What if Reducing Your Carbon Emissions by Cloth Diapering, Baking Bread, and Riding Your Bicycle Could Actually Make You a Happier Person?

PICT0034-32As the weather turns cold (it was 37 degrees in Ashland last night and 51 degrees in our house this morning) in southern Oregon, we’re talking about personal consumption and lifestyle choices on Mothering Outside the Lines this week.

James spent the better part of an afternoon installing a Microsoft Hohm device to monitor our energy output. We now have a rectangular screen a little bigger than an iPod on the kitchen counter reporting how much electricity we’re using at any given moment. The kids check it obsessively. “Mom! Oh my God! It’s up to .04 cents an hour. Why the change?! Shut off some lights?!”

(Come back tomorrow for the technical details about installing this gadget, which was sent to us to test out by the manufacturer.)

In Europe, where electricity is more expensive, people tend to be more careful about how much they use. I’ve been trying hard to get out of the habit of leaving the lights or the radio on and I drive James crazy walking into rooms he’s just exited to turn the light off. (James: “But I’m going back in a minute.” Me: “Yes, but you’re not there now.”). I’m hoping this monitor will make us all more conscientious, at least until the novelty wears off.

A professor at Emory used to tell his students that, “Writing is a habit. A habit is something you do without thinking.”

After finishing Colin Beavan’s book, No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries he Makes About Himself and our way of Life in the Process, over the weekend, I’ve been worrying that I can substitute the word “Life” in place of the word “Writing.”

Life is a habit. A habit is something you do without thinking.

In order to complete the No Impact project, Beavan had to examine every aspect of his family’s consumption, lifestyle habits, and assumptions about what’s important in life. Over the course of a year, they made radical lifestyle changes. He and his much-more-reluctant-about-the-whole-project wife Michelle both came to realize that following the status quo, watching huge amounts of TV, and eating take-out every night (because they were too tired to cook after working so hard to support their lifestyle and consumption habits) was not making them happy. Though a lot of the changes were hard (especially at first), much of what they did actually improved their quality of life, made them feel more connected to each other, and gave them more time to spend with their daughter.

Beavan writes about how so many of us in America feel unhappy and lonely and unfulfilled. So we turn to psychotropic drugs—not carbon emission reduction—to fix our sense of disconnectedness. Did you know that so many people are on Prozac in this country that the unmetabolized drug, which is peed out, is showing up in quantifiable amounts in our drinking water?

We usually have at least one big snow storm in Ashland every winter. Two years ago the streets were impassible and the schools shut down. The kids and I clomped to town in our winter boots. Since it was impossible to drive, everyone was walking around town. Friendliness and conspiracy commingled: we were all playing hooky together, enjoying the bright sunshine on such a cold day.

What if reducing our consumption habits is not a hardship but a benefit? If everyone in Ashland walked downtown, like we all did that day it snowed, our city would be that much friendlier, safer, quieter, and less polluted. Humans are social animals. We need community to thrive. If we used our cars less, maybe we would feel that much more connected to each other (to say nothing of being that much fitter from all the walking, biking, scootering, and skateboarding).

Maybe I should commit to baking bread from scratch for this week. Added benefit: it’s freezing in our house and when the bread bakes it will warm up the kitchen.

Do you think it’s possible that reducing your consumption in some way could make you happier or give you a higher quality of life?

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13 thoughts on “What if Reducing Your Carbon Emissions by Cloth Diapering, Baking Bread, and Riding Your Bicycle Could Actually Make You a Happier Person?”

  1. You know, I haven’t read the book but saw the trailer for the documentary, and the thing that struck me was that eating locally produced, home-cooked food reversed his wife’s pre-diabetic condition. The rest, I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I know all that and do most of it,” but that almost brought tears to my eyes. That would have become yet another case of behavior-induced diabetes if they hadn’t changed–and I bet that’s one thing they haven’t gone back on.

    They were lucky enough to have a deadline: he had a book contract and an advance so they had to start their year, and after that they could go back to their old ways if they liked. If the rest of us could look at the global deadline facing us, maybe we could make some substantial lifestyle changes.

  2. I long for those snow days when no one is driving. They are magical days! Sometimes when walking around town with my daughters I just want to yell at all the cars “can we have some peace and quiet! And can you try walking too?”

    I feel that in our lifetime, even if we do not voluntarily make choices such as Beavan’s, we will be forced to live differently. Either from scarcity or the high prices of our energy sources.

  3. Interesting gadget! I’ll be curious to hear the verdict after you have used it for a while. I know I have seriously lowered my own impact on the environment since becoming educated on this subject. I wish the newspapers did a better job of spreading the word. We were offered a special deal on the daily New York Times this fall, so I agreed, looking forward to the Thursday science supplement. Seems it has been replaced by entertainment or some such. What is needed is a weekly Environment page or pages. Maybe I’ll write and suggest it to them? I believe we all have to do our part, and the media is bad, bad, bad on that score. They fail miserably. Thanks for writing this column. I’m sure it opens people’s minds to new mothering habits, so necessary for the planet if we are to survive here.
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..The Sounds of Fall =-.

  4. I am also the light police at my house. hahahaha

    But I think you’re right — even a small change can make a difference in your quality of life. We recently switched to cloth diapers, and now diapering is almost fun (My daughter loves picking out which diaper she’s going to wear next) where before it was just another chore. Changing our diet to include more local produce and organic food has also made a difference. I’ve been trying new recipes and foods and we have so much fun shopping at the farmer’s market.
    .-= Heather´s last blog ..A Plea to Other Doulas =-.

  5. Had to return to correct earlier comment. Apparently the NYT has switched its science section to Tuesday from Thursday, so all is well there. Also, wanted to comment on Prozac in water. Yes, yes, yes. I read that Chicago found DEET in their public water supply. Of course these drugs exit our bodies as pee and end up contaminating our water supply. Here on Cape Cod Silent Spring Institute did a study of pharmaceuticals in water last year. This is why water filters are becoming a necessary purchase. Who wants to drink tap water, riddled with endocrine disrupting chemicals?
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..The Sounds of Fall =-.

  6. “Life is a habit. A habit is something you do without thinking.”

    LOVE this line!

    I think we’ve come to equate “ease” and “convenience” with “happiness.” They are NOT the same thing. Most of us do not live physically difficult or taxing lives. We’re tired not because we’re moving all day, but because we don’t move enough. We’re stressed not because we do too many things, but because we invest energy and worry in things that don’t really matter.

  7. This post is spot-on.

    A surprising amount of our (largely carbon-based) electricity goes to waste every day. The step your family took of installing an accessible and user-friendly power meter, I suspect, is going to make a big difference in your household. If people had a better sense of how much electricity, for instance, they were wasting just from little things (leaving the power strip on by the TV overnight, using incandescent instead of compact fluorescent for the porch light, etc.) they could have a big impact both on their electric bill and their carbon footprint. Whether via the Hohm (which was news to me) or the Kill-A-Watt meter… keeping tabs on household electricity use is surprisingly easy and can actually be made into a game for pre-teen kids. (Let’s try for an even LOWER number this month!)

    One point to add, though, is that depending on how you do it, cloth diapering actually can have a BIGGER carbon footprint than disposables. Here’s one recent study, fyi:


    Regardless, that’s not to detract from the larger point of this excellent post, though. Conservation may not be the sexiest thing on the planet, but it can really make a big difference.

    Thanks for the tips and inspiration!

  8. I spent the month of October trying to reduce our electricity usage. I turned off lights and I also turned of my computer monitor at night. Our usage went down $50 compared to September, but then I realized I needed to compare it to last October. The difference wasn’t as great, but it was still a difference.

  9. Wow, I want one of these gadgets! Our library lends out Kill-a-watt meters, which I’m planning to check out. We cloth diaper, make all of our bread, and bicycle everywhere – and I agree, it’s a happy way to live.

    In her book “Lifting Depression”, neuro-scientist Kelly Lambert, argues that using our hands more for manual labor wards off depression. According to her, when we cook, garden, knit, sew, build, or repair things with our hands and see tangible results from our efforts, our brains are bathed in feel-good chemicals. She theorizes that our modern labor-avoidance mentality promotes depression and anxiety disorders.

  10. That book sounds really interesting, Abby. I know it’s true for me — when I cook dinner or garden I can feel my brain getting into a very happy place. The jury’s still out about the gadget, since I can’t imagine how we could make back the $268.00 (because our energy use is already so low), which is what it would have cost if we had bought it ourselves. But I can imagine that for families who haven’t thought much about their consumption (which does NOT sound like your family at all), it might end up saving them money in the long run. In any case, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I look forward to reading Kelly Lambert’s book.
    .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..Noble Coffee Prospers in Ashland =-.

  11. I have found that nearly all the changes I have made to reduce environmental impact have made me happier! One big reason is that a reusable product often works better than a disposable.

    All my adult life, I have intentionally lived in walkable neighborhoods with access to public transit. In addition to reducing my use of gas, it builds exercise into my daily life so that I enjoy the mood-boosting effects without having to make time to go to the gym! Also, I often see people I know on the street or in the bus and get to talk with them.

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