which has only 50,000 miles on it, to buy an electric one, as the current car is far from worn out.

In other words, it saves me no money and buying one doesn't save the planet, either.   And the cost of the cars is so high right now (even the cheap ones) that you really are better off buying a used Corolla.

But of course, the electric car faithful (and they are out there, like the front-loader washing machine faithful, the Starbucks faithful, and the hydronic heating faithful - tell me again why people dedicate their lives to technologies and products?) will have none of that.  I am being a party pooper by not going along with some of the specious arguments they raise - which are often worse than the arguments that the electric car hater raise.

The bottom line is this:  I can't reduce consumption by consuming more.   I can't "save money" by selling a lightly used car for $10,000 and then buying a Nissan Leaf for $30,000.   The payback just isn't there.

I can save a lot of money by driving less, however, and maintaining my car so it lasts longer (15 years, to date, and still looks like new).

Sadly, most people don't get this.  To them, anti-consumption is just another brand-name like "buy local" and "eco-friendly" and "low-fat" and "gluten-free!" or whatever trendy label is being bandied about.   They actually go out and buy more shit in order to consume less.

The image at the header of this posting is about reusable shopping bags.   I must own about 50 of these - most of them were given to me by friends who picked them up at conventions as giveaways.   Others I bought at grocery stores for $1.99 each, which is a lot of money.   Have I "saved the environment" by using these instead of a tissue-thin plastic shopping bag?

Maybe.  Then again, maybe not.    I re-use plastic shopping bags (as most people do) as trash bags.   So they end up having a second life and replacing a plastic trash can liner I would have bought and thus also save me money.

And the fraction of a gram in plastic that is used?   A trivial amount in terms of the overall amount of packaging and garbage we throw away every year, in the USA alone.   The folklore about plastic garbage bags ruining the planet, I am afraid, is akin to the alarming statistics about baby diapers, that have since been proven wrong.

If you want to consume less, then consume less.  You will save money.  Perhaps you will save the planet, a little bit.  But I doubt it really will make much of a difference.   Unless you are prepared to live in 3rd world squalor, your consumption choices won't make much of a difference.

They will, however, make big business and the marketing departments, very, very happy.