Saturday, November 14, 2009

Saving money by being Green

This is my entry for November's Green Mom's Carnival, hosted by Condo Blues. Check it out!

When people meet me and find out that I: a) live in an ecovillage, b) live in a straw bale house and that, c) our house is entirely off the grid, they seem to be flooded with a variety of emotions. Watching their faces as they internally work through it all and try to remain gracious at the same time is often hilarious. I’ve seen shock (“how do I characterize this person?”), a slight sneer (are they thinking “Grateful Dead-listening, Birkenstock-wearing hippy”?), guilt (“uh-oh, don’t tell her I drove here by myself in my SUV”), disbelief (“strawbales? You mean like the three little pigs?”), admiration (“cool, I saw something on HGTV like this”) and just plain total incomprehension.

But finally, when we get that all sorted out (it usually takes less than 30 seconds) we both recognize that we have much more in common than we have differences.

Far from being more expensive than the average life, I find that my green, sustainable lifestyle has been a great way to save not only money but time, which in the end is much more valuable, at least to me. How can this be possible?

I have crafted my life so that it costs less than my ‘old’ life in California. I work 100 yards from my home, so I do not need to commute long distance in a car to work each day. I eat most of my meals at home, or at the homes of friends, which I not only love socially but really appreciate because I get to hang out with my husband, which is kind of the point of getting married in the first place. Our home is located in the rural Midwest, so I can grow a lot of my own food. I live in an intentional community with a growing number of like-minded folks who share many of my values.

I am not trying to keep up with the Green Joneses. I do not have an expensive hybrid vehicle. In fact, I no longer own a car of my own. Instead I share two cars, a truck and a tractor (this is rural Missouri, after all) with 40 other adults in my community. This is often greeted with incredulity and then a look of sadness for poor, poor Alline, who cannot even have her own vehicle. Hold the phone! This little blip saves me thousands of dollars a year. I think back to my days in Berkeley when I had a very dependable Honda Accord. As a native Californian I loved my car, and valued it as a part of my independence. It is only since being here at Dancing Rabbit that I realize that perhaps the car owned me more than I owned it. Each month there were car payments ($200/month), insurance payments ($150/month), gas bills ($50/month), and the occasional maintenance expense. Anytime I went outside of my neighborhood I had to pay for parking; in San Francisco, this was phenomenally expensive. Now I pay .60 per mile. This makes an individual trip sound expensive, but this fee covers car payment, insurance, maintenance and fuel. When we need to drive a long distance (when the train just won’t work out), we rent a car. My average monthly vehicle coop bill is $50. That’s $600 compared to almost $5,000 annually.

My husband and I built our house ourselves. Well, to be brutally honest, Kurt built the house, and I was opinionated about what it all looked like. When we left our “real” jobs in Berkeley in 1999, I cashed out my 401K, and we used this money to buy our power system. For $12,000 we purchased solar panels, a small wind turbine, batteries in which to store the power and the electrical voodoo to make it all run. While it was pricey up front, we now have dependable power for as long as we have our home. There are a lot of arguments about the sustainability about solar power systems, many of which I agree with (the technology is polluting, the batteries are huge and only last ten years, etc.). However, we balance this will knowing that our power does not come from a nuclear power plant, nor is it the result of mountaintops being removed for the coal. We feel very grateful for the power that we receive from the sun and wind, and because it is plentiful but often variable in quantity, we don’t waste it.

We built our home out of reclaimed and locally harvested lumber, strawbales, and lime plaster. The bales, which are 18” thick are a waste product from the local wheat harvest. They are also incredible insulation. The windows were either purchased used or came from the Marvin Windows “bone yard,” where all the rejected special order windows go. For $1,000 we purchased an entire truck load of windows and doors. Most of these are double-paned and absolutely beautiful. The flooring in our upstairs bedroom and studio came from an old house. We pulled all of the nails out of it, and after it was in place sanded and varnished it. It was not expensive. It is not cool bamboo, or cork, or any of the other expensive-but-green building materials we read about in magazines (which just exist to sell you products, btw*).

We own 280 acres with the other members of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in a legal structure called a Community Land Trust. We pay a lease fee of .01 per square foot per month for the lot that our home sits on and the surrounding garden area; this is about $50 per month. This has many benefits, among which are having access to almost 300 acres of native prairie and woodlands (with creeks, ponds and wildlife) without having to buy it all ourselves. We get the extra added benefit of sharing our lives with others who we enjoy.

We are part of a food buying club and are able to order through a large natural foods distributor for wholesale prices. We patronize the local dairies and butcher, and often swap vegetables with each other (“hey, I’ve got a lot of zucchini – who wants some?”). We preserve much of the summer’s bounty – I have a pantry full of tomato sauce, salsa, blackberry jam, zucchini relish, pickled beets, dilly beans, pears, hot peppers, corn, etc. It is a delight to pull these jars out in the middle of winter – we feel rich.

We don’t have an energy-star rated dishwasher – I do them by hand. Kurt dries, and it is a nice way to hang out at the end of a meal. We don’t have air conditioning (our house is designed to stay relatively cool in the summer) nor do we have central heat – we have a wood stove. Kurt and I own the community washing machine – we bought it ten years ago when there was a need, and put a coin op on it. Half of the quarters go to the community building to pay for water and power, the rest go to us. The entire community shares this washer, with few problems. We all hang out clothes out to dry. Yes, even in the winter.

Lest we sound like Little House on the Prairie, we have computers with high-speed internet, telephones, a fully equipped kitchen (everything from a Kitchen Aid mixer to a coffee grinder and microwave), a bathroom (shower, tub and sink with solar hot water, composting toilet), a television (which isn’t hooked up to anything, just used for Netflix movies) and all the comforts of home. We utilize the local library, and buy used books online.

I no longer own the coolest shoes or handbag (don’t even know what they are); I don’t have to have an uber-chic wardrobe for work each day because it really doesn’t matter. People come to see us because of who we are, not to check and see if we’re wearing eco-couture. Once I realized who it was I was really dressing up for (other women; the men really don’t care, which always makes me think of Van Morrison’s Wild Nights “..and the girls walk by dressed up for each other…” but I digress).

So think about it. Why are you buying what you are buying? Do you really need to spend money to be green?

Recommend reading:
Your Money or Your Life
A Reasonable Life by Ferenc Mate
The Lifelong Activist by Hillary Rettig.

* A note on magazines: You DO realize that magazines live (and die) by the quantity of advertising, don't you? It is in their best interest to write compelling articles about the items being advertised in their pages. While (of course) house insulation made of blue jeans or blown cellulose (which is simply recycled newspaper shredded into tiny bits) is MUCH more eco and sustainable than, say fiberglass, you simply DO NOT HAVE TO BUY STUFF to be green. I'll write (um, rant?) more on this topic in another post, but for now, urge you to read commercial publications with a jaundiced eye.

Additionally, magazines I trust: Good, Yes!, Mother Jones, Utne Reader...


Three Sisters said...

I saw someone who looked a lot like you over in Vincennes, Indiana last week. I was flying by to a lecture. Everything seems to be going well.

Diane MacEachern said...

What a great picture of your life. Thanks for sharing this. One note: there's all kinds of research documenting that washing dishes in a dishwasher saves much more water and energy than washing by hand, at least for most people, who have a tendency to let the water run and run and run. So...if you ever get a dishwasher, don't feel bad about it!

Lisa Sharp said...

Wow I would love to come visit you guys. I don't think I could talk my husband in to all of that but both of us want to build a green and off the grid house someday.

Thanks for sharing, oh and someday you need to make a youtube video or something showing us the village! :)