It has been said that the suburban lifestyle is inherently non-sustainable. It is hard for me to disagree. It is arguably the most consumptive way of living known to man. Everything is transported from somewhere else, often from other continents. The legacy of the automobile and the “flight from the cities” that occurred in the ’50s is the infamous commute of modern suburbia. The modern home construction of 4 or 5,000 square foot homes for three people to do little more than sleep in and yet require air conditioning, irrigation and lighting and pools that need heating has become the epitome of wastefulness, not to mention the status symbol H2 or pickup truck sitting in the driveway. Even the city dweller lives a lower impact existence in general. Living in apartments which are (generally) more efficient to thermoregulate, regular use of public transit, and slightly more use of locally sourced food make the city dweller more “green” on a per person basis than many suburbanites with lawns and trees. While I am not sure that I will be able to meet my goal of net zero for energy, food and materials, there are a few reasons I feel it necessary to look at sustainability from the perspective of the suburbanite.
One reason is that that is where I come from. I was born, raised and currently am a suburbanite. I had an awakening of sorts in ’04 a few years after I had bought a house and planted roots. Relocating to a more rural setting would require changing jobs and taking kids out of school, leaving friends, just not practical. If I had it to do over again knowing what I know now, I would likely be living somewhere else. This is the situation that a huge number of others are in as well. We would like to make some changes but to do so would be cumbersome and, let’s face it, we’ve become accustomed to our luxuries.
Another reason is sheer numbers. Huge numbers of people live in the suburbs. There is not enough land for all of us to go back to the farm and live a more sustainable agrarian existence. These numbers make for a huge potential for improvements, however. The potential for sustained energy production and storage is huge. The potential for savings is equally immense. Imagine replacing 90% of all suburban commuters’ cars with a combination of electric vehicles, mass transit fueled mostly by solar panels, and wind turbines on most houses. The load can be leveled by distributed storage, i.e., a battery pack in the garage of each house all controlled by a smart grid. This dream/hallucination may never come to pass, but simply envisioning the scenario can give one an idea of the scale of the potential.
Further is the issue of necessity. I think we all know that someday energy in the form of oil will become scarce and we will all have to live with less. The wastefulness that is the suburban lifestyle will have to either come to an end or be adapted to meet the demands of a new reality.
I began by saying that the suburban lifestyle has been deemed by some to be not sustainable. It is hard for me to disagree, but it is also difficult for me to accept. It is difficult for me to envision a world without the sprawl. For better or worse, it is here, maybe not to stay, but with great inertia. The forces required to eliminate it would have to be immense. My intention is to show that changes can be made which can make it possible. Some of it has already been done.
The solar panels are up. My electric bill for the month of March was $17. True, July was $170 but my neighbor’s was $450. I will soon reiterate my offer to the electric company to use my battery pack for research toward a smart grid. I have almost finished upgrading my electric car to perform my 26 mile each way commute with ease. Our house uses about 1/4 the water of the average house in the county with low flow toilets and about $150 of plumbing parts! Rainwater collection is coming. Food production is a work in progress. We recycle about twice as much mass as we throw out in trash. Then there are the other things such as the Excursion which runs on waste fry oil , the solar-powered lawnmower, LED bulbs, the list goes on.
Everyone would not need to do this in the same way. I just recently met a man who was selling electricity to the power company every month with a solar array a fraction of the size of mine. He conserves a lot more than I do. He has a great garden and he and his wife get a good portion of their food from it while living on a half-acre lot. They have a rain water collection system, a hand cranked clothes dryer, a better solar hot water system than mine and a work truck that runs on waste vegetable oil. Vive la difference! For him being a suburban eco geek is far from being an oxymoron.
Although some adaptations are cheap like low flow shower heads, some, like the photovoltaic panels, are not. (They will pay for themselves in about 7 1/2 years after installation.) It’s hard to say if the electric cars in the end will be cheaper than gas or not. The point of this has not been to save money, though I may eventually. I did it because I felt a moral imperative to do so. There is a problem with energy consumption. I had the ability to do something about it. How could I not? In the end, it has been surprising how little we have given up. What I can say is that the satisfaction of listening to the A/C running, the pool pump working and the refrigerator cooling while watching my electric meter running backwards is priceless. It would make me happy if someday many more suburban eco geeks could know that feeling.