I gave a TEDx talk a few weeks ago, about the joys and merits of living smaller. As with many projects, it was down to the last minute, with so much practicing in the last few days that I started to lose my voice. Ideas that I’d been considering for years I finally had to nail down. Combined with reading two influential books – one a philosophical and ethical exploration of climate change that I happened to see on a library shelf, the other a book Ian gave me estimating the carbon footprint of everything – the process of thinking and writing led me to conclusions I hadn’t had before. Most of them validated choices I’d made already, but some challenged them, at least to the point that those choices will require work to justify.
Not surprisingly, my thinking continued after the deadline passed, and there are things I would say differently now. For one, I implied that snowmachines were somehow okay, if we didn’t ride them too much and if using one kept us from flying to Hawaii for vacation. Now I think snowmachines are terrible polluters (of greenhouse gases and other noxious things) that are hard to justify for any reason. And after a phase of being critical of every new thing, convinced that we should all shop only at second-hand stores, I don’t see it as quite evil to buy a new softshell jacket.
More generally, in emphasizing the under-recognized problem of consumption itself, I suggested we should make do with what we have, even if it’s an old truck. Part of my thinking came from one of those books, How Bad are Bananas?, in which the author is fairly critical of rooftop solar, not because it doesn’t reduce emissions over its life, but because there are much cheaper ways to reduce emissions. (In a sense, changing our behavior is the cheapest way to reduce emissions, and probably the most effective.) I think the idea resonated for me because it challenged the notion that we can buy our way out, that we can continue to live as we do, just with new technology. And it’s true that a lot of energy and resources go into making new things, including energy-efficient things.
But now I think we need both. We need to change how we live. But if we want to live anything like how we live now, we need to be using the most efficient things, too.
As I was preparing my talk, I found out the head gasket was leaking on my 20-year-old Tacoma. A year ago, I might have been excited to look for a new truck, but now I considered getting a new engine to keep the old one running. I looked for another old truck, even an old F-150, because honestly the Tacoma is not much better on gas. Then I saw a Prius for sale on Craigslist and knew I wanted it.
In a way it’s an experiment. I like living in a way that seems to warrant a truck – hauling firewood, filling the back with coolers for Chitina. This will be a test to see what I can and can’t do with a 2-wheel drive hatchback. For now it seems like I have a ton of space compared to the truck.
I’ve heard the Priuses don’t do great at 30 below, that the small battery tends to die. But there’s a way around the battery problem. With good tires, traction has been fine. I was warned the small engine (1.5 liters) isn’t great at heating the cab, but that seems like a small inconvenience when the goal is getting around without destroying the planet.
My 10-year-old Prius could not be more different from an old F-150. It has automatic windows and locks, a button instead of a key, a touchscreen and backup camera – and a backup beeper, because it is often silent. It still has a gas engine, but the dashboard doesn’t show engine temp and doesn’t have a tachometer, as if Toyota has said, We’ve got this. Indeed, the mechanic where I took my Tacoma said he’s never seen an engine fail on a Prius.
But in a sense the Prius makes you more aware of burning gas, and of the fact that it takes energy to go somewhere. The display shows you when you are moving in a way the battery can handle and when you need the power of the engine. And it tracks average fuel economy over time, in five-minute chunks and continually. As with riding a bike or running, it’s easy to see that it takes more energy to go fast or to go uphill. I can even imagine driving a less hilly route to save energy.
I’d heard of hypermilers, and now I understand the appeal. There’s a big downhill on my drive into town. Now I watch the display to see when my average MPG will click up a tenth of a mile. I think, when the five-minute average is 75 miles per gallon, Man, that was a good five minutes. I got an app the previous owner had recommended to track my fuel economy in different seasons.
After 277 miles, it looked like I needed gas. I’d been watching the average mileage all week, but somehow still couldn’t believe it when the pump clicked off at 7.5 gallons. And the mileage should get considerably better in the summer.