Monday, December 31, 2007

Reflections on Sustainability: Gasoline

Well, folks, I saved the worst for last because, let's be honest, what makes all of this possible is Jim's job down in the "technology corridor" of D.C., which means that he commutes about 50 miles each way, every day. So, just like the rest of the world, cheap oil is what currently makes our lives possible. Time for brutal honesty and a serious reality check.

I can rationalize that usage in a number of ways, not the least being that the kids and I stick very close to home and use very little gas in our daily lives, thus offsetting Jim's usage significantly. All of our shopping is within 5 miles with all of it neatly clustered together, enabling me to do whatever errands I need done once a week, if that, for only 12 miles worth of driving, at most. So while Jim commutes further to work than he used to at our old home, as a family we drive significantly less because of our proximity to everything and our change in lifestyle. The fact that the kids don't commute to school every day offsets that number even further. Nor do we do any running around to various activities multiple times a week, as so many families do because that's not what the kids choose to do with their lives. So, Jim's driving really does constitute nearly all of our family driving, except when the kids and I go on road trips, which we do 2-3 times a year. What we don't do is fly...ever. Well, Jim does for work, but as a family we simply don't fly, making our car miles our total transportation miles.

I did a bit of investigating... yes as much to make myself feel better as to put it all into perspective. The average gasoline usage for Maryland is 447.5 gallons per person per year. No, you didn't read that wrong: that statistic is per capita, meaning every man, woman, and child, and best I can tell, those are basic transportation numbers without factoring in food miles, etc. You can check out the numbers for your state here if you're interested.

So, while Jim averages about 700 gallons per year, as a family of 5, we stay well under the 2,237.5 gallon average. Wow! Think about it, an average family of 5 in Maryland uses 2, 237.5 gallons of gasoline per year! We use 1/3 of that on a regular basis, or at worst less than 1/2 even when factoring in road trips, which probably average about 4,000 miles per year at about 26 miles to the gallon in the van. Jim's car, a Honda civic, gets about 34-35 mpg during his commute, which is all highway driving, again an important factor in the equation in terms of emissions and mpgs. All things considered, our gasoline habits are far better than the average American's usage, despite the length of Jim's commute.

What are we doing to make it better? Very good question. Jim's negotiating a 9/80 work week for the new year, which would eliminate 2 days of driving per month, saving roughly 65 gallons per year. I'll continue to try to talk him into finding someone to car pool with—as the only one he's found is currently full—a simple change that would help significantly. At this point, his car gets pretty good mileage, so buying a hybrid makes no sense, considering the kind of driving he does, though that may be a distinct possibility in the future once this car gives up the ghost.

Around the farm we use very few fossil fuels, and we're reducing our dependency on those even further each year. We got the tractor with the farm, and in the past, we've used it to plow the new gardens, doing the tough job of ripping up pasture sod. Now, we have our piggies to help with that. While they've done a great job prepping the new garden space by rooting and removing the vegetation, we've seen what an incredible job they're able to do on previously plowed ground, which means that by locating the market garden in a permanent plot, we'll be able to avoid plowing/ tilling altogether by letting the pigs do the work for us, which was part of the plan.

Sending the chickens over the garden to follow the pigs helps break the big clods and remove insect pests, further reducing the need to disc or rely on any kind of fossil-fuel-based chemical insect control. In fact, the organic growing methods we practice completely eliminate any dependence on fossil-fuel chemicals for our farm. Our sheep and goats do the bulk of the mowing for us, which means we're no longer using the bush hog, so no tractor hours there either, and our rotation system spreads the manure pretty evenly, eliminating the need for a spreader.

What do we use the tractor for? Turning compost. Hauling water barrels out to the pasture twice a week. Most everything else we do by hand, but having water available to spray down the piggies is a must during the hot season, and I'm grateful to have a central water source out in the pasture to aid in hand-hauling the water. If Jim's able to get the driven well in place, hopefully we'll eliminate that need as well, making the tractor nothing more than a pretty toy on the farm.

I still mow the lawn on occasion, but we've been working towards eliminating as much of the lawn as possible, while still leaving a nice patch in the back for play. Our plan this spring is to plant over the front lawn entirely, turning unused space into productive growing and edible landscaping space. This is something I've been talking Jim into for years now, and I'm so excited to finally be able to do it! I'll be planting some filbert trees, for sure, and I'm still looking into what else I'd like to get in there—probably a few more blueberry bushes, and maybe I'll transplant some raspberries and blackberries out there as well. Of course, I'll also intersperse all with flowers, finally getting that cutting garden I've always wanted as well.

There's much to be done to reduce gasoline dependence, no doubt, but lifestyle changes can and do make a significant difference. And like so much else, there's no easy answer. Jim's commute has enabled us to make so many other significant changes in our lives that wouldn't be possible living closer to D.C. We've certainly come a long way from the single car family we were when we lived in New Mexico where Jim was able to bike to work every day, but that's the down side of regional differences, for sure. My hope is that our nation will turn towards improving our public transportation system as the price of oil continues to rise. Should that happen, we're located in a pretty good spot for a commuter rail, though by that time, maybe long term plan will kick in and the commute will become obsolete.


Mama Podkayne said...

After our baby is born in June we will likely move to Ohio and definitely moving back to the rural lifestyle I grew up with.

So, I am following this series carefully! One of the things we will be doing is commuting (DH of course) to Columbus and we've considered buying a diesel VW and converting it like these folks did:

Danielle said...

Yes, good point.

I meant to talk about biodiesel a bit in my post. Both our farm truck and our tractor are diesel engines, and I've been trying to talk Jim into running them on biodiesel, mostly by playing the whole big science experiment card. He's coming around and actually considering it as a possibility now rather than just blowing me off, so that's a good thing.

Tim said...

You know, a long time ago I learned that you can't "let the perfect be the enemy of the good". True, you're using a lot of gas. We use even more as we're going back and forth setting up the farm. But look at all the things you have done to lessen your ecological footprint and just consider that if every family did only a portion of what you're doing, we wouldn't need to do anymore.

It's ridiculous that we ship foods 1,500 miles on average. But it's not ridiculous that we have airplanes and ships that allow people to enjoy and experience the world. I believe the balance is in trying to do locally whatever can be done locally, and certainly that means eating locally AND in season. Sometimes we can't work locally and support our be it. We have to commute to work. But there is a lot that we can do, and we all should focus on doing what we can and not obsessing about what's beyond our control at this point. And you're doing a great job.

Nature's Harmony Farm

jenny said...

Our lifestyle is similar to yours, I mostly stay home with the girls while Hubby would commute to work. Like you, I would very rarely use the car except for that one day a week when we all head to the library and then to the food store afterwards. When we do need to run errands in the next big town, we try to make multiple stops: store, thrift shop, bank, etc..

We have already eliminated our heating oil usage by firing the wood stove exclusively and that alone is a big change for us. The first year we were here, we used close to 400 gallons of oil in 5 months. And that was with turning it off at night and when weather temps was above 55.

You are doing a good thing, both for your family and for the earth. If everyone could do just a little bit more, it would be so much better!

Walter Jeffries said...

Good series of posts and Wow! That is a long commute. In addition to the gasoline it is burning up a lot of Jim's time and life. I'm glad that allows you and the kids to be home and hope that someday he's able to join you. I have a hard time imagining doing that much driving!

Danielle said...

I agree, Walter—it is a long time and wish Jim could be home more. However, he absolutely loves what he does and has no desire to come home full time. Not yet anyway—I'm still working on him. ;)

Funny thing is that with the beltway and D.C. traffic, even living closer wouldn't shave much time off that commute—maybe 15 minutes on either side, and the sacrifices would be great. That's the reality of working in a major metro area like D.C. or NYC, for instance.

*sigh* Jim's work is quite specialized, so there are few research labs where he could be around the country—just a handful in fact—and for various reasons D.C. works out to be the best location.

The long term plan is that he may someday move to a university, assuming research money is still available at universities in about 7 or 8 years or so. The hope then is more land and a short commute.

Schuyler said...

David uses straight vegetable oil/diesel mix in our van. He makes sure that he isn't using palm oil and preferentially buys rapeseed oil (I don't remember what rapeseed is called in the U.S., ahh, canola) which is produced in the brightest of yellow crops around the UK every year, when he can get a hold of it. Depending on the complexity of the engine you may not have to go the biofuel route and maybe able to use straight vegetable oil. I think it is largely dependent on the hoses and the fuel injection system, but I'm not certain. I must admit to a slightly girlie toss of the head when it comes to car matters.

squire said...

This is a very thoughful post. While we bought a diesel pickup to pull our travel trailer (a.k.a. our home), I drive a 4cyl. S-10to work and use about one gallon a day. The "rub" is I drive an 18 wheeler for a living (we gotta do what we gotta do).

green with a gun said...

Of course I don't know exactly what the man does, but is it possible some of it could be done from home?

I've a few friends who work in IT, and some of them have days where they work at home - and they and engineers I know usually say that the vast majority of their work could be done at home, it's just that the boss likes to see them around, and fears that when not supervised they won't get the work done.

So it seems to me that a lot of the travel we do is just to placate managers who are just used to having an office to watch over... tradition.

Perhaps he could chip away at that wall of tradition?

Danielle said...

Alas, no, Kyle. He's a research scientist, and only a few labs in the US do the kind of work he does, never mind working from home. If he's not at work, research isn't being done, experiments aren't being run, data's not being collected, yadda, yadda.

He does nano stuff and is even working on a proposal now looking at fuel cells and trying to make them more efficient. Whether that project gets funded or not is another story.

So, his work is arguably useful and important—it certainly is to him, and that's really enough.