[THS] 5 Realistic Lessons in Radical Consumption From No Impact Man
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Sun Sep 20 19:35:57 CEST 2009
5 Realistic Lessons in Radical Consumption From No Impact Man
In the film No Impact Man, Colin Beavan and his family pledge to abandon their
high-consumption New York City lifestyle, instead devising radical ways to reduce
consumption and waste. He sends the important message that most Americans could
go on an energy and water dietwe do consume five times more energy than the
average global citizen. In the film, though, Beavan's diet seems more like starvation.
At the end of the odyssey, the protagonist realizes that true progress is "not about
using as little as we can possibly use; it's about getting what I need in a sustainable
way." While Beavan clearly has benevolent intentions, many of the steps he takes are
misguided. Among environmentalists, a certain blend of sanctimony and ignorance
can give rise to the idea that convenience equals consumptionif it's easy, it must be
wasteful. Here's how to balance the radical with the realistic.
By Harry Sawyers
Published on: September 18, 2009
Consumption Misconception No. 1: By Candle's Light
About six months into the impact-reduction experiment, Beavan cuts the electricity in
his home, having the family navigate the night by candlelight. Everyone stumbles in
darkness, searching for matches, and scenes of the apartment ablaze with candles
resemble a church altar at Mass. PM interviewed No Impact Man's co-director Justin
Schein at the film's Brooklyn premiere, but Schein was unable to provide an estimate
of the number of matches and candles consumed in the name of conservation.
Unlike candles, compact fluorescent bulbs require no matches or wax (whether made
from bees or petroleum) and they don't pollute indoor air with smoke. CFLs also sip
powerconsuming 75 to 80 percent less energy than comparable incandescent
bulbs. To put the energy consumption of a CFL in context, consider these numbers
from the Long Island Power Authority: Based on 5 hours of use per day at a rate of
$0.198 per kilowatt-hour (kwh), a14-watt CFL (equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent)
costs $5.06 per year. Five bucks doesn't buy many candlescertainly not enough to
last the 7500 hours in an average CFL's life span. Besides, as Beavan's wife Michelle
suggests, candles aren't an adequate substitute for electric bulbsat the film's
conclusion, she says one of the things she's looking forward to most is reading to
their daughter under "ample illumination."
Consumption Misconception No. 2: Take the Stairs
Beavan mounts 24 flights of stairs to conduct a radio interview with WNYC's Brian
Lehrer. Likewise, Beavan takes the stairs, not the elevator, to get to his NYC
Calculating how much an elevator really consumes depends on factors ranging from
building height to the type of the elevator's drive system and even to the number of
people onboard. After crunching some numbers for Slate, elevator manufacturer
ThyssenKrupp determined that several typical buildings' daily elevator consumption,
when averaged among all tenants, came to about 0.3 kwh per tenant, per day.
That's actually a fair amount of energythe 14-watt CFL mentioned above would
burn for 21.4 hours before hitting the 0.3 kwh mark. But the elevator doesn't stop
consuming if everyone starts walking up the stairs.
ThyssenKrupp representative Sasha Bailey says elevators post the worst efficiency
numbers when they remain idle, because the motor and lights still run. The company
recently announced plans to include motor-efficiency-controlling technology in new
elevators, promising a potential savings of 20 to 35 percent over current models.
Consumption Misconception No. 3: Kill the Fridge
Doing away with the family refrigerator leads to one of No Impact Man's most
memorable scenes, in which Beavan's supportive wife "mooches" ice from a
neighbor's functioning freezer to refill a Coleman cooler in their apartment-turned-
campsite. "I kinda don't get it," Beavan's wife, Michelle Conlin, says. "There's a
reason people have refrigerators." The camera cuts to the daughter, refilling the
open cooler by dropping cubes in one at a time. There's some cognitive dissonance
hereany icemaking operation relies upon some sort of fuel-driven refrigeration, a
process that has become increasingly efficient in recent years.
But let's assume Beavan is onto something, and everybody in his building converts to
the ice and cooler method. Daniel Hirsch, president of commercial equipment
distributor iceandwine.com, figures a 300-pound communal ice machine would serve
30 apartments a day with 10 pounds, or a bag and a half, of iceenough to line a
cooler and leave room for food. Consuming 6 kwh per 100 pounds of ice, the
machine's full output would tally 6570 kwh per year. Split among 30 apartments,
that's 219 kwh annually. Hirsch says health departments typically require a dispenser,
which collects prepared ice to keep users' access hands-free, and that adds another
150 or so kwh to the operation, or about 5 kwh per household.
In comparison, the strongest Energy Starqualified refrigerators consume between
300 and 400 kwh per yearmore power, sure, but minus the daily chore of
emptying, draining and refilling the cooler.
Consumption Misconception No.4: Stomp the Laundry
Using a borax-based cleaning solution and a clothes-washing method he found
online, the family gathers in the tub to stomp laundry in ankle-deep cold water. "It's
like making wine," Beavan says. But new appliances' efficiencynot to mention,
efficacytrump the tub-stomp method for low-impact laundry. Co-director Schein
pointed out that the Beavan's efforts at water conservation did yield measurable
reductions in water use, which is something most American households could take
steps to streamline.
Energy Starqualified clothes washers in the U.S. offer numbers most conscientious
consumers could live with. The water consumed in several Frigidaire machines can
get as low as 12 to 13 gallons per load. That looks to be about as much water as the
Beavans had in the bottom of their tub. An added bonus: When using a washing
machine, with a low-energy cost of 100 to 200 kwh per year, you don't even have to
kick the dirt out of the clothes.
Consumption Misconception No. 5: Cut Out Coffee
In an attempt to eat food grown only within the New York region, Beavan cuts off his
wife's coffee habit. Locavores concerned with foodstuffs' global footprint have plenty
of evidence to decree most coffee sources to be off-limits. For this one, PM has no
snappy alternative recommendation. But know this: coffee was present when the
framers of the Constitution drafted the set of laws that would guide the course of this
country. If we're ever going to develop a viable alternative fuel to compete with the
bounty of energy stored in every lump of coal or barrel of oiland arrive at the
systemic change Beavan realizes will ultimately be necessaryyou better believe the
engineers that come up with it will have the pots of coffee brewing. Seems like a
worthwhile reason to fill it to the brim.
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