Archive for October, 2009

In looking at my family’s expenditures, I would have expected food to be at or near the top of the list.

A sustainable society includes how I live, how simply and fully I and my family are able to meet our needs, and how society is structured to optimally realize live and let live.

Please take a look at prior posts on food:


Introducing “Locus”

Food (Living Lightly) – Person

Food (Living Lightly) – Family

Food (Living Lightly) – Community

Food – Living Lightly (Region)

Food – Living Lightly (Planet)

Food – Current Action Plans – What we CAN do


There is MUCH talk about sustainability. Certainly MANY people, especially in our region, are doing wonderful things towards sustainable and simple food model.

Its really possible.

Simple things make a difference. Eat Together. Buy local produce. Form buying clubs. Garden.

Please make the shifts in your own life that realize simplicity and sustainability and most importantly for the planet, encourage sustainability (even by increments and stealth even) as social norm.

An example of stealth, is the budding effort of the Sustainable013 group to matchmake groups of individuals from all settings and needs to eat together.

No conspicuously hip, not even among particularly hip people, but community building.


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Amazing. In addition to being amazed at how much I spent personally on health care ($800/mo insurance, $200/mo deductibles and medicines), I was utterly surprised to discover that our family spends the third most expense on transportation. ($500/mo car payments, $150/mo insurance, $50/mo taxes, $100/mo gas, $50/mo repairs – $850/mo total). And, we have two inexpensive Toyotas (Corolla and Yaris).

More typical profiles of a two-car family (say one SUV and a Camry) are $1000+/mo for life.

“How can a poor man stand such times and live?”

$1000/mo isn’t a minimum necessity, but $500/mo likely is. Everyone outside of concentrated cities needs A functioning vehicle, insured, legal. That is a big nut, that in our parents’ generation was not a minimum necessity, but a choice.

In looking at the costs, the majority of transportation costs are the costs to own the vehicle. Borrowing $10,000 (four years of depreciation of value – cost less recurring trade-in value) costs $250/mo, excise taxes – $25/mo, insurance – $100/mo, maintenance/storage – $25/mo. A dependable new or late model car costs at least $400/mo to own, without driving a mile.

If the cost of driving and repairs due to use are $100 (1250 miles at 30 mpg at 2.50/gallon), then 80% of the costs of transportation are ownership costs. Only 20% are the cost of gasoline and repairs.

Even at $5.00 gas, that shift results in 33% use costs compared to 20%.

Sustainability is simplicity for individuals and live and let live socially.

There is a better way, a much better way. And, transportation is really the first area in my assessment of personal costs, that an alternative transportation model would make a material difference in the cost of living. (Correct that, energy efficiency in homes makes a material difference as well.)

My model is based on three multiplying factors in the quantity of emissions and also the number of miles (and the number of vehicles) needed to provide excellent origination to destination transportation services.

1. Improved technology and improved choice of technology used for purpose.

The measure of this is the average miles per gallon that vehicles realize. It is possible to double average gas consumption apples to apples. It is possible for a vehicle that gets 25 mpg (considered attractive currently) to be replaced by hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles with comparable power and features that realize 50 mpg.

A component of increasing the average, is to use smaller vehicles (with more electric component) to accomplish local needs. I don’t need to drive a truck to go grocery shopping. My Yaris works fine. (Better actually as it is easier to park.)

Improving technology does not decrease the average ownership costs per need, but does reduce emissions and does reduce the average operating costs incidentally.

Shoot for double, realizing a reduction of emissions by 50%.

2. Improving the utilization of vehicle trips. 70% of private auto usage is commuting. Ride-sharing can reduce emissions and miles by half of that. Innovative mass transit services can multiply that further. I’m appalled at the mediocrity of mass transit in western Massachusetts. And, to compound it, the funding governments and transportation “leadership” in transit authorities adopt the self-fulfilling logic of downward spiral of services. Until transportation authorities realize a level of service that functionally allows commuters to give up that extra vehicle, they won’t realize increase in ridership. But, once they confidently provide that level of service, they will reach economic viability.

Ride-sharing and mass transit (“utilization”) can realize another 50% multiplying improvement.

3. Social design and settlement

Currently, too many of us live in megalopolis’s. Sprawl. Average commutes are 24 mi currently. By emphasizing regional integrity, individuals can reduce that average commute distance to 12 mi, 1/2.

The policies that support coherent regionalization of economies rather than sprawl, also effect freight and other personal transportation needs.

If people only needed to transport one-half the distance, realizing another 50% improvement in emissions, and cost savings, the result in very broad strokes would be a total of 87.5% emissions savings, and 75% cost savings.

Rather than 1 person commuting 25 miles alone in a vehicle that gets 25 mpg, 2 persons commuting 12.5 miles in a vehicle that gets 50 mpg.

Simple, realizable (with work).

How to get there?

Proposal for an integrated transportation services company (please read “Natural Capitalism” by Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken, articulating a needed change in corporate mentality from product sales orientation to services orientation. IBM did it. General Motors could as well, “God forbid”, better that we capitalize and create something really new with more democratic features.)

1. Private exclusive ownership/leasing preferably of small energy-efficient neighborhood/local oriented vehicles. Preferably electric or plug-in hybrid, thereby realizing the energy efficiencies of the electric motor drive train, over very wasteful internal combustion. ($200/mo per vehicle including all maintenance)

2. Access to neighborhood sited fleets of vehicles (larger cars, vans, small trucks). The significance of access to a fleet is that the ownership costs of the vehicles are shared, and more of the expenditure on the transportation are operating costs. As vehicles must be owned in integers (0, 1, 2), and most owners don’t fully utilized the vehicles they own, they end up either paying more than they can afford for inefficiently utilized service, or do without.

The fleet allows them to pay for 1/2 a vehicle’s costs if they only need 6,000 miles/year of service. ($50/month subscription + for example, .25/mi including fuel (more likely some combination of time and mileage)

3. Commuting services focused on origination to central employer. This would eliminate the need for a second/third private vehicle.

4. Frequent commuting services along routes. If mass transit were available every 10 minutes, MANY would give up their second/third private vehicle. A local example is the route between Greenfield and Amherst, or Greenfied and Northampton, MA. A large number of residents commute between those locales, but mass transit provides only 6 trips daily.

5. Ride-sharing matchmaking

These services could be provided by an integrated entity, or by stand alone entities providing their sliver of transportation needs, comprising practical options to reduce miles and reduce auto ownership needs.

The interesting aspect of this proposal is that it is NOT as capital intensive as the more highlighted investments in technology. The majority of the savings in cost and emissions result from personal choices, cooperation, innovative enterprise, and rational public policy.

Fleets can be organized as cooperatives, with individuals contributing as capital their existing vehicles (only half needed for the fleets, the rest sold to capitalize other services). Car rental outlets can offer options that facilitate periodic vehicle use, inexpensively. (An innovative example is ZipCar, which basically runs a self-service car rental system. It applies the same logic of self-service as supermarkets, that had represented a shift from clerk service to customer self-service.)

Ride-sharing can be informal or formal. Leasing of small vehicles already exists.

There are obstacles. The business model for large auto manufacturers are of sale. Dealerships are restricted in the types of transactions that they can enter, and are protected from encroachment of other business models. Big business prefers to be the exclusive source for service, rather than cooperative or shared neighborly.

Like libraries cut into publishers’ profits, friendly sharing cuts into car manufacturers’. (Most car manufacturer profits are in the financing area anyway. Financing to dealers and financing to owners.)

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Well I’m feeling a little hopeless over this one.

I’m amazed that health costs comprise our family’s second largest expenditure category.

There is so much wrong with American health care from so many perspectives, that it is difficult to discuss. The current indecisive approaches that Congress is articulating in current legislation seem to be me to be more self-protection for large institutions, than a sincere effort to reduce health care costs, or to provide basic care to all.

Yesterday, a New York Times article described that base medicare rates are increasing by 15%. What could possibly explain that?

At the risk of offending people, I’ll state my description of characteristics of an accountable and effective health care system.

1. Basic preventative health care is a right and more than that, a social necessicity, that should be free and available to every living being on the planet.

2. People do not have the right to live forever, and should not try to, and society should not be compelled to try to. It doesn’t matter what name is ascribed to the criteria by which treatment is defined as not publicly paid for. EVERY society that is a society knows that life is finite, and has some criteria for continuing care.

Every death is in some way a suicide or murder as individuals or society chooses to not invest in the continuation of functional systems. At some point the body’s natural ability to heal, or even magnified healing skill of surgery, shifts to a status of artificial life extension. Its always a choice in some manner, as technology exists to extend many otherwise untenable lives. A choice to continue to invest in a life, or a choice to divest in a life.

Brave New World.

3. Procedures beyond basic preventative care are discretionary and should be paid for partially by individuals (say 20% of costs).

4. Doctors and all professionals should be paid a combination of salary with some incentive for volume and/or quality of care. The minimum annual salary should be $80,000/year and a maximum salary should be set at around $240,000 (+ incentive).

5. All medical education should be paid publicly. New doctors should have to complete 6 years of assigned service in their field (at salary) to forgive their educational debt.

6. Most practices should be publicly owned but decentrally administered, utilizing common data formats retained in central health record depositories remotely, served by the internet.

7. Insurers should be allowed to offer supplemental coverage, and/or operate private or specialized practice, at market, with intent consumer oriented oversight, and subject to unlimited lawsuit. Physicians subscribing to public salary, should be held accountable by peer and governmental review.

A cold, corrupt genocidal potential. But, the fear of dealing with the cold corrupt genocidal potential leads to 16% of all value-addition in our society being dedicated to “health” which includes actual health care, but also includes big business profiting parasitically on real health, and a large proportion mandated to be spent on artificial life extension.

I believe in the good faith of many doctors, many specialists, many medical researchers, that they are sincerely attempting to realize some social service, some reduction in human suffering.

I wish they put that commitment into actually caring for people though, mentoring, counseling, helping, sharing, investing in common good.

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I’ve been sick, or I would have posted earlier.

Housing – Between mortgage, insurance, real estate taxes, repairs and heating, of any category of spending, my family spends the most on housing. Housing is a minimum necessity, and we don’t really have much latitude on how much money to spend. We’re close to the minimum that similar families have to spend, and there are really only limited options to spend less.

It is possible to refinance (at slightly reduced mortgage cost, but with any front end points or refinancing fees associated, its probably not worth it. Similarly for real estate taxes and insurance. There really isn’t much that anyone can do.

The only area where one can effect the amount of money they spend currently is on energy.

I own my house (less 3/4 owed to the bank). We live in a single-family house, with only a single family living there. I chose to live in the small town where I live rather than in suburbs or more rural, to have easy transportation access to shopping, schools, work.

I could have rented, but I was told “why pay for the landlord’s expenses, gradually owning the property, why not be my own?” So, I begged a parental gift for a down payment, and borrowed the rest. 10 years later, I own still only 1/4 of the value of the house.

A long-term fixed interest mortgage, so I know what my payment will be at least. Probably at higher interest rate than currently, but its not worth to pay points to refinance and reduce.

House ownership choices and house prices are greatly influenced by the tax law. There are “attractive” features that have actually historically served to artificially increase the cost of housing rather than make them more affordable. (Home mortgage interest deductions just gets added into the reasoning of “what can you really afford”. And, in appreciating markets, the non-taxable gain provision benefits appreciating markets considerably and ends up harming stable markets. The recent “first-time homebuyer” credit exacerbates the cost of housing, enacted to soften the decline in housing prices and temporarily increase demand for homes. Of course, the feds are now suggesting keeping the credit permanently.)

Many charitable and community commitment efforts have been attempted to stabilize housing prices, particularly the community land trust model, and other similar community or shared ownership models of housing. They either rent community owned property (without the “pride of ownership”) or allow the community a first right of refusal at a contracted adjusted price, thereby reducing the gain that a house-owner can realize.

What can be done?

1. Form businesses to audit, retrofit, and finance considerable energy related investment in one’s home. (Utility audits and arranged retrofitting are a contribution, but also token. When you need to make more substantive improvements, it often requires undoing at least some of the work that the utility sanctioned audits recommended.)

Most importantly, very assertive marketing of audit and retrofit services can make a neighborhood energy-efficient rather than ad hoc house by house. It can also facilitate “group buys” of energy audit and retrofit services, at a discount.

2. Repeal the mortgage interest deduction and protection from taxation on gains, to bring down housing prices to affordable levels, and to avoid tax subsidies to regions with wildly appreciating housing costs.

3. Urge legislation to fund the “extra mile” in energy-related home capital improvements for both rental and owned housing. If we need to reach 80% energy and cost savings, why not fund it, rather than realize 30% savings with the currently economical low-hanging fruit, but then have to respend on new roofs or siding when we need to add an additional 4 inches of insulation. Why not do it right the first time?

4. Form neighborhood and/or other community associations to own real estate, rather than privately, to enhance community oriented neighborhood decisions, and to take advantage of passive tax losses.

5. Invest in neighorhood heat and energy generation. Efficiencies of heating and electricity generation are realizable at a mid-level scale, and capable of greatly reducing both carbon footprint, air quality, and inefficient smokestack effects in homes. (A neighborhood heating system delivers heat only to a home, not also combustion of fuels).

6. Buy, build, and retrofit cooperatively and in sufficient quantities to realize economies of scale in construction. (The Greenfield solar village is a great theoretical example. I’m not privy to internal cost data, so I don’t know if its realized.) Sweat equity is also helpful and serves to train and expose individuals to career options, but on the down side can result in lower quality construction.

7. On the financing end, purchasing more proportion of equity in a home (not the “no money down” approach), allows for much greater security from homelessness, allows for capital for subsequent investment in home improvements. In rental ownership, contrary to popular opinion, optimal profitability is realized at around 50% initial equity investment rather than as leveraged as much as possible.

Using other people’s money for the prospect of speculative gain, is how the bubbles are constructed, botheExposing others to systemic risk and being exposed.

But, that requires the old yankee virtue of thrift and equity, so called conservative virtues.

8. While many progressives are enamored with not-for-profit entities, I don’t recommend putting home ownership in not-for-profit entities. Towns’ primary source of revenues are property taxes, which are then excluded for not-for-profits. We are part of communities, and to opportunistically recuse ourselves from tax obligations, strikes me as corrupt.

9. For one’s sense of security, pay off your mortgage quickly. Own your home outright, or develop community equity (if you go the neighborhood cooperative route). If you pay off your mortgage and you make it energy efficient (especially if your fuel is paid for – say through co-ownership of a woodlot), then your only ongoing costs are real estate taxes, electricity, and insurance.

10. Co-inhabit. Share your house. Using my own life as an example, my kids are adults and I don’t need 1600 sq ft to live in. We would be very happy to share our house with another couple or an individual.

The role of businesses – Energy auditing, retrofitting (multiple trades), financing, ownership management (rentals and cooperatives), development (eco-villages and neighborhoods), architects, engineers, contractors, hvac equipment, neighborhood heating plant operators and administration. All requiring capital and skilled management in fairly intimate social service (that doubles as vocation).

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1. Personal decisions. Personal relationships, choices of residence, home characteristics, vehicle, eating choices, many others.

2. Community action and organization. Cooperatives, political advocacy, education.

3. Career. What to develop expertise and professional relationships.

4. Business.

While ironic for a political liberal who has historically railed against the corrupting influences of corporations (I still do), my feeling is that the institutions that will facilitate the transition to a sustainable society, are prominently innovative for-profit businesses.

The reason that I say that comes from looking at the ways that our economic relationships are structured in the most prominent expenses that we bear.

Upon my review of my own family’s ongoing expenses, in order of monthly expense:

1. Housing – Mortgage/rent, insurance, taxes, repairs, heating, other utilities.

2. Health care – Insurance, deductibles, medicines

3. Transportation – Loan payment, insurance, repairs/maintenance, fuel

4. Food – Prepared food, restaurants, gardening costs, cooking energy costs

5. Taxes

6. Education – College, books

7. Entertainment – Movies, music (live and recorded), dancing, outings

8. Clothing


Largely economic relationships with those that I am not intimate family and/or friends.

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This is not an easy question partially because “we” live in a variety of different contexts.

One reference that I consider important is the range from urban (New York, Boston, Springfield) to suburban (sprawl usually) to transition (Northampton) to rural (Vermont).

Urban settings are thick with social interactions, human centered entirely (rather than directly nature-centered). The path to a sustainable urban environment is therefore to emphasize the realization of the best of human nature, kindness, sensitivity, responsibility.

One irony for us mostly poor sustainability activists, is that only those with positive net worth are free enough to put responsible human nature into practice, especially in urban life where nearly everything is an economic good in some form. (Fresh water bought, land, shade, conditioned air, leisure, food).

Urban areas have some considerable advantages for sustainability, in that where residences are concentrated and destinations are concentrated, good mass transit is a no-brainer. There are also energy efficiencies per capita associated with apartment buildings in which individuals share walls, thereby not exposed to the elements. Also, where individuals live in urban neighborhoods, there is great community diversity, but also closeness.

Suburban sprawl is the worst for sustainability. People are far apart, isolated from one another. (TV, work, and mass churches are their community). Buildings are stand alone, usually larger than necessary, very expensive to heat. Transportation must be accomplished by auto, as originations and destinations are too disperse for mass transit to serve easily. People have yards so they theoretically can garden, even farm in a way. But, few do, as there is pressure from neighbors (or even covenants) to conform to a home price supporting odd norm. Like cities, nature is not relied for services, so everything is an economic good.

Suburbanites see trees, so the suggestion that nature is our context is present, but most of value and most identity comes from human work, not from nature, and not from community.

Transition small cities and villages are the optimal from my perspective. They can realize the energy and transportation efficiencies of cities (apartments sharing walls, origination to destination concentration favoring mass transit services). They are often surrounded by agricultural and wilds, so are aware of their dependance and context of nature. They are small enough that individuals can know a majority of their neighbors, but large enough that they can support fairly sophisticated industry in being able to attract individuals with a complement of significant skills.

Ideologically, small cities exist in a non-man’s land between the logic of urbanity and the logic of rural setting. A city like Northampton, MA is a case in point. A college town drawing its student body largely from affluent urban areas, it clearly has an urban identity appealing to students and their families, and employees of the colleges. At the same time, it is a working class town still dependant on some industry, and is very close to wilds.

Ironically, it has been allowed to sprawl though, with stand alone residences spreading widely. Nearby Amherst, MA is even more odd in that respect, with very hip sustainability supporters spreading 8 miles deep into recent wilds in Leverett and Shutesbury, but in large stand alone and auto-centric homes.

It is a challenge to remain sustainable in practice, even as so many advocate for it. I guess that is the lesson.

Rural society is sustainable in the sense that nature is obviously the context. But, rural settings share the disadvantages of sprawl. Homes are spread widely, with few shared walls, and therefore quite expensive and carbon emitting to heat. And, as people live so far from another, transportation costs are inevitably high.

One redeeming advantage (not for carbon emissions or particulates) is that there is abundant firewood which often is the primary heating source for rural New England at least. Also, MANY grow a great deal of their own food, and organically.

The best of all worlds is villages and small cities. Concentrations of people that facilitate shared walls, and shared transportation, with agricultural land close, and easy access to get to solitude and natural leisure activities (swimming, hiking).

So, how do we get there?

How do we design and implement city life so that it is secure and rewarding, serves the social functions of governance and rational commerce that cities offer, in a manner that minimally generates ecological toxins and wastes energy. How do we encourage and/or enforce the private behaviors and decisions that realize that.

How do we make the best of suburban sprawl (energy-efficient homes, transportation options), and/or make moderate settlement changes that transform suburban character to more village-like than sprawl? How do we ensure that there is room for other species to live confidently, that the megalopolis isn’t monolithic?

How do we enhance the role of transition and small city and village life, so that they are economically viable (so that individuals can actually choose to settle there with a career)? How do we make sure that small city and village life doesn’t devolve to sprawl-life (even among hip “view-lovers”)?

There are some features that are common to all settings, and some that are most applicable to specific types.

It is critical that we remember though, especially when considering the responsibility of short and long-term land use planning, in anticipation for future needs.

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We have what we have. That is our starting point.

The rat race does function to meet many needs with a high degree of dependability. It is most amenable to those that are evolutionarily strong enough to be more energetic than the rat race requires. That is a minority in fact though. Most, statistically, are compelled by the rat race, rather than individually rise above it. So, even as the dominant social institutions and rat race participation in them do accomplish meeting many social needs, they do so at a human price and within limits.

For those of us that perceive the price paid, and the limits encountered and anticipated, we have a responsibility to transform/co-create them. We have a responsibility to ourselves to live fully and sensitively. We have a responsibility to our intimates, particularly our children and grandchildren, those that will live during the consequences of what we’ve co-created. And, we have a responsibility to our antecedents, our neo-intimates that we can only know and care about by some imagination (an apparently uniquely human characteristic, to be valued).

There is a native American term that has expression really in every tradition that I’ve encountered “All my relations”.

It values literally “all our relations”. From meta-intimate relations, to chosen family, to chosen friendships, to chosen community/biome, to those relationships that we participate in more randomly including encounters with friendly, indifferent and unfriendly. It includes inter-personal relationships, commercial (by direct encounter and strategic – say in considering or creating product/service characteristics), governmental, natural.

Co-creating our relationships. Not victim, not victimizer.

In cities, in which there are more people, more stimuli, more anonymity, more potential threats, keeping the concept of “all my relations” is more difficult. There is less opportunity for personal contact, less opportunity for sufficient group process to simultaneously incorporate fairness, rationality, and intimacy into commercial structures.

But, cities (because of their numbers and power to define) also exert greater consequences on the world at large, and encounter the limits inherent in modern society. The co-creation that urban citizens enact influences widely, far more widely than just an immediate neighborhood.

I love cities. They are vibrant, active. The logistics of commerce in cities is amazingly innovative and in big cities wonderfully responsive and anarchic (rather than Wal-marty monolithic).

The task of co-creating sustainable society includes both intentional design processes and sensitive participation. Both are meanings and applications of the term “all my relations”.

Remember each other. Remember the most-Intimate. Remember our successors.

If we bother to remember, and do so quietly (rather than only ostentatiously), the remembering will be sincere and less likely to be vanity. If we intentionally reinforce it (as a private reminder to ourselves, and taught to those that don’t yet structure that reminder themselves), then we’ll put it into practice.

Compassionate and conscientious design, and sensitive participation.

We are approaching our social limits on critical factors and need to act individually and collectively to overt troubles.

Fresh water, energy, land, capital, carbon sink and other toxins in biosphere, practical skill, wisdom, good work. Abundant and scarce at the same time.

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